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Polychrome Art History

For centuries the human form rendered in white marble has been considered the pinnacle of sculptural beauty in Western art, despite visible traces of original polychromy.

Image may contain: Eye, Head, Skin, Organ, Art.

Painted marble head of a Greek goddess, 3rd-1st century BC. Detail with eyes. Athens, Acropolis Museum. 

Today it is widely known that this misconception is based on false perceptions, and we want to contribute to the writing of a polychrome history of art. We call for a critical discource on polychrome reconstructions and the relationship between colours, materials and the surface.

About the group

Investigations of the use of colour on ancient and medieval art tend to focus on reconstruction and symbolic representation. But when material, gold, colour, light and tactility are explored as a whole, we may come closer to an understanding of how an art object was perceived in its original context. Polychrome Art History confronts established ‘truths’ about gildings and colours on ancient and medieval sculpture and reconstructions in a two-dimensional colour that pays little attention to their playful variation. Polychrome Art History aims at providing a deeper understanding of how polychromy functioned and was received in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, Byzantium and the Renaissance.

The collections of the Museum of Cultural History include Classical marble sculpture fragments with traces of pigments and medieval polychrome wooden sculpture with exceptional well-preserved polychromy. We participate in an important re-examining of the past by basing our investigations on this material and related examples.

Falsely constructed aesthetic ideals have to be confronted with facts. Reconstructions, however, also have to be approached with a critical mind. Sometimes they are overlooked. We pay particular attention to the subtle qualities of the material and the interplay between the materiality, the painted and gilded surfaces, shadow and light in our contribution to the topic of Classical and medieval sculpture and their polychromy.

See more on reconstruction of medieval works of art from the collection of the Museum of Cultural History.


PERCEIVING MATTER. Visual, Material and Sensual Communication from Antiquity to the Middle Ages and Beyond. Held April 5th 2019. See program.

Talks from this seminar was published in a special issue of the Clara Journal, available here:


Kaja Kollandsrud og Bente Kiilerich (2020) Perceiving Matter. Visual, Material and Sensual Communication – an Introduction,

Lasse Hodne (2020) Olympian Jupiter. Winckelmann and Quatremère de Quincy on Ancient Polychromy, Clara special issue 1.

Agneta Freccero (2020) Colour Experiments. The Harpy Monument: a Section of the West Side, Clara special issue 1.

Mark Abbe, Politura and Polychromy on Ancient Marble Sculpture, Clara special issue 1.

Amalie Skovmøller (2020) Between the Ideal and Artistic Practice. On Research into Ancient Sculptural Polychromy

Bente Kiilerich (2020) Texture, Colour and Surface Appearance of the Cividale Stuccoes, Clara special issue 1.

Spike Bucklow (2020) There’s More to Colour than Meets the Eye; Medieval and Early Modern Colour Perception, Clara special issue 1.

Kristin Kausland (2020) Setting the Stage, Framing the Picture; the Gilding and Polychromy of Late Medieval Altarpiece Structures in the North, Clara special issue 1.

Kristine Kolrud (2020) Colouring the Emperor: Andrea di Sansovino’s Polychrome Terracotta Relief of Galba, Clara special issue 1.


Tags: Polychromy, antiquity, middle ages, sculpture, marble, wooden sculpture, madonna, Mary
Published Dec. 2, 2019 9:07 AM - Last modified July 16, 2020 1:48 PM



Kaja Kollandsrud

Marina Prusac-Lindhagen


The Polychrome Art History research group includes members from several countries and fields of research. New members are welcome. Please contact us for more information.