Cool Stuff Friday.

The Creatures of Yes take on climate change; Maizz maps endangered animals onto trees in Mexico; and the importance and controversy of colour, along with the white is right is might connection.

You can read and see more at The Creators Project.

You can see and read more about Animal Watching at The Creators Project.

The Apollo Belvedere, now at the Vatican Museums, was viewed in the 18th century as the model of beauty. Artists became fascinated with the statue after its discovery in the late 15th century, including Albrecht Dürer. (photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia)

The Apollo Belvedere is the basis for much of racist thought and models, which persist to this day. This beautiful sculpture became a model for the epitome of beauty, proper physiognomy, and of course, the best skin colour, white. The whiter the better. The study of classical antiquity was of all consuming importance in previous generations, and many wrong and devastating conclusions were formed. Greco-Roman works were considered to be of a higher order and very pure, because everything was overwhelmingly white. Except it wasn’t. Science has confirmed that many ‘white’ works weren’t, they were painted, and reflected the diversity of the Greco-Roman world. This is, of course, very upsetting to people for pretty much every reason under the sun. It is a shock to see these pale works come to life in vivid, unapologetic colour, and it changes our perception greatly. No longer do such works have such a detached, pale, cerebral feel.

Modern technology has revealed an irrefutable, if unpopular, truth: many of the statues, reliefs, and sarcophagi created in the ancient Western world were in fact painted. Marble was a precious material for Greco-Roman artisans, but it was considered a canvas, not the finished product for sculpture. It was carefully selected and then often painted in gold, red, green, black, white, and brown, among other colors.

A number of fantastic museum shows throughout Europe and the US in recent years have addressed the issue of ancient polychromy. The Gods in Color exhibit travelled the world between 2003–15, after its initial display at the Glyptothek in Munich. (Many of the photos in this essay come from that exhibit, including the famed Caligula bust and the Alexander Sarcophagus.) Digital humanists and archaeologists have played a large part in making those shows possible. In particular, the archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann, whose research informed Gods in Color, has done important work, applying various technologies and ultraviolet light to antique statues in order to analyze the minute vestiges of paint on them and then recreate polychrome versions.

We are a visual species, and colour is of extreme importance in artistic representations, and it’s absurd to think that all of the astonishing art of the Greco-Romans was utterly devoid of colour in some sort of odd worship of paleness. There’s a great deal of resistance to the evidence of colour, which not only upsets set ideas and perceptions, but it’s yet another stake in the heart of persistent systemic racism. Much of modern white supremacy is founded on the white purity of Greco-Roman art, and people will cling stubbornly to that blind belief in white. It’s time to see reality, and reality is full of colour. Hyperallergic has an in-depth and excellent article on why we need to see the classics in colour.


  1. cartomancer says

    It’s not just the resistance to seeing the statuary in colour -- the Renaissance view of the Classical world’s art was carefully constructed to conform to early modern prejudices by sidelining, locking away and downplaying statues that didn’t fit. Pretty much any type of obviously sexual image -- Priapus, Pan having sex with goats, all the various disembodied phallus images -- was considered unfit for public view and consigned to the back rooms of museums. Hellenistic statuary suffered here too, since it had far more female images (the Classical Greek obsession with male beauty had mellowed somewhat by the end of the fourth century BC) and had begun to take in all sorts of Middle Eastern and African influences as the Greek world opened up to global communication and trade.

  2. says

    Oh yes. Some of the phalluses were amazing art pieces, and quite common in households. The statue of Pan having sex with a goat is one of the most evocative pieces I think I have ever seen. It’s a challenge to view it openly, something most people have a great deal of trouble doing.

  3. cartomancer says

    A good example of this is the cover of the now iconic Cambridge Latin Course book 1 -- easily the most common introductory Latin textbook in the UK since it was introduced in the 70s. It features a famous bust of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus -- whose surviving business documents form the basis for the fictionalised version of his life in the Latin stories in the book. He was a well off moneylender, and is presented as a fairly staid and avuncular figure in the book. What the cover absolutely does not show is that this bust is in fact a Herm, and there is a prominent phallus halfway down its length.

    Needless to say this is one of the first things I tell my Latin students as soon as they get their copies of the book. If only out of respect to the Caecilius Iucundus family, who clearly felt it was important that their paterfamilias had both of his important bits immortalised in bronze.

  4. cartomancer says

    Less well known, though, is that magical phallus imagery was also very popular during the Middle Ages. We tend to think of Medieval society as having abandoned the Roman fondness for sexual images in a whirl of Christian persecution, but that’s simply not true. Even many pilgrimage tokens and souvenir trinkets used phallic imagery. There was also the distinctively medieval Phallus Tree, which seems to have been anything from a symbol of life and fertility to a bawdy joke to a political warning about letting sex-crazed foreigners take over and run the place,_fonte_e_palazzo_dell%27abbondanza,_albero_della_fecondit%C3%A0,_1265_circa_03.JPG

    Google.UK Medieval Phalluses.

  5. kestrel says

    It is so fascinating that those sculptures were painted! It makes perfect sense of course. Also, thank you Cartomancer for the added historical bits and points. Really cool!

    Caine, I’m about to check out your links. That will be interesting too.

  6. kestrel says

    OK, as to the sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat: don’t try this at home, kids! (LOL) You will quickly discover that restraining a goat like that **will not work**. On the other hand, maybe she’s happy about this. Although goats will usually object to anything just on principle.

  7. says


    OK, as to the sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat: don’t try this at home, kids!

    We aren’t the God of Nature. :D It’s the intimacy and emotion in that sculpture which fascinate me. It’s very far removed from bestiality, but that’s what most people would see.

  8. cartomancer says

    Actually, pondering this, it seems to me that one of the reasons we started thinking of Classical sculpture as white and clean and superior is because painted sculpture just seemed so Medieval to Renaissance eyes. Catholic churches were just packed with brightly coloured, gilded, gaudy-looking statues -- the descendants of Classical statues in an unbroken tradition.

    Since the big cultural project of the Renaissance was to brand everything Medieval as barbaric and degenerate (and oh so horribly German too, at a time when the Italian cities were fearful of a political takeover by the burgeoning Holy Roman Empire), the scoured-clean Classical statues that survived became symbols of a better past when Italian cultural sensibilities were supreme. Our modern division between Classical and Medieval stems entirely from this millieu, which is why we are so firmly predisposed to see Medieval sculpture as completely different, rather than part of the same evolving tradition. It wasn’t helped by the Enlightenment insistence that the Classical world was all about reason and logic and individuality, where the Medieval world was about religion and mysticism and communal labour.

  9. says

    I like these Creatures of Yes. I’ll have to see more of their videos.

    You know, I recall reading a translated excerpt of the Persian epic the Shahnameh. I don’t remember exactly when the translation was published, but I think it was in the mid 20th century. The translator’s introduction repeatedly said that he wouldn’t dream of comparing the Shahnameh, however good it may be, to any of Homer’s writings. It made me grimace. Maybe he was right, but it sure came across as a desperate attempt to assert his and his audience’s biases in favor of the Greco-Roman classics.

  10. says


    Maybe he was right, but it sure came across as a desperate attempt to assert his and his audience’s biases in favor of the Greco-Roman classics.

    I expect that’s exactly what it was. The classical antiquity bias runs extremely deep, which is why it is still alive today, and still fueling classism and racism.

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