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Reconstructed color scheme of the entablature on a Doric temple. Antike Polychromie 1.jpg
Reconstructed color scheme of the entablature on a Doric temple.

Polychrome is the "practice of decorating architectural elements, sculpture, etc., in a variety of colors." [1] The term is used to refer to certain styles of architecture, pottery or sculpture in multiple colors.

Pottery Craft of making objects from clay

Pottery is the process of forming vessels and other objects with clay and other ceramic materials, which are fired at high temperatures to give them a hard, durable form. Major types include earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. The place where such wares are made by a potter is also called a pottery. The definition of pottery used by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), is "all fired ceramic wares that contain clay when formed, except technical, structural, and refractory products." In archaeology, especially of ancient and prehistoric periods, "pottery" often means vessels only, and figures etc. of the same material are called "terracottas". Clay as a part of the materials used is required by some definitions of pottery, but this is dubious.


Classical world

Ancient Greek statue of a woman with blue and gilt garment, fan and sun hat, from Tanagra, 325-300 BC Altes Museum-Tanagra-lady with fan.jpg
Ancient Greek statue of a woman with blue and gilt garment, fan and sun hat, from Tanagra, 325-300 BC

Some very early polychrome pottery has been excavated on Minoan Crete such as at the Bronze Age site of Phaistos. [2] In ancient Greece sculptures were painted in strong colors. The paint was frequently limited to parts depicting clothing, hair, and so on, with the skin left in the natural color of the stone. But it could cover sculptures in their totality. The painting of Greek sculpture should not merely be seen as an enhancement of their sculpted form but has the characteristics of a distinct style of art. For example, the pedimental sculptures from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina have recently[ when? ] been demonstrated to have been painted with bold and elaborate patterns, depicting, amongst other details, patterned clothing. The polychrome of stone statues was paralleled by the use of materials to distinguish skin, clothing and other details in chryselephantine sculptures, and by the use of metals to depict lips, nipples, etc., on high-quality bronzes like the Riace bronzes.

Minoan civilization Bronze Age Aegean civilization flourishing on the island of Crete and other Aegean islands from c. 2600 to 1100 BC

The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age Aegean civilization on the island of Crete and other Aegean Islands, flourishing from c. 2700 to c. 1450 BC until a late period of decline, finally ending around 1100 BC. It represents the first advanced civilization in Europe, leaving behind massive building complexes, tools, stunning artwork, writing systems, and a massive network of trade. The civilization was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century through the work of British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. The name "Minoan" derives from the mythical King Minos and was coined by Evans, who identified the site at Knossos with the labyrinth and the Minotaur. The Minoan civilization has been described as the earliest of its kind in Europe, and historian Will Durant called the Minoans "the first link in the European chain".

Crete The largest and most populous of the Greek islands

Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, the 88th largest island in the world and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, and Corsica. It bounds the southern border of the Aegean sea. Crete lies approximately 160 km (99 mi) south of the Greek mainland. With an area of 8,336 km2 (3,219 sq mi) and a coastline of 1,046 km (650 mi), Crete is a recognisable feature of the islands of Greece.

Bronze Age Prehistoric period and age studied in archaeology, part of the Holocene Epoch

The Bronze Age is a historical period characterized by the use of bronze, and in some areas proto-writing, and other early features of urban civilization. The Bronze Age is the second principal period of the three-age Stone-Bronze-Iron system, as proposed in modern times by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, for classifying and studying ancient societies.

Relics of polychrome on an Ancient Greek Ionic capital, from an unidentified 5th century BC building. Ancient Agora Museum, Athens, Stoa of Attalus 3087 - Athens - Stoa of Attalus - Polychromy on a ionic capital - Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto, Nov 9 2009.jpg
Relics of polychrome on an Ancient Greek Ionic capital, from an unidentified 5th century BC building. Ancient Agora Museum, Athens, Stoa of Attalus

An early example of polychrome decoration was found in the Parthenon atop the Acropolis of Athens. By the time European antiquarianism took off in the 18th century, however, the paint that had been on classical buildings had completely weathered off. Thus, the antiquarians' and architects' first impressions of these ruins were that classical beauty was expressed only through shape and composition, lacking in robust colors, and it was that impression which informed neoclassical architecture. However, some classicists such as Jacques Ignace Hittorff noticed traces of paint on classical architecture and this slowly came to be accepted. Such acceptance was later accelerated by observation of minute color traces by microscopic and other means, enabling less tentative reconstructions than Hittorff and his contemporaries had been able to produce. An example of classical Greek architectural polychrome may be seen in the full size replica of the Parthenon exhibited in Nashville, Tennessee, US.

