Perspectives Behind the Scenes

Ancient Greek Sculpture in Color

A collaboration reveals new research on an archaic Greek sphinx finial at The Met.

Aug 12, 2022

An earth toned Sphinx with wings

The special exhibition Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color afforded the opportunity for a remarkable collaboration between The Met’s Departments of Greek and Roman Art, Objects Conservation, Imaging, and Scientific Research, together with colleagues from the Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project in Frankfurt, Germany. The focus of this collaboration was to study in great detail an Archaic Greek sculpture in the form of a sphinx.

The sphinx crowned an elaborate funerary stele as a symbolic protector for the deceased and was located in Attica, the region surrounding the ancient city of Athens. At over thirteen feet high, the stele and sphinx would have been visible from a great distance as people approached the monument, which is the best preserved of its type in the world and especially notable for its high-quality carving and extensive remains of original pigments. This exhibition presents cutting-edge research on the sphinx sculpture, illustrating the latest work in the field of ancient polychromy, and helps us to understand just how vibrant and colorful Archaic Greek sculpture originally was.

 

Left: Marble stele (grave marker) with a youth and a little girl topped with a plaster cast of the capital and finial in the form of a sphinx. Greek, Attic, Archaic period, ca. 530 B.C. Total height 13 ft. 10 11/16 in. (423.4 cm). Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1911; Rogers Fund, 1921; Munsey Funds, 1936, 1938; and Anonymous Gift, 1951. (11.185a-d, f, g, x). Right: Detail of marble capital and finial in the form of a sphinx. Greek, Archaic period, ca. 530 B.C. H. with acroterion 56 ⅛ in. (142.6 cm). Munsey Fund, 1936, 1938 (11.185d, x).

Over the course of its history, The Met has a devoted significant study to the polychromy of ancient sculpture.  For instance, the Classical scholar Edward Robinson, who served as the Museum’s third director (1910–31), wrote a seminal article on the subject in 1892. He also encouraged the acquisition of sculptures that still bore traces of their painted decoration, giving visitors some insight into their original appearance in antiquity. Long-time curator Gisela M. A. Richter, who led the Department of Greek and Roman Art for several decades, made significant contributions to our understanding of how ancient Greek sculpture was painted through careful analyses of many works in The Met collection. A watercolor illustration from her 1944 article, “Polychromy in Greek Sculpture,” presents a color restoration of the sphinx finial based on careful visual examination.

Color reconstruction of the sphinx finial, 1944 (Richter and Hall 1944: pl. 1)

Since the 1970s, improvements to the conservation and scientific research facilities at the Museum have supported the application of new analytical techniques. On-going research at The Met has led to more sophisticated examinations of paint traces yielding significant results that inform the identification of the palette of colors used on Archaic Greek sculpture, the nature of the decorations that were applied, and the methods that were employed by the painters.

 

Left: Dorothy Abramitis conducting multiband imaging. Photo by Pavol Roskovensky. Right: Dorothy Abramitis recording images of pigment on the Sphinx with a digital microscope. Photo by Linda Borsch

The color decoration of the sphinx was analyzed by a combination of non-invasive and minimally invasive techniques that, together with digital microscopy examination and multiband imaging, provide information about the surviving pigments and the original color scheme. Two varieties of blue pigment were identified. Egyptian blue—an ancient synthetic form of blue first developed in Egypt in the Late Bronze Age—was used between the flight feathers of the wings, perhaps to give the impression of sky. A blue made from azurite was used for the flight feathers themselves, which were outlined with a carbon-based black pigment. Carbon-based black was also applied for the eyebrows and the genitals. Azurite blue was similarly used for alternating breast feathers, part of the meander decoration of the diadem, and the tuft of hair at the end of her tail. Fine-grained particles of white gypsum were found in microsamples taken from the azurite pigment and were likely intentionally added to the paint mixture.

Left: The distribution of pigments on the sphinx’s crown in the process of being mapped by X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. Right: Marco Leona takes a microsample from the tail of the sphinx. Photo by Sean Hemingway

Red made from cinnabar—an expensive pigment that the ancient Greek scholar Theophrastus tells us was imported from Iberia (probably modern-day Spain)—was identified through scientific analyses. It was applied to the iris and perhaps also the pupil of the sphinx’s eyes, the meander pattern of her diadem, the band of the necklace, and for alternating breast and wing feathers. A cross section taken from her hair revealed that the red ocher pigment was highly refined, contained predominantly fine-grained hematite, and was applied directly to the marble. Yellow ocher was used for the diadem and possibly for her lion’s body, together with red ocher and, perhaps, a minor amount of cinnabar. Traces previously identified as evidence for a green pigment are now understood as degraded azurite from a blue pigment. These strong and striking colors accentuated the sphinx’s looming figure, and their vibrant qualities and patterning emphasized the beast’s salient features.

All of these scientific findings were shared with Vinzenz Brinkmann and the Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project. Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann have made their life’s work the study of polychromy in ancient sculpture. The Brinkmanns incorporated The Met’s scientific research as well as their own examinations and research into their new physical reconstruction of the sphinx, which is featured in the exhibition alongside sixteen other reconstructions that they have made over the past twenty years.

Reconstruction of the sphinx finial based on the pigments identified by scientific analyses.

Building on the three-dimensional digital scan of the sphinx created by The Met’s Imaging Department, an augmented reality experience of the sphinx was developed in conjunction with The Met’s Digital Department and Bluecadet. The technology allows people to examine the sphinx in great detail and to delve deeper into The Met’s scientific research behind the Brinkmanns’ reconstruction. Although the original appearance of much ancient Greek and Roman sculpture has been altered dramatically through the centuries, systematic scientific examination of the sculptures and the traces of polychromy that remain today have allowed us to understand better what these powerful sculptures looked like in antiquity.

About the contributors

Conservator, The Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation

Associate Research Scientist, Department of Scientific Research

Research Scientist, Department of Scientific Research

Sean Hemingway

John A. And Carole O. Moran Curator in Charge, Department of Greek and Roman Art

Headshot of Sarah Lepinski

Associate Curator, Department of Greek and Roman Art

Marco Leona

David H. Koch Scientist in Charge, Department of Scientific Research