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The Embodiment of Color in Ancient Mediterranean Art



The Embodiment of Color in Ancient Mediterranean Art


Jennifer Margaret Simmons Stager

Doctor of Philosophy in History of Art

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Andrew F. Stewart, Chair

The polychromy of ancient Mediterranean art is an issue with which scholars have grappled for centuries. The fugitive nature of many pigments coupled with a classicizing taste for the stripped antique fragment have contributed to a fictional narrative that contradicts the material and textual records, a narrative of art and culture executed in half-tones. In The Embodiment of Color in Ancient Mediterranean Art, I argue that color is a material phenomenon that forms bodies, structures vision and shapes a beholder's experience of the built and natural environment. In presenting this argument, I pursue four lines of inquiry: the role of replication in separating color and form, the material significance of color in the formation of sculpture; the relationship of inlaid eyes to ancient Greek theories of vision; the use of color on architectural relief. In each of these chapters I situate Greek artistic practice within the context of the wider Mediterranean world, for which ancient polychromy has always been less controversial. I focus on the abundance of color still present in the material record, as well as recent discoveries in conservation, to demonstrate that color was not, as is often argued, applied in the pursuit of lifelikeness, but served as a vehicle for philosophical and aesthetic investigations about bodily experience. I argue for the active role of material polychromy in structuring ancient Mediterranean conceptions of figural and living bodies.

In Chapter One, "Color, Form, and Replication," I examine how something so integral to visual experience as color has come to be so suppressed in the historiography of the ancient Mediterranean. Most historiographies explain the absence of color as primarily the result of natural decay. I show, however, that technologies for replicating images, such as plaques and glyptic arts, as well as Roman emulations of Greek sculpture produced using moulds, and later prints and black and white photographs all replicate an object's formal characteristics without replicating its polychromy. Replications select against color and begin the process of wresting color from form, a process that is active from the moment a polychrome image comes into being.

Color in the ancient Mediterranean world was thought to inhere in materials so that form remained inseparable from color. In Chapter Two, "Color, Materiality and Corporeality," I argue that sculptures formed from colored materials, such as the Zeus and Ganymede from Olympia, depend on colors for a portion of their affect and legibility. Textual sources, such as Homeric poetry and Sappho, deploy material terms as color words. Accepting the matieriality of color in the ancient Mediterranean exposes the abundance of polychromy in ancient texts and on ancient objects.

In Chapter Three, "Inlaid Eyes, Color, and Visuality," I explore the philosophical investigations into color and vision by the early atomists, Plato and Aristotle, who theorize colors and visual apprehension as produced through the recombination of atoms. Artists produced complex inlaid eyes, such as those on bronzes from the Riace Marina, not for verisimilitude, but to work through how visual processes took place. In these eyes the interstices are as important as the pieces between which they lie, acting as pores through which colors (as atoms) of the visible world may enter the body. These sculptural bodies show their beholders how the act of beholding unfolds.

I then turn in Chapter Four, "Color, Architecture, and Space," to the beholding body in space. Using the particular examples of the Ishtar Gate complex at Babylon and the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, I argue that the use of color on relief could be an explicit means of destabilizing distinctions between the natural environment and architecture standing in it. Through this destabilization, artists returned the built and natural environments to greater alignment, emphasizing the earth-born sources of the materials used for man-made structures.

I examine the juxtaposition of colored stones in mosaic, an artistic practice which makes manifest the fragmented mechanics of vision. It is perhaps the medium's explicitness that has led to its devaluation in later hierarchies of artistic media, for an image laid out in tesserae mirrors the beholder's own fragmented nature. In beholding mosaics, one comes to know, not just the particular image, but also an image of the assembled matter of the visible world. In matter, vision and space, colors--as atom, stroke, or colored stone--mark the pieced-togetherness of being.

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