Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


A Conversation with Jennifer Stager, author of Seeing Color in Classical Art

Jennifer M. S. Stager, Nandini B. Pandey

Nandini Pandey (author of The Poetics of Power in Augustan Rome, 2018) stepped out with Jennifer Stager (Seeing Color in Classical Art, 2022) for a walk around the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore, MD and a conversation about Stager’s new book.

NP: Tell me about your book. What are some of the big questions you’re asking?

JS: My book starts from the position that the art of the ancient Mediterranean was made up of vibrant colors and asks how that knowledge changes the stories that we’ve been telling with those objects. A lot of writing about color and ancient Mediterranean art, going back to published debates of the nineteenth century, has focused on the question of whether or not there was color and if so, just how much. A vast amount of evidence and the work of others answers the first question with an affirmative and resounding yes, and my book picks up there.

NP: If yes, then so what?

JS: Right. You can’t avoid color’s material presence, specificity, and particularity. Material colors are sourced from different places, traded, cut, shaped, or ground and this involves a lot of differential labor. There are trade networks and a broad range of contact cultures within which material colors emerge, circulate, and are used and reused. In this way, focusing on color crafts a narrative of collectivity, communities, and connection.

NP: That sounds like an idea that makes a lot of political, philosophical, economic, and social interventions. I bet when you conceived of this project, you had no idea how timely and relevant it would be to current conversations in the field of classics and beyond about race, color, and ethnicity. Can you tell us a little bit more about when and how you conceived of this project and how it has evolved?

JS: This is a long-haul project that emerged out of my own color epiphany. My first classroom encounter with the art and architecture of the ancient Mediterranean was shaped by black and white slides. This encounter was silently formative in that I didn’t wonder where the color was, and no one brought it up. Fast forward to graduate school and my advisor Andrew Stewart put up a color slide of the so-called Alexander sarcophagus, a coffin made up of marble, pigments, and gilding, some of which remain visible on its surface. As I remember it, this slide was a detail of an eye painted on one of the figures. That summer I traveled to Munich to see the first iteration of the Gods in Color show, an exhibition of polychrome reconstructions of sculptures.

NP: It sounds like your own awakening into the polychromatic reality of ancient Mediterranean art mirrors one that many students and scholars have been having for centuries.  Today, such encounters are even more accessible. The Brinkmanns’ exhibit continues to travel the world, with a version currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York; Dr. Sarah Bond has written several widely circulated and cited pieces about color; researchers around the globe continue to expand our picture of ancient polychromy. What can we say about how people in Mediterranean antiquity thought about color?

JS: The work that you mention has been instrumental in foregrounding the question of ancient color in the 21st century. Like many nineteenth-century debates, these conversations have often taken place through public facing media and exhibitions. Color in the visual arts was a part of everyday experience in the ancient Mediterranean and also a topic taken up by writers, from poets to philosophers. Ideas about color (khroma) in antiquity are predominantly ideas about materials. To get at ancient Greek color language, for example, one has to focus on a language of materials. This matters because after the publication of Newton’s prismatic experiments in Optics (1704), the idea of color as perceived rather than material comes to dominate and we move toward a language of dematerialized hue-words. This allows philosophers and art historians alike to prioritize the dematerialized idea of an object rather than its contingent, material specificity. In this way, color also gets relegated to a kind of secondary status. Coupled with the ways color and those who adorn with color have also historically been feminized, this secondary status matters quite a bit. Refocusing on the materiality of color in antiquity pushes against these received hierarchies.

NP: I love that you’re telling a larger story about the history of science, vision, and perception. I wonder if you could just walk us through in layman’s terms what might have come to mind for an ancient viewer when they looked at colors?

JS: We should imagine these encounters as so commonplace as to be in many ways unremarkable, but when someone reflected on or participated in the supply chain by which a material color moved from the earth to become part of a statue, painting, building, or mosaic, a series of relationships comes into view. One material that I think we could use to think about this is lapis lazuli. The chunks of lapis lazuli that you or I might hold in our hand today have often been extracted from the same mines, the Sar-i-Sang mines in modern Afghanistan, that were active in antiquity. For an artist to work with lapis lazuli, a high-value material, first required that other people extract the stone from the earth, a dangerous practice and one that likely depended in part on people who were enslaved. Once extracted, the stone must travel to reach the cities of Western Asia and the Mediterranean, where it could be worked into objects, like beads, inlays, and carved statuettes. Lapis lazuli could also be ground up into a blue pigment, known in later periods as the pigment ultramarine. Hariclia Brecoulaki and conservation scientists working with her have recovered traces of this pigment in the ancient Mediterranean. While extant traces remain rare in ancient Mediterranean contexts, traces of calcium copper silicate, often called Egyptian blue, are widespread. Calcium copper silicate is the first known synthetically produced pigment and it produces a different blue from ground-up lapis lazuli, but one that is in conversation with it.

