New Imaging Technique Shows Parthenon Was Once Brightly Painted

By Allison Bond | June 16, 2009 2:35 pm

Parthenon statueAlthough the image of the Parthenon often featured in history books and tourist brochures is stark white, a new imaging technique revealed that the ancient Greek structure wasn’t always this way. In fact, parts of the building used to be painted blue, like many other sculptures from antiquity.

Pigments remain on other ancient Greek temples, and experts have long suspected that the Parthenon, too, was once brightly colored. But two centuries of searching for minuscule flakes of paint remaining on the Parthenon yielded no results, so it was impossible to confirm that the structure was not always white. To remedy that, a researcher at the British Museum in London created an imaging technique that reveals any remnants of a commonly used ancient pigment known as Egyptian blue, which was commonly used until the year 800 A.D. To use the technique, researcher Giovanni Verri shines red light onto the marble, and any traces of paint that remain absorb the red light and emit infrared light. Viewed through an infrared camera, any parts of the marble that were once blue appear to glow [New Scientist].

Because only select areas on the statues and frieze light up, it lends further credence to the idea that the building was painted. Egyptian blue has shown up on the belt of Iris, Poseidon’s messenger goddess, and as a wave pattern along the back of Helios, god of the sun, who is shown rising out of the sea at dawn. It also appears as stripes on the woven mantle draped over another goddess, Dione [New Scientist].

Greek conservators have recently observed greenish flecks on remnants of the Parthenon frieze that are in Athens, but have not reported analyses of them [Nature News]. The Parthenon structures on which the blue pigment was identified are housed in the British Museum, and there is a long-running feud between the British and Greek government over which nation can claim ownership of the marble pieces. That means it might be awhile before the British Museum uses this new technique on parts of the structure that are still in Greece. Verri thinks the recently reported frieze flecks could also be Egyptian blue, and is keen to examine them with his portable detector. But he adds that as diplomatic tensions have flared up again, now might be an insensitive time to offer [Nature News].

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Image: Trustees of the British Museum. The belt on a statue of the goddess Isis glows in an infrared image.

  • Liz D

    Pff. My art history class knew this last semester.

  • Landon

    agreed. I attained my B.F.A. 6 years ago, and we were taught the same.

  • YouRang

    Did your textbook have physical evidence Egyptian blue was used or was it strongly surmised? All areas of intellectual endeavor are open to old wives’ tales; and the less hard the IE, the more susceptible. And all history is very susceptible.

  • sam

    Wow! Some of us don’t have a fine arts degree and find this stuff pretty interesting, actually. Especially since this is a science blog.

  • Allison Bond

    Hi, this is Allison, the author of the post. As YouRang alluded to, this is the first time science has confirmed what historians always suspected: That the Parthenon once was brightly colored.

    Before this new imaging technology, there were only suspicions or assumptions that the Parthenon was painted. Now there is scientific evidence to that effect.

  • Willa Jean

    I was taught those same assumptions and suspicions waaaaaay back when I was in college. Back then it was generally assumed that there would never be any proof, one way or another. I’m fascinated to see what science can prove. And disprove. (Remember when dinosaurs were “giant lizards”?)

    Wouldn’t you love to see a rendering of what it actually looked like in its prime? How long do you suppose it will be before some version of Google Earth will be able to show us ancient Babylon, or Athens, or Rome?

  • CT

    And the next obvious questions:
    Do any other “ancient” colors have similar residue detection capabilities?
    Can you only see a base coat of paint or can you see layers?
    If the materials in Egyptian Blue were mixed to form a new color as we mix pigments today, would we see the same results? i.e. are we only seeing the blue out of a mixture?
    Are these all over the columns or are they traces (that spell out “Socrates couldn’t think his way out of a papyrus bag!”)?

  • Charles Zigmund

    Likewise I have read over many years that the Parthenon was painted. The earlier posters to that effect correctly point out that while the article is presented as discovering something new, anyone familiar with art history knows that ancient Greek architecture and sculpture was generally painted brightly. If the Parthenon had been white in antiquity, it would likely have generated comments at the time that it was a big departure from the general practice. It was so well known in the 19th Century that ancient Greek temples were brightly colored that there are many history paintings from that time showing them that way. And the 19th and 20th century archaeologists who built reconstructed scale models of temple complexes such as the one of Olympia adjacent to the games site, also showed them that way. What we do not really know is how they looked. Perhaps these techniques will give us some idea.

    15th and 16th century Italian Renaissance sculptors and architects who looked at excavated ancient art and were influenced greatly by it, were led to believe that the marble was unpainted because all the paint had worn away over the centuries. This is why the general tradition as our art developed was to have most everything sculptural and much architecture white. It is interesting to speculate how sculpture would have developed in Europe from the 15th thru the 19th centuries had it been accepted then that ancient sculptures were painted, a fact which did not become generally known until the 19th century.


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