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The white myth? Skin colour in ancient mosaics

The white myth? Skin colour in ancient mosaics

Detail from Procession of Dionysos, House of Aion, Paphos, Cyprus showing range of skin tones. 4th century AD @mycyprusinsider

Skin colour in ancient mosaics and why it matters

This post is a response to an October 2018 New Yorker article, The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture, written by Margaret Talbot, which discusses the use of colour on ancient Roman and Greek statues. The article argues that academics have known for centuries that the marble figures were covered in bright paint but chose to ignore it so that we, the viewers of ancient statutes, now believe they were intentionally white.

mosaic of black prisoner and other figures
Detail from Triumph of Dionysos, Paphos, Cyprus.

The reasons are multiple, according to Talbot. Among them is that up until recently excavation techniques were rudimentary and if a statue was discovered covered in earth (and undisturbed pigment) it would quickly be hosed down to reveal the marble beneath. Snobbery, aesthetics and overt racism (the idea of whiteness being equated with purity and goodness) are also given as factors behind this collective amnesia.

Mosaic depicting the building of the Tower of Babel, Huqoq synagogue.
Detail from Dionysos mosaic, Setif, Algeria. 3rd C AD @Steve Richards.

So far, so interesting. But only up to a point. For one thing, the debate about pigmentation on ancient statues has been alive and well for a long time and has not been ignored – see the clip below about the 19th century Alma Tadema painting at Birmingham Art Gallery, Pheidias and the Freize of the Parthenon, which is a contemporary response to a heated discussion of this very topic more than 100 years ago.

Without denying that snobbery, skewed aesthetics and entrenched racism are significant issues, my view is that the whiteness of classical statutes had more to do with acquisitiveness and archaeological ineptitude than any other factors. For hundreds of years ancient artefacts were amassed by the wealthy with scant regard for their general art historical or other importance. Collectors were purely concerned about how they looked in their grand hallways and pigment, being flaky and messy, had to go. There is not much difference, it seems to me, between this archaeological vandalism and the way chunks of mosaic floors were routinely hacked away, discarding the rest because it wasn’t interesting enough or was too difficult to remove as a whole.

Be that as it may, the article also covers the subject of what colours the statues would have been in their original state. Academics who specialise in examining marble for tiny flecks of remaining pigments (usually in discreet crevasses of the body – ears, nostrils, inside lips) are quoted giving their theories on how the stone faces and bodies would once have looked.

close up of mosaic face
Detail of Gorgon mosaic floor, Athens Archaeological Museum. 2nd century AD., showing mastery of skin tone. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Figures that were deftly painted would have looked eerily lifelike, particularly in low and flickering light,”  writes Talbot. She goes on to include a fascinating quote from Mark Abbe, professor of ancient art at the University of Georgia: “When you went into a place, the divide between what was sculpture and what was actual life was fluid, and highly theatrical. You go to a dinner party in Pompeii and there are statues of nude homoerotic youths, in the old, noble Greek tradition. And then there are actual slave boys that look just like those well-tanned bronzes, and at first they’re standing still. And them they move…”

mosaic of naked torso
Detail of Nereid’s torso. 3rd century, El Jem, Tunisia. @Helen Miles Mosaics

You can see where this is leading to. We have an article devoted to skin colour in ancient sculpture, we have the concept of optical illusion brought up and examined, but we do not have a single mention of ancient mosaics (or frescoes for that matter). Not one.  Despite the fact that ancient mosaicists from the same period as the classical sculptors used colour expertly and precisely, not a single academic recommends looking at floor mosaics to  see what colours the original statues might have been. Stone doesn’t significantly wear away, pigments don’t flake off it, no amount of hosing would remove the colour and people couldn’t possibly idealise whiteness in them because they are coloured through and through. Moreover, the floors, walls and statues all played a part in the visual trickery so beloved by the Romans so it seems like an obvious step to include mosaics in any discussion of polychromy in ancient art.

mosaic of dark skinned man with ostrich
Ostrich on a lead held by a dark skinned man. 6th century AD. Baptistery of Moses, Mount Nebo, Jordan. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Skin colour in ancient mosaics and the polychromy debate

Hold on for a minute while I climb down off my high horse and brush myself down. I want you (by which I mean Talbot and all the polychrome academics) to look at mosaics and see what is right there in front of your noses. I am amazed I have to do this. It’s so obvious, it’s ridiculous. The designers, artists and makers of ancient mosaics were not shy about skin colour – all shades and races are clearly depicted.

