Polychromy of Hellenistic sculptures and terracottas

Contact: Dr. Clarissa Blume


The polychrome appearance of Hellenistic terracotta figurines is determined almost exclusively by its colouration. Their surfaces were not decorated with different textures and only in few cases were additional attributes added to their hands with the help of holes. Since those attributes are missing today the material used for them is unknown.
Like sculptures of earlier eras we also have to consider the sculptures of the Hellenistic times as complex polychrome works which shaped the common living environment of the Hellenistic cities. Their polychrome appearance was characterised by three basic elements. Firstly the overall coloured effect of a sculpture was defined by the used material, its specific surface appearance and from the sculptors adjusted specific texture. Secondly the colourfulness was influenced by the colour version which colourized the sculptural body and broadened it with details. Thirdly numerous Hellenistic sculptures were fitted with attributes made of different materials, e.g. earrings, which were once suspended in the still visible earlobes. The overall polychrome picture of Hellenistic terracottas is mainly determined by their colour version. Their surface was not furnished by any textures and only a few terracottas received attributes which were attached via a hole in their hands. These attributes do not exist any more and the material remains unidentified.

Fig. 01: Statue of a muse, Liebighaus Frankfurt, inventory number 160.

Fig. 02: Detail of Fig. 01; Remains of rose-coloured paint on the muses Peronatris.

Consideration of the coloured additions

The aim of studying the polychromy of Hellenistic sculptures is to clarify the original appearance of the statues and figures. Furthermore the research aims to analyse the additional value of the polychrome differentiation for the interpretation of the presentation. The question is not how much information was carved into the stone but how the coloured additions were facilitated and taken into account by ancient and modern day observers.

Fig. 03: Detail of Fig. 01; UV-Vis-image of and ornamental band with blue spots. The ornamental band slowly fades to the back of the sculpture.

Fig. 04: Detail of Fig. 01; Ornament in the form of a ladder with yellow rungs and blue spots (the same band as in Fig. 03).

The Executing Craftsmen

Lastly the focus of research activities turns to the executing artisans. Even if it is not yet possible to distinguish specific artisans we still learn a lot about them in several antique texts. Especially illuminating is the study of names, fees and work utensils that are specified in the accounts of expenses of Delian sanctuaries and subsequently conveyed in inscriptions.
This research has been initiated in the course of a master’s thesis about the polychromy of Hellenistic terracotta figurines and a dissertation on the polychromy of Hellenistic sculptures and is being continued.
At last a special emphasis is placed on the executing craftsmen. Even when it is not yet possible to distinguish specific craftsmen various ancient written sources tell us a lot about them. Of particular insight is the research of the names, wages and work utilities which are listed in statements of accounts tell us much of the expenses of the Delian temples. The research was started as part of a master thesis about the polychromy of Hellenistic terracottas and a dissertation about the polychromy of Hellenistic sculptures and is ongoing.