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Athens (Attica)

National Archaeological Museum of Athens: Gods In Color

On January 29, 2007, a new Exhibition was opened to the public at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. After having made the rounds at a variety of Museums in Europe, “Gods in Color” has been on view in Athens until March 25th. However, thanks to our Album, visitors to our website will be enjoying it permanently! The 21 casts exhibited (in Ground floor Galleries 44 and 45) are of well-known statues (Cuirassed torso of the statue of an archer or chariot driver from the Acropolis Museum, Akr 599, the bronze head of a victor from Glyptothek München, the “Peplos Kore” from the Acropolis of Athens Museum, Akr. 679, the Lion of Loutraki, etc), of Tombstone Stelae (tombstone of Aristion, the one of Paramythion, etc), of Pediment sculptures (from the Athena Afaea Temple in Aegina, the East Frieze of the Siphnian Treasury in Delphi, parts of the so called Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great) and specimens of real pigment used in antiquity. (Text and Photos: Michael Tziotis)

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Click on any of the pictures to enlarge.


Since the 18th century, excavations have brought to light marble statues with traces of coloring, corroborating ancient sources which mention the existence of colored statues and architectural parts of ancient temples and tombs. Proof was further supported at the end of the 19th century, when a great number of Korai statues were unearthed from the grounds of the Acropolis of Athens. The Korai were votive offerings to an Archaic temple dedicated to Athena Polias, located on the Acropolis Rock, and made in the second half of the 6th century B.C., most of them late in this period. When the Athenians, in 480 B.C., were forced to abandon their city before the advancing Persian threat, to better defend themselves with their fleet, the temples and everything in them were destroyed by the invaders. After the Athenian victory, they rebuilt their temples, burying the broken statues, including the Korai; thereby protecting the colors on the statues which were only subject to the powers of the elements for a few decades, so that when they were found, the coloring was obvious. (Please refer to our relevant Album on the Acropolis of Athens Museum). An effort then began to reproduce those statues, in the form of casts, which were intended to show the color as a faithful representation of the originals.

Technology of the time, though, did little to help researchers get an idea of the color which had been destroyed. Today, UV lighting and strong raking light have revealed many more details. Based on this technology and beginning in 1982, the University of Munich began researching the coloring of ancient artwork. Out of the many colored copies realized for experimental purposes, 21 casts were exhibited in the Glyptothek München in 2004, followed by exhibitions at other museums in Europe. These casts are exactly those shown in this exhibition, with the very interesting fact that they are accompanied by 51 original artwork, property of the Museum itself. This exhibition “is extended” to the rest of the Museum’s galleries and the visitor is, with special signs, directed to more originals where traces of the original pigments have been preserved.

As said by Mr. Vinzenz Brigmann, archaeologist of the Munich Sculpture Gallery, during the exhibition’s opening ceremony, “We offer an experiment, or, still better, an approach to what the ancient coloring must have looked like applied to marble.” We are not absolutely certain that the proposed paintings, using natural pigments and binder, is a faithful reproduction of the originals. As stated by Mr. Kaltsas, Director of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and General Supervisor of the exhibition project, “We have a lot of questions about coloring of the ancient Greek marble monuments.” Specifically, how were the pigments exactly applied onto the marble surface? Is it possible that ancient Greeks used anti-realistic coloring, on the grounds that the statues were only to be seen from afar? What techniques did they use? Is it possible they made mixtures of the natural basic pigments that we used to color the casts, in which case the aesthetic result would be altogether different? This is a question impossible to answer by studying the preserved traces of colors on the originals. Archaeology, together with sister sciences and technology, might, some day in the future, provide more information on the polychromy of the ancient marble monuments.

What have been the aesthetic reactions of the Exhibition’s visitors? We would not lie if we said that it came as a shock to them: ‘My God, it is like a cartoon!” we overheard a lady saying. “Impossible to have been colored this way, this is sheer blasphemy!” someone else protested. The citizens of this country experience a strange approach to the art masterpieces of Antiquity: from the wave of protests among school children on being announced of yet another educational visit to some archaeological site, we eventually, unconsciously, reach a stage when we feel like having feet of marble, knowing that wherever we step on this Greek soil, we actually step on buried marble statues! Now, thanks to (or should we say, on account of) this Exhibition, we are obliged to re-examine how we feel! The minimalist aesthetics of white marble made it convenient for us to converse with the Souls of our ancestors, a relation between living and dead people, grandiose people for sure, but nevertheless dead! All of a sudden, by visiting this exhibition, we find ourselves promenading through their Agora and their Temples; we cannot help but gaze directly into their colorful eyes; we come across the everyday man-in-the-street and not just the ancient gods, as the name of the exhibition maintains; we get to know them in a new realistic colorful way. Whether in their wealth or poverty, we feel the softness of their character and their bravery, their tenderness towards their deceased, and the disasters they had to face. In other words, as living person to living person. As we are haunted by doubt that eats away our consumer’s flatulence, we begin to wonder “Who really is, deep down, more alive?”
(Text: Michael Tziotis)

Gods In Color: The Exhibition's Poster

Gods In Color: The Exhibition's Poster
Informative plan of the Greek National Archaeological Museum's ground floor, Galleries 44 and 45, where the exhibition was housed.

Informative plan of the Greek National Archaeological Museum's ground floor, Galleries 44 and 45, where the exhibition was housed.

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