The Art of Polychromy: The Colors in Ancient Greece

The Art of Polychromy: The Colors in Ancient Greece

When we think of ancient Greek art, we often envision pristine white marble statues and majestic temples. However, there is a fascinating aspect of Greek stonework that is often overlooked – polychromy, the art of painting sculptures and architectural elements in vibrant colors.

In this article, we delve into the world of polychromy, exploring how it was used to enhance both statues and temples, and how it has sadly faded over the centuries due to weathering. 

The Birth of Polychromy:

The term “polychrome” may sound ancient, but it was actually coined in the early 19th century by Antoine Chrysostôme Quatremère de Quincy. It stems from the Greek words “polý” (many) and “chróma” (color), even though the Greeks themselves did not use this word to describe their colorful works of art. Polychromy was an integral part of both architectural and sculptural masterpieces, adding life and vibrancy to the otherwise cold stone and metal structures.

Enhancing Architecture with Colors:

Greek temples, with their grandeur and elegance, were not left untouched by the brush of polychromy. From the Archaic period onwards, certain parts of temple superstructures received vivid paintwork. Bright colors were directly applied to the stone, while elaborate patterns adorned architectural members made of terracotta.

One can only imagine the visual spectacle these temples presented in their heyday, with colorful details harmoniously complementing the surrounding landscape. Notable examples of architectural polychromy include the Parthenon, Olympia, and Delphi.

Sculptures Awash with Colors:

Greek sculptures, too, were not the stark white figures we often picture today. Polychromy was a prevalent practice, and statues were adorned with strong and bright colors, bringing them to life.

While some parts, such as clothing and hair, were frequently painted, the skin was typically left in the natural color of the stone or bronze. Interestingly, female skin in marble was usually uncolored, while male skin might bear a light brown hue. Polychromy was not merely an enhancement; it represented a unique artistic style.

The Temple of Aphaia on Aegina offers a remarkable example of polychromy on pedimental sculptures. Recent discoveries have unveiled bold and elaborate patterns painted on these sculptures, including intricately patterned clothing.

Polychromy also extended to chryselephantine sculptures, where different materials distinguished skin, clothing, and other details. Even high-quality bronzes, like the famed Riace bronzes, featured the use of different metals to depict lips, fingernails, and more.

The Enchanting World of Vase Painting:

Among the most abundant evidence of Greek painting are the surviving vase paintings. Though different from large-format paintings in technique and subject matter, these works offer a glimpse into the aesthetics of Greek painting.

Vase painters were specialists within pottery workshops, creating intricate designs on pottery items. Surprisingly, despite their significance in ancient Greek culture, vase paintings were not highly regarded in antiquity and are rarely mentioned in classical literature.

The Fading Beauty:

As with all things from antiquity, the vivid colors of polychromy have succumbed to the relentless passage of time and the forces of nature. Intensive weathering has resulted in the substantial fading or total disappearance of paint on sculptures and architecture.

What remains are often pale and monochromatic remnants of the once-vibrant works of art. However, through careful research and scientific techniques, scholars and archaeologists continue to uncover traces of ancient pigments, shedding light on the lost world of Greek polychromy.


Polychromy reveals a hidden dimension of ancient Greek art, challenging our preconceptions of stark white statues and temples. The use of colors brought a vividness and lifelike quality to these masterpieces, making them even more awe-inspiring in their original state.

Though much has been lost to time, the discovery of surviving polychrome elements and the ongoing study of ancient pigments provide invaluable insights into the rich artistic heritage of ancient Greece.

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