Parthenon temple on the Athenian Acropolis, Greece

The Parthenon is a former temple on the Athenian Acropolis, Greece, dedicated to the goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered their patron. Construction began in 447 BC when the Athenian Empire was at the peak of its power. It was completed in 438 BC, although decoration of the building continued until 432 BC. It is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece, generally considered the zenith of the Doric order. Its decorative sculptures are considered some of the high points of Greek art. The Parthenon is regarded as an enduring symbol of Ancient Greece, Athenian democracy and Western civilization, and one of the world's greatest cultural monuments. To the Athenians who built it, the Parthenon and other Periclean monuments of the Acropolis were seen fundamentally as a celebration of Hellenic victory over the Persian invaders and as a thanksgiving to the gods for that victory.

Acropolis of Athens Ancient citadel in Athens, Greece

The Acropolis of Athens is an ancient citadel located on a rocky outcrop above the city of Athens and contains the remains of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historic significance, the most famous being the Parthenon. The word acropolis is from the Greek words ἄκρον and πόλις. Although the term acropolis is generic and there are many other acropoleis in Greece, the significance of the Acropolis of Athens is such that it is commonly known as "The Acropolis" without qualification. During ancient times it was known also more properly as Cecropia, after the legendary serpent-man, Cecrops, the supposed first Athenian king.

Neoclassical architecture is an architectural style produced by the neoclassical movement that began in the mid-18th century. In its purest form, it is a style principally derived from the architecture of classical antiquity, the Vitruvian principles, and the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio.

Krater type of vessel from Ancient Greece

A krater or crater was a large vase in Ancient Greece, particularly used for watering down wine.

Mycenae Archaeological site in Greece

Mycenae is an archaeological site near Mykines in Argolis, north-eastern Peloponnese, Greece. It is located about 120 kilometres south-west of Athens; 11 kilometres north of Argos; and 48 kilometres south of Corinth. The site is 19 kilometres inland from the Saronic Gulf and built upon a hill rising 900 feet above sea level.

Peplos long draped garment worn by women of Ancient Greece; often open on one side, with a deep fold at the top, and fastened on both shoulders

A peplos is a body-length garment established as typical attire for women in ancient Greece by 500 BC. It was a long, tubular cloth with the top edge folded down about halfway, so that what was the top of the tube was now draped below the waist, and the bottom of the tube was at the ankle. The garment was then gathered about the waist and the folded top edge pinned over the shoulders. The folded-down top of the tube provided the appearance of a second piece of clothing.

Medieval world

Throughout medieval Europe religious sculptures in wood and other media were often brightly painted or colored, as were the interiors of church buildings. These were often destroyed or whitewashed during iconoclast phases of the Protestant Reformation or in other unrest such as the French Revolution, though some have survived in museums such as the V&A, Musée de Cluny and Louvre.

Iconoclasm The destruction of religious images

Iconoclasm is the social belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments, most frequently for religious or political reasons. People who engage in or support iconoclasm are called iconoclasts, a term that has come to be figuratively applied to any individual who challenges "cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious".

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Victoria and Albert Museum Art museum in London

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is the world's largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design, as well as sculpture, housing a permanent collection of over 2.27 million objects. It was founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The exteriors of churches were painted as well, but little has survived. Exposure to the elements and changing tastes and religious approval over time acted against their preservation. The "Majesty Portal" of the Collegiate church of Toro is the most extensive remaining example, due to the construction of a chapel which enclosed and protected it from the elements just a century after it was completed. [3]

Baroque and Rococo periods

While stone and metal sculpture normally remained uncolored, like the classical survivals, polychromed wood sculptures were produced by Spanish artists: Juan Martínez Montañés, Gregorio Fernández (17th century); German: Ignaz Günther, Phillip Jacob Straub (18th century), or Brazilian: Aleijadinho (19th century).

With the arrival of European porcelain in the 18th century, brightly colored pottery figurines with a wide range of colors became very popular.

19th century polychrome brickwork

Rippon Lea Estate, in Australia has polychrome brickwork patterns. Rippon Lea.jpg
Rippon Lea Estate, in Australia has polychrome brickwork patterns.

Polychrome brickwork is a style of architectural brickwork which emerged in the 1860s and used bricks of different colors (typically brown, cream and red) in patterned combination to highlight architectural features. It was often used to replicate the effect of quoining and to decorate around windows. Early examples featured banding, with later examples exhibiting complex diagonal, criss-cross, and step patterns, in some cases even writing using bricks.

20th century

In the twentieth century there were notable periods of polychromy in architecture, from the expressions of Art Nouveau throughout Europe, to the international flourishing of Art Deco or Art Moderne, to the development of postmodernism in the latter decades of the century. During these periods, brickwork, stone, tile, stucco and metal facades were designed with a focus on the use of new colors and patterns, while architects often looked for inspiration to historical examples ranging from Islamic tilework to English Victorian brick. In the 1970s and 1980s, especially, architects working with bold colors included Robert Venturi (Allen Memorial Art Museum addition; Best Company Warehouse), Michael Graves (Snyderman House; Humana Building), and James Stirling (Neue Staatsgalerie; Arthur M. Sackler Museum), among others.