Pompeii, 1st C BC

Talbot and others explain that the ancients had a different attitude to race to our own. “Several scholars explained…that though ancient Greeks and Romans certainly noticed skin color, they did not practice  systemic racism. They owned slaves, but this population was drawn from a wide range of conquered people, including Gauls and Germans,” she writes in the New Yorker. This is backed up by Sarah Bond writing in Forbes about Whitewashing Ancient Statues: “…Romans had a great variety of skin tones within their Mediterranean world. Frescoes, mosaics and painted ceramics from both the Greek and Roman periods reveal a fascination with black Africans and particularly Ethiopians, but did not employ what W.E.B. Du Bois would call a “color prejudice.

The ancient mosaicists were adept at handling colour, whether it be folds of cloth or the glisten on a cricket’s wings. If they wanted to depict blackness or whiteness they did so, along with the whole spectrum in between. The methods they used could be infinitely subtle with careful gradation of stone and glass to depict shadows, tones and bone structure. Of course I recognise that a mosaic is not a statue but there are many points of comparison and it is plainly absurd to ponder the issue of original skin colour in statues without looking at other ways that flesh tones were represented in the ancient world.

mosaic detail of three figures
Detail, Judgement of Paris, Antioch. 2nd C AD, Louvre Museum. @Helen Miles Mosaics

I’m glad I’ve got that off my chest. I fear that sometimes a faint whiff of rantiness rises from the screen but when it comes to mosaics  I often feel that they are wrongly neglected. Mosaics could patently play an important role in the study of ancient art but, just like pigmentation, they have been ignored and scrubbed out of the story of art history. Unlike painted colours, however, they cant be entirely washed away.



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  1. Rachel sager

    Oh Helen…thank you for writing about such a particular subject and how mosaic should be more a part of the art history conversation. I’m diving into flesh tones for the first time, so this was perfect timing for me. Always a pleasure to read you.

  2. Mimis

    I believe that the colour of greek statues, have nothing to do with roman mosaics colour!! They are totally different centuries.
    And of cource the colours of mosaic have been analyzed and we know almost everything about them.

    1. Thanks for this Mimis! Yes, this is indeed true but it is also true that many mosaics showing adept use of colour are from the Hellenistic period, the same time and geographical area as the statues being examined. Moreover, the New Yorker article refers to classical statues of the Roman and Greek period (not just Greek) and explicitly refers to domestic interiors in Pompeii where mosaics were obviously crucially important. Therefore, it strikes me as odd that in the quest to find out how skin tone was depicted, that the academics don’t at least refer to obvious extant examples.

  3. It all seems so obvious, as you say. Is it that the ‘fine art’ snobbery is at work here, and folks who should know better are considering mosaics beneath their interest?
    The subtlety of use of the colours both in mosaics and in frescoes makes me wonder if the sculptures were painted in large areas of flat colour as imagined in exhibitions such as the Gods in Colour one some years ago – as reviewed in this blog:
    Several years ago I was in the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki where they had made a coloured reproduction of one of their sculptures. There too I wondered about the flat overall application of colour when so much trouble went into the tiniest details of their mosaics. You have piqued my interest, thank you.

    1. Thank you, Olga, that is a very good point. I haven’t paid so much attention to how experts have attempted to reproduce the colours on classical statues but it does indeed seem unlikely that they would have produced such subtle representations of skin tone in their mosaics and frescoes and then just applied flat coats of paint to the sculptures. Very intriguing.

  4. Lisa RR

    Totally agree!
    Mosaics have to be integral in the overall arts spectrum.
    There is still more to discover about the ancient world.

    p.s. the author of the New Yorker piece is Margaret Talbot?

