Tuesday, March 5, 2013

New light on ancient marbles

"In Greek statues of the Archaic and Classical periods, taut carefully designed underlying structures clothed in vivid sensory detail exerted a potent force whereby gods, heroes, and men appeared at a pinnacle of physical beauty and spiritual excellence. Despite the damage and alterations wrought by time, the marble statues in the new Greek galleries retain much of that animating power, especially when struck by the ever-changing light. The Greek word for marble—marmoreos —also means shining. One of the earliest Greek words for statue—agalma —also means delight."
From Met curator Elizabeth J. Milleker's introduction to Light on Stone: Greek and Roman Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (A Photographic Essay)

Two views of the Met's "Statue of a Wounded Amazon," 1st–2nd century A.D. By Joseph Coscia Jr., from Light on Stone. Contrast these compositions with the Met's online photo, at right.  
"This marble statue depicting a wounded Amazon is a Roman copy of a Greek bronze original dated around 450–425 B.C. The original bronze may have stood in the sanctuary of Artemis at Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor, where the Amazons had legendary and cultic connections with the goddess. Here, the mythical warrior woman has been stripped of her weapons and horse, and wounded under her right breast. She wears a short, sleeveless chiton unfastened at one shoulder and belted at the waist with a makeshift bit of bridle from her horse. The garment is known as an exomis, the type of clothing worn by Greek men for exercise, horse riding, or hard labor. Despite her plight, this Amazon shows no sign of pain or fatigue. She gently leans on the pillar at her left and rests her right arm gracefully on her head in a gesture often used to denote sleep or death. The serenity of her pose and the emotional restraint in her facial expression are characteristic of Classical sculpture of the second half of the fifth century B.C."
In their bronzes, on which the Met's marble copies were modeled, the Greeks sought an impression of lifelike vitality that bordered on the magical, inserting lifelike eyes of glass or bone and eyelashes of feathered bronze. And while acknowledging the huge aesthetic impact of these essentially monochromatic statues, one marvels at the fact that they, like the Aphrodite example below, would have been adorned by the Greeks and Romans in vivid, lifelike color.
"The hair, features, flesh and drapery on all marble sculpture in antiquity were colored, and the effect was probably as startling and lifelike as the brightly colored Madonnas and saints one encounters in churches today."
Transcendent and timeless, the statue below represents a youth whose head is adorned with a "fillet" after victory in an athletic contest.


  1. Walter Pater on Greek sculpture: "..it unveils man in the repose of his unchanging characteristics. That white light purged from the angry, bloodlike stains of action and passion, reveals, not what is accidental in man, but the tranquil godship in him."
    My knowledge of the ancient Greeks comes to me through such gleaming sculptures, which is why the Greek mind seems suffused in this even white light, where gods may be met during a stroll in the forest, with all the weaknesses and charms of mortal man.
    How much more appealing is this than the harsh light of the Middle Ages, with an exigent God shut behind thick doors, and the soul of man judged by his adherence to rules made by other men!

  2. The colorful Aphrodite is breathtaking. I found a great article on Smithsonian.com about the use of color in sculpture in ancient times. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/bringing-the-color-back-to-ancient-greece-174841661.html

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