“Everything looks better in black and white”?

By Irene O’Daly

A recent feature on the Acropolis Museum website caught my eye. It gives viewers the opportunity to colour the Peplos Kore, a statue from the Acropolis site.  It’s hard to imagine the Acropolis looking anything other than austere and white. But, of course, as evinced by traces of polychrome paint on surviving statues and stonework, this building was once multi-coloured and richly decorated. In the case of Graeco-Roman buildings, the purity of the surviving white, unadorned, stone was believed to demonstrate the material advancement of the Ancients, a view particularly propagated by Victorian scholars and travellers.

The novelty of the Peploes Kore colouring-tool got me thinking about the way in which medieval cathedrals are preserved and presented.  The fact that many cathedrals were also originally richly painted is apparent from traces of pigmentation on statues and facades. In fact a similar virtual colouring tool to that used for the Peploes Kore exists so you too can re-decorate the facade of Wells Cathedral.  However, today medieval cathedrals are generally austere and plain buildings – striking in the simplicity of their carvings and decoration. Indeed while cathedrals have tried to recreate the original look of their facades through light shows, as demonstrated recently in Amiens, the thought of “restoring” cathedrals by replacing their colours would, it seems, meet with considerable outrage.

A recent homage to the tradition of coloured medieval sculpture, David Wynne’s statue of the Virgin Mary in the Lady Chapel in Ely cathedral, met with substantial public ire. Germaine Greer, writing in the Guardian, asked ‘Where are the iconoclasts now that we really need them?’ and memorably commented that the statue had the ‘biggest hair since Dolly Parton’. Preserving cathedrals without restoring their colours would seem to be an instance where modern taste outweighs a desire for historical accuracy.

Virgin Mary, Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral © Ely Cathedral

Earlier in July I visited York Minster to conduct some manuscript research in the archives there.  I was particularly struck by the new (well, comparatively new – 1998) carvings on the Great West Door.  Designed by Rory Young, these carvings were intended to replicate the original story scheme sculpted in the early fourteenth century. Substantial erosion (not arrested by a nineteenth-century restoration) had caused the original designs to decay and the decision was made to replace the carvings of stories from the Book of Genesis completely.  Interestingly, according to the companion text* published by York Minster, one of the principal difficulties in choosing potential designs was deciding whether the stories from Genesis should be presented in a fashion coherent with fourteenth-century theology (that is, incorporating elements showing how this first book of the Bible prefigures the New Testament – for example, seeing Eve as the prefiguration of Mary), or whether the stories should be presented in a more twentieth-century fashion, with a focus on the human lessons to be learned from the text (such as the responsibility of mankind as stewards of God’s creation, the necessary harmony between man and animals as evoked by the image of Noah’s Ark etc.).  Rather than strictly recreating the medieval look, sometimes it may be more significant to make the message conveyed resonate with the perspective of the modern onlooker.

Noah Building the Ark © http://www.theartworkersguild.org

In short, in the process of preservation and restoration of our medieval heritage, it would seem that there could be a case for being sensitive not only to the demands of historical accuracy, but also to the necessity of ensuring empathy with a modern audience.  Watching the sun set on York Minster, natural colours replacing those that once would have adorned the building, I, for one, remained moved by the spectacle of seven hundred years of continuous work – perhaps the truest testimony to the efforts of the medieval craftsmen.

* The Great West Door of York Minster, multiple authors, no publication date provided

This entry was posted in Irene O'Daly. Bookmark the permalink.