The Peplos Kore is the best known – and probably most loved – exhibit in the Museum of Classical Archaeology. She is a type of statue known as a kore (plural: korai), marble representations of young women used to mark graves or, more often, as votive offerings to the gods in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE.
The word kore means 'young woman' or 'girl' in ancient Greek; it's a word classical archaeologists use to describe this type of Archaic sculpture. The original Peplos Kore was dedicated to the goddess Athena on the Akropolis in Athens c.530 BCE and now stands in the Akropolis Museum. Ours stands proud in the Cast Gallery – and she is brightly painted in a riot of colour, as the original would have been.
Today, we are accustomed to viewing Greek sculpture as bright white; clean and fresh marble is no doubt what we think of most when we imagine ancient Greek art. And yet, we have known since the end of the eighteenth century that the Greeks painted their sculptures in bright colours and adorned them with metal jewellery.
Colour and Classical Sculpture
The Roman author Pliny the Elder – famous for meeting his end during the eruption of Vesuvius which buried Pompeii and Herculaneum – wrote in the first century CE of how statues were coloured and polished to produce a full spectrum of effects upon their viewers. In the later nineteenth century, excavations on the Akropolis in Athens began to produce statues on which traces of coloured paint could still be seen on the marble surface. The Peplos Kore was one of those statues.
In 1975, the Museum of Classical Archaeology acquired a new cast of the Peplos Kore. Since the Museum already owned a cast of the sculpture, the Curator, Prof. Robin Cook, made the decision to restore the new cast and to paint it as if its original colours were still preserved. So little paint remains on the original that restoring her appearance was a tricky proposition which required some imagination.
Recent scientific analysis has suggested that the Peplos Kore's paintwork may have been even more elaborate, even cycling through several different designs. But the repainted statue gives visitors a good impression of what ancient Greek sculpture might have originally looked like.
Perhaps more importantly, our painted Peplos Kore also forces us to look at her anew and challenges our preconceptions. Nineteenth century notions of the so-called 'Classical Ideal' have made it hard for many viewers to accept that ancient Greek sculpture really was so very brightly coloured. But neoclassicists who praised the pure white beauty of bare marble and the noble austerity of ancient architecture were really imposing nineteenth century aesthetics and morality onto ancient Greek art and culture.
Of course, we have inherited those ideals and a particular way of viewing Greek sculpture – one which often makes it difficult to look beyond the glossy radiance of statues which long-ago lost their paintwork. Resistance lingers on today. Many museum visitors are shocked or even horrified to see the blues and reds of the Peplos Kore. One visitor even memorably wrote in the Visitor's Book 'Didn't like the painted woman'... In other words, our reconstructed Peplos Kore, as she stands next to her unpainted and fragmented sister-cast, still provokes a range of reactions.
Looking at the Details
The Peplos Kore is 1.18 metres tall and the original is made of Parian marble, quarried not far from Athens. The traces of paint which survived on her surfaces have faded since she was first excavated from a pit near the Erechtheion on the Akropolis in 1884. Like fourteen other korai discovered on the Akropolis, she had been dumped there as part of the renovations following the Persian destruction of the Akropolis between 480-479 BCE.
The red garment she wears is called a peplos, and it is from this item of clothing that she gains her modern-day name. Her peplos is decorated with a green and white patterned band at its edges and green trimmings. It is constructed of a single large sheet of cloth, pinned at the shoulders and gathered at the waist by a belt. By the fifth century BCE, wearing a peplos had fallen out of fashion; it may even have looked slightly (and deliberately) out-of-date when the Peplos Kore donned it in the sixth century.
Underneath, she wears a blue crinkly dress called a chiton. The little umbrella on her head is called a meniskos; she wears it to keep the weather and the birds off. Her extended left arm holds out an offering, probably intended for the gods – although its effect is also to make her appear as if she reaches out to her more mortal viewers.
Even a cast sometimes needs some tender loving care. In 1996, the painted cast of the Peplos Kore was repainted. The paints used to paint her in 1975 had faded and cracked.