  5. drew nucs

    Theres so much to say;

    what about the availability and characteristics of the stones used ? the medd basin is loaded with pale colored material (carrera,istria,noto,thassos) – the pale color comes from calcium carbonate usually and is the reason these limestones and marbles are easy to carve and shape. If the marbles of greece and the italic peninsula were black and grey you would be visiting black and grey statues in the musuems of NYC and London – thats geology from billions of years yet academics who are obsessed with the race topic refuse to see the world in anything other then ‘black and white’ . The villages of Mount Etna sicily are all built of volcanic stone – basalt – black stone , the architectural ornaments, the elephants , the angels , the pavements …all black. Thats what they have to work with. 30 miles away in Noto sicily the village is entirely beige , built with the soft orange travertine of Noto . Do you suppose the folks of Noto and Etna have different views on race ?
    I am a stone conservator currently cleaning 15th century statues in Venice – the statues are carrera , white marble, they became so dirty that 300 years later the caretakers thought they were black stone and rubbed a protective coating on them that made them even more dark – 250 years later a non profit decided to clean the statues as the black crust was damaging the stone and now they look like an oreo cookie as they are being laser blasted – these statues remained on the top of the palazzo ducale for 600 years in various shades of color – all of the istrian stone in Venice has had a life as black and white and copper green ….they were black and white for hundreds of years each color , did the opinions and secret hidden messages on race change or did the damn statues just get dirty ? common now.

    The fact that academics can look back to ancient greece and rome and only talk about how skin tone was portrayed in art is so sad – in fact the romans and greeks would be laughing at us knowing so little and obsessing so much over shades of skin. pathetic if you ask me. The message in those mosaics and on those statues was much more grande then skin tone – get with it

    1. Thanks so much for this. Very interesting points on many fronts. I quite agree that skin tone is pretty low down the list of things of interest about the ancient world but I am full of admiration for the way the Greeks and Romans portrayed the human figure with such subtlety, skin tone, musculature, movement and all. Enjoy yourself cleaning 15th century statues! Helen

  6. Many thanks for your post, which is very spot-on. I’m currently working on digital restoration of statues and bas-reliefs, and my first two sources for how clothing and skin and oodles of other objects were colored are a) mosaics, and b) frescoes.

    My biggest argument to those who continue to promulgate the myth of the all-white unadorned statue is to point them at the frescoes of the Vesuvian towns and the miles of extremely colorful mosaics the Romans, in particular, have left behind. The mosaics also tend to keep most of their color, so they have a bit of a leg up on frescoes, while frescoes can show painting techniques, some/most of which are applicable to 3D objects.

    In fact, I’m (virtually) restoring a Dionysian relief this week which means I’ve been looking at some of your photos, to help determine what the heck to do with these dang trees in the relief.

    1. Thanks so much for this Stephen. I wrote this with a bit of trepidation because it’s obviously not my area of expertise but I do feel quite strongly about it so it was good to read your comment. I will watch the Dionysian relief unfold on Twitter!

  7. Cassian

    Thats funny. I had just worked this out for myself. There is no way that Greek statues had the crude primary colours they are supposed to have when the coloration of Greek mosaic was so sophisticated.

    I Googled to see if anyone had had this insight before and found this.

  8. Giuliana

    I think it is funny how they manipulate their knowledge to fit in an agenda but the show us something that doesn’t fit. I mean, in your essay is excellent, I see a fair point and you used a historical evidence that is something that we expect from academics.

    In other hand there are lots of articles in magazines that say “the statues were not white”, which is true. However it seems odd when they use this to make us misunderstand about the skin colour of the people in Ancient Rome and Greek. When I read those kind of essays that you mentioned at fist time I was expecting that they were talking about dark skin and dark hair. But they show us statues in their “original” colour and they had pinky skin and redhead. It is so odd. I mean, when I read that I was like “so they we all ginger?”, but the article was like “they were not white”, “they used the narrative as the white power”, but if they had pinky skin and redhead why would need to manipulate the narrative right? Let me know if I am just nuts.

    as you demonstrated in your essay, if you just move your eyes to the mosaics you can see so much. Lots of different skin colours, and actually I saw others showing that the statues weren’t made in white marble, there were also different kind of materials used to make statues right? They could make the essay much more rich if they brought those things like you did, instead of say “they weren’t white” and show us redheads.