United States

Polychrome Victorian-era architectural detail in Kendallville, Indiana. Kendallville-indiana-architectural-detail.jpg
Polychrome Victorian-era architectural detail in Kendallville, Indiana.

Polychrome building facades later rose in popularity as a way of highlighting certain trim features in Victorian and Queen Anne architecture in the United States. The rise of the modern paint industry following the American Civil War also helped to fuel the (sometimes extravagant) use of multiple colors.

The polychrome facade style faded with the rise of the 20th century's revival movements, which stressed classical colors applied in restrained fashion and, more importantly, with the birth of modernism, which advocated clean, unornamented facades rendered in white stucco or paint. Polychromy reappeared with the flourishing of the preservation movement and its embrace of (what had previously been seen as) the excesses of the Victorian era and in San Francisco, California in the 1970s to describe its abundant late-nineteenth-century houses. These earned the endearment 'Painted Ladies', a term that in modern times is considered kitsch when it is applied to describe all Victorian houses that have been painted with period colors.

John Joseph Earley (1881–1945) developed a "polychrome" process of concrete slab construction and ornamentation that was admired across America. In the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, his products graced a variety of buildings all formed by the staff of the Earley Studio in Rosslyn, Virginia. Earley's Polychrome Historic District houses in Silver Spring, Maryland were built in the mid-1930s. The concrete panels were pre-cast with colorful stones and shipped to the lot for on-site assembly. Earley wanted to develop a higher standard of affordable housing after the Depression, but only a handful of the houses were built before he died; written records of his concrete casting techniques were destroyed in a fire. Less well-known, but just as impressive, is the Dr. Fealy Polychrome House that Earley built atop a hill in Southeast Washington, D.C. overlooking the city. His uniquely designed polychrome houses were outstanding among prefabricated houses in the country, appreciated for their Art Deco ornament and superb craftsmanship.

Polychromatic light

The term polychromatic means having several colors. It is used to describe light that exhibits more than one color, which also means that it contains radiation of more than one wavelength. The study of polychromatics is particularly useful in the production of diffraction gratings.

See also

Related Research Articles

Terracotta clay-based unglazed or glazed ceramic

Terracotta, terra cotta or terra-cotta, a type of earthenware, is a clay-based unglazed or glazed ceramic, where the fired body is porous. Terracotta is the term normally used for sculpture made in earthenware, and also for various practical uses including vessels, water and waste water pipes, roofing tiles, bricks, and surface embellishment in building construction. The term is also used to refer to the natural brownish orange color of most terracotta, which varies considerably.

Greek Revival architecture architectural movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries

The Greek Revival was an architectural movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, predominantly in Northern Europe and the United States. A product of Hellenism, it may be looked upon as the last phase in the development of Neoclassical architecture. The term was first used by Charles Robert Cockerell in a lecture he gave as Professor of Architecture to the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 1842.

Portico Type of porch

A portico is a porch leading to the entrance of a building, or extended as a colonnade, with a roof structure over a walkway, supported by columns or enclosed by walls. This idea was widely used in ancient Greece and has influenced many cultures, including most Western cultures.

Plaster cast

A plaster cast is a copy made in plaster of another 3-dimensional form. The original from which the cast is taken may be a sculpture, building, a face, a pregnant belly, a fossil or other remains such as fresh or fossilised footprints – particularly in palaeontology.

Ancient Greek sculpture sculpture of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek sculpture is the sculpture of ancient Greece. Modern scholarship identifies three major stages in monumental sculpture. At all periods there were great numbers of Greek terracotta figurines and small sculptures in metal and other materials.

White ground technique style of decorated ancient pottery

White-ground technique is a style of white ancient Greek pottery and the painting in which figures appear on a white background. It developed in the region of Attica, dated to about 500 BC. It was especially associated with vases made for ritual and funerary use, if only because the painted surface was more fragile than in the other main techniques of black-figure and red-figure vase painting. Nevertheless, a wide range of subjects are depicted.

Temple of Aphaea Ancient Greek temple

The Temple of Aphaia or Afea is located within a sanctuary complex dedicated to the goddess Aphaia on the Greek island of Aigina, which lies in the Saronic Gulf. Formerly known as the Temple of Jupiter Panhellenius, the great Doric temple is now recognized as dedicated to the mother-goddess Aphaia. It was a favorite of the neoclassical and romantic artists such as J. M. W. Turner. It stands on a c. 160 m peak on the eastern side of the island approximately 13 km east by road from the main port.

