The Greek Gods weren’t white!  We just think they were.  “The Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World,” recently at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, was a revelation.  Using minute traces of residual colors, historical material from past centuries that documented colored temples and statues, and all the resources of modern science, we now can be sure that temples of the gods in ancient Greece may have resembled a set on Black Panther more than a mausoleum.

“Chromophobia” is the fear of color.  It may be wrong to apply it to a to a whole society, rather than an individual,  but I think that we live in an era of mass chromophobia.  Modernism in architecture and decor focuses on neutrals, greys, browns, black and white- with maybe a daring splash of green from a succulent.  But from the earliest times, back to the time of Neanderthal woman, we have sought and ground pigments to produce beautiful, durable colors.

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Vivid pigments from mineral sources.

Seeing this exhibit reminded me of the gorgeous color in ancient Roman murals I saw when I was in Pompeii, and other examples preserved in the Naples Archaeological Museum.  I notice that the stone pigments have a chalky quality with a kind of depth found in modern pastels today.  Yummy!

Girl with Horns, Naples Museum
Rich blues, greens and golds
Naples Pompeii Villa
The famous Pompeii Red. How’s that for dining room decor in your vacation villa?
Naples Archeological Museum Pigment
These ancient Roman pigment sources from the museum in Naples look yummy enough to serve at a decadent banquet.

Look at those pinkish stones!  Pink was a popular color in ancient times.

Gods in color pink goddess
A beautiful pink dress.

I speculate that it was hard to get a sort of true blue-red:  Red ocher tends toward sienna/orange/ brown, and any red mixed with a white opaque binder would turn pink. “Rhodophobia” is the fear of pink;  someone with this affliction would have had a hard time in ancient Greece, because pink tones were everywhere.

A few hundred years ago it was still possible to see traces of color on Greek temples.  Pre-photography, you could go out with your watercolorist and his camera obscura and paint from life.  There were still traces of temple color documented in the watercolors of Greek landscapes and monuments by the English antiquarian Edward Dodwell and the Italian artist Simone Pomardi.

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Greek temple with some color still visible in 1805.

The complex friezes of the ancient world take on a vivid, comic book quality in color.

Gods in color frieze
What we see now vs. the original
Kore 2018
I want this redhead on my side!

The ancients used all the color available to them.  We should too.

Upcoming at Saltworkstudio: “Paleomythic”

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I’m pleased to be a co-curator for PaleoMythic, a show opening on May 4, 2018, in Backstreet Gallery.  I have long loved ancient art and found inspiration in it.  I have joined forces with master printmaker Caren Catterall and three other fine artists to explore our creation of modern myths from ancient sources.  I feel like I’ve been waiting ages to do this show… 65,000 years or so!  I hope that images recalling the sacred darkness of the cave can dispel some of the darkness rising in our collective souls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

    1. Hi Susan… haven’t read it, but will get it… I love “The King is Dead” by Mary Renault, the first in a two book series. Plunges you right into the declining goddess religion of Greece and opulent, decadent bull-culture of ancient Crete…starring Theseus! I think you would enjoy it. Rich, intelligent tapestry of a possible history.

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  1. Such an interesting article! I too love ancient art and can’t wait to read and see more about the upcoming PaleoMythic show. It is bound to be amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

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