      1. Alice

        I was wondering about on specific thing, that maybe some statues were over painted along the years, could be that possible? Sounds reasonable that one emperor order the statues fits his skin tone and hair colour and after a time another one do the same? In my town there is a monument that has been painting in so many different colours according to the mayor’s wish.

        Also, some of those statues ends in papal collections, maybe they were over painted there as well? I don’t know how if they can discover those things after so long time.

        But the mosaics are more original colours I guess because they uses a colour from the stone right?

        1. Good point, Alice! I assume they would be able to tell from analysing and dating the paint samples to see if they came from different periods. Nothing I have read has suggested this but it is an interesting idea. Yes, the mosaic colours cant be changed because they are stone that’s why I think they are relevant to the debate.

  9. CW

    I just looked at Pompei erotic art at wikipedia and on the dozen or so examples they show, the women are all white or whiter than the males, and the males are all a bit darker than the females.

    I wonder why?

    Is it because men spent a lot of time outside in the sun and women ( or prostitutes) did not?

    Is it artistic license and has nothing to do with reality, is it simply that the artist wanted to make women look whiter than the males? I noticed all the females also have tiny tiny breasts which I doubt means that all women in Pompei had tiny breasts, that seems impossible, it has to be artistic license…

    Does anyone have a good explanation based on facts?

  10. Equating the color white with purity is absolutely not overt racism. I’m not sure if you meant equating exclusively white skin with the aspect of purity, but that is not clear contextually. Many historical religious sects wore white clothing with the explicit purpose of it representing purity. Many of these people were of a darker complexion than their clothing, yet they still chose white as the color to represent purity. This notion was excluded from your analysis, but the religious aspect/connotation of the color “white” cannot be overlooked. Doing so would be tantamount to the opposite of whitewashing.

    Now, for the rest of the article, I freely admit that I may be blind, naive, or simply uninformed, but are there artists and/or historians out there that actually believe that the marble used in a particular statue represented the subject’s actual skin color? Surely this can’t be true. Moreover, marble is a surprisingly variable stone in many aspects, not least of which is color. There are white, gray, red, green, and yes, even black shades of marble

    1. Thank you for this. I don’t make any equation with whiteness and the concept of purity because it is beyond the reach of the article. But with reference to your second paragraph I do think that current historians feel that those who proceeded them ignored or actively washed away the pigments used on ancient statues. This led them to wonder what colour the statues would have been in their original state when they were painted and I am simply pointing out that there are lots of examples in ancient mosaics to turn to if we want to see how the ancients depicted skin colour.

  11. Luxembourg Art Aficionado

    Thank you for your excellent (and spirited) essay.

    I’d like to call your attention to two pieces of fresco art from Pompeii that emphatically reinforce your point (and that may be of interest to your readers).

    First, a portrait of two people:

    Two individuals, side by side, with completely different skin tones (not to mention distinct features and facial structures). Unquestionably Roman artists were conscious of this aspect of appearance and careful in their reproduction/representation of the two subjects’ likenesses.

    Even better:

    This is a painting of a garden scene, with a very realistic head on a pedestal. So either this is a celebration of displaying someone’s decapitation, or this fresco shows a stone or marble bust that has been quite carefully and thoughtfully painted to replicate a lifelike appearance.

    I hope you enjoy these. Even beyond the support for your argument, the art is simply beautiful; the artists of the period were truly masters of their craft.

    1. Thank YOU for this. I enjoyed both of the frescos you sent – what beautiful things! – and they do indeed illustrate the point perfectly. I am still baffled as to why academics/art historians don’t look at other examples of depictions of skin colour in ancient art.

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