Kore is the modern term given to a type of free-standing ancient Greek sculpture of the Archaic period depicting female figures, always of a young age. Kouroi are the youthful male equivalent of kore statues.

Acropolis Museum Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece

The Acropolis Museum is an archaeological museum focused on the findings of the archaeological site of the Acropolis of Athens. The museum was built to house every artifact found on the rock and on the surrounding slopes, from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine Greece. It also lies over the ruins of a part of Roman and early Byzantine Athens.

Black House, Lviv

The Black House is a remarkable Renaissance building on the Market Square in the city of Lviv, Ukraine. It was built for Italian tax-collector Tomaso Alberti in 1577. The architect was probably Piotr Krasowski. The Lviv Historical Museum has been housed in the Black House since 1926.

Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge University Museum in Cambridge

The Museum of Classical Archaeology is a museum in Cambridge, run by the Faculty of Classics of the University of Cambridge, England. Since 1983, it has been located in a purpose-built gallery on the first floor of the Faculty of Classics on the Sidgwick Site of the University.

John Joseph Earley was the son of James Earley, a fourth generation Irish stone carver and ecclesiastical artist. A skilled artisan, architect, and innovator in the use of concrete Earley is best known for the invention of the Earley Process, a technique also known as polychrome, architectural or mosaic concrete.

Polychrome brickwork Use of bricks of different colours for decoration

Polychrome brickwork is a style of architectural brickwork which emerged in the 1860s as a feature of gothic revival architecture, wherein bricks of different colours were used in patterned combination to highlight architectural features. It was often used to replicate the effect of quoining and also decorate around windows. Early examples featured banding, with later examples exhibiting complex diagonal, criss-cross and step patterns, in some cases even writing using bricks.

Gods in Color travelling exhibition

Gods in Color or Gods in Colour is a travelling exhibition of varying format and extent that has been shown in multiple cities worldwide. Its subject is ancient polychromy, i.e. the original, brightly painted, appearance of ancient sculpture and architecture.

Phrasikleia Kore sculpture by Aristion von Paros

The Phrasikleia Kore is an Archaic Greek funerary statue by the artist Aristion of Paros, created between 550 and 530 BCE. It was found carefully buried in the ancient city of Myrrhinous in Attica and excavated in 1972. The exceptional preservation of the statue and the intact nature of the polychromy elements makes the Phrasikleia Kore one of the most important works of Archaic art.

Ancient Greek art

Ancient Greek art stands out among that of other ancient cultures for its development of naturalistic but idealized depictions of the human body, in which largely nude male figures were generally the focus of innovation. The rate of stylistic development between about 750 and 300 BC was remarkable by ancient standards, and in surviving works is best seen in sculpture. There were important innovations in painting, which have to be essentially reconstructed due to the lack of original survivals of quality, other than the distinct field of painted pottery.

Peplos Kore ancient sculpture from the Acropolis of Athens

The Peplos Kore is a statue of a girl and one of the most well-known examples of Archaic Greek art. The 118 cm-high (46 in) high white marble statue was made around 530 BC and originally was colourfully painted. The statue was found, in three pieces, in an 1886 excavation north-west of the Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis and is now in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Korai of the Acropolis of Athens scuplture series from the Acropolis of Athens

The Korai of the Acropolis of Athens are a group of female statues (Korai), discovered in the Perserschutt of the Acropolis of Athens in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, all of the same typology and clear votive function. Through them it is possible to trace the stylistic evolution of Archaic Attic sculpture for almost a century, from 570 to 480 BC. This demonstrates in particular the beginning and development of Ionian influence on Athenian art of the second half of the 6th century BC. This was the period when Ionian elements first appear in the architectural works of the Peisistratids and close connections between Ionia and Athens developed. Towards the end of the 6th century BC this influence is seen to be overcome, or rather absorbed, and a new style is born, the so-called severe style, with increasing Peloponnesian influence.

Kore of Lyons

The Kore of Lyons is a Greek statue of Pentelic marble depicting a bust of a young girl of the kore type, conserved at the musée des beaux-arts de Lyon, France. Deriving from the Athenian Acropolis, it is generally dated to the 540s BC. Considered the centrepiece of the museum's antiquities department, the statue was acquired between 1808 and 1810.


  1. Harris, Cyril M., ed. Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture, Dover Publications, New York, c. 1977, 1983 edition
  2. C. Michael Hogan, Knossos Fieldnotes, The Modern Antiquarian (2007)
  3. Katz, Melissa R. Architectural Polychromy and the Painters' Trade in Medieval Spain . Gesta. Vol. 41, No. 1, Artistic Identity in the Late Middle Ages (2002), pp. 3-14