Different pigments could be stored in terracotta bowls, as in a set from Hawara, Egypt, or in chunks or balls of pigment, as in the example of a production site in the agora on the island of Kos. Hilary Becker has been doing amazing work on the broader economic history of color in the Roman period as well as excavation of a pigment workshop in Rome. And these shops have a lot in common with the shops artists frequent today, like Kremer pigments in New York. Chunks, cakes, and containers of different pigments sourced across a vast geography are for sale in one spot, producing a kind of assemblage or map of material color.

NP: I love that you’re unfolding these diverse communities of makers and artists and other people around these objects. And you’re also treating a diversity of kinds of objects. Can you tell us more about the range of objects under discussion in your book?

JS: I chose a transmedial approach organized around different types of objects—sculpture, painting, architecture, and mosaic—because color traverses different media. Adding color back destabilizes the fixity of boundaries between different types of artists, such as a sculptor and a painter, who may be collaborating or may, in fact, be both. This, in turn, destabilizes the principle of medium specificity—the idea that materials and forms belong to specific media and should not be transferred to another. Sarah Hamill has done brilliant work on this with regard to the artist David Smith, mobilizing discussions in the 20th century about whether sculptors should add color to their art. Hamill’s work demonstrates that these norms of monochrome sculpture are not just entrenched in art historical writing, but also practices. I’d also add that artists working in the ancient Mediterranean use color in a variety of ways—added pigments, inlays, cut stones, cast metal—and in the service of different modes of representation, so thinking about color across media disengages it from narratives of naturalism.

NP: Your work is opening up a way to think of color as a means of connection and unity. Some of these themes also come through in your chapter titles. I’m especially interested in chapter two, which is about adornment and care. Can you tell us a little bit more about the connection between color and care?

JS:  A lot of my thinking about color depends on the conservation science work that others have done, both in the historical past and the more recent past and present, such as work by Harciclia Brecoulaki, Brigitte Bourgeois, and Sanchita Balachandran. The relative impermanence of, for example, pigments, or metal attachments on architecture, or inlaid eyes that would have been inserted into bronze and marble sculptures, required what we might call maintenance and care. Thinking about the lifecycle of material colors also brings into view the people who performed care labor for objects in antiquity—the person who repairs inlaid eyes, the person who touches up pigments on a public building, the person who adds a weaving to a sculpture.

In addition to thinking about care as an embodied practice, I also wanted to think about care as a generative concept. In the book I focus on a representation of the adornment and making of the first human woman Pandora , who is an object made up of material colors. She is formed from earthborn clay, adorned with different material gifts from the gods, like a silver veil and flowers, and enlivened. She comes into being through the assemblage of different material colors and one could think of her collaborative making by the Olympian gods as an act of care, although that is a very different way of thinking about Pandora than Hesiod’s misogynist narrative. Representations of the creation of Pandora produce a counter-narrative to the textual archive that is grounded in the visual arts and positions material color as generative.

NP: Pandora is a wonderful metaphor for the way that you are reassembling and bringing new agency to colors yourself. What’s next for you, as a scholar?

JS: Color led me to my next project on art and medicine. Many of the same materials used by artists are also used by healers and medical practitioners. And that was a jumping-off point for me to think about a deep history of medicine and to ask questions about who has been marginalized in traditional text-based histories of medicine and how we can get at some of the practitioners who are less well archived. The seed of this new project was the material relationship between pharmaka (treatments) and pigments.

N:P It’s been so salutary to get to speak with you. Congratulations again on finishing this thought-provoking book that’s sure to inspire many conversations to come.

JS: Thank you and wonderful to be in conversation with you!

Seeing Color in Classical Art By Jennifer M. S. Stager

About The Authors

Jennifer M. S. Stager

Jennifer M. S. Stager is Assistant Professor of Art History, with a courtesy appointment in the Department of Classics at Johns Hopkins University. Her research has been supported ...

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Nandini B. Pandey

Nandini B. Pandey teaches Classics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her research centers on Latin literature, its historical and cultural contexts, and its postclassical re...

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