Eyeless Wonders

Without fail, I stand before an ancient Greek or Roman statue in a museum and I am in awe. Have you ever tried creating a sculpture out of stone? Sans power tool? It’s no walk in the park. And so I stand before that incredible piece of our cultural history and I gaze in admiration and wonder…

Until I reach the eyes. Then I just feel is creeped out.

Eyes convey all kinds of social and emotional information. I can tell if someone’s attention is fluctuating or if they are absorbed in the conversation. Maintain eye contact to communicate confidence and honesty. Smiling eyes, welling tears, frequent blinking, the blank stare, squinting, drooping. Stay away from people with shifty-eyes. “The eyes are the window to the soul,” and some Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest believed that a camera (or even direct eye contact) would steal their soul. We gather light waves with our eyes, for goodness sake! They’re kind of big deal.

And so I find myself baffled by these human figures without pupils. Where are they looking? I feel like I’m missing half the story. I’m missing their soul.


Michelangelo Appreciated Pupils

It appears that this issue bothered Michelangelo, too. During the Renaissance, the people of Europe enjoyed a new-found admiration for the culture of classical antiquity, and white marble sculptures were being unearthed all around Greece. By the 16th century, greco-roman themes were popular subject matter in the arts, and white marble became the norm in sculpture. Michelangelo created sculptural masterpiece after masterpiece, and though not all portrayed characters from grecian or roman myths, he followed the Greek and Roman “example” by sculpting with white marble.

Michelangelo first carved pupils into the eyes of David and continued to include them in his sculptures from then on. The pupils on David actually look like small hearts. I’m guessing the irregular shape was supposed to give the distorted effect reflection plays on the eyeballs from afar. After all, the sculpture is 14 feet tall, so you are certainly viewing it from some distance.


Blame It on Father Time

Although whiffs of debate floated about during the twentieth century, it is now scientifically certain: the greeks actually painted the pupils on their sculptures’ eye. Not only that, they painting the entire sculpture.

German archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann was a key player in confirming this idea. He used high intensity lamps, ultraviolet light, plaster casts, cameras, and jars of powdered material to find chemical remnants of the mineral and organic pigment that were originally on these sculptures.1 A few of these include pulverized malachite (green), azurite (blue), arsenic compounds (yellow/orange), cinnabar (red), as well as charred bone and vine (black).2

A portrait of Roman emperor Caligula and a color reconstruction by Brinkmann

A portrait of Roman emperor Caligula and a color reconstruction by Brinkmann

Painted Greek Warrior Head

Painted Greek Warrior Head

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The eyes of men converse as much their tongues.” At least now I know that those ancient Greeks appreciated the presence of pupils as well, and I no longer feel the need to perform an exorcism on their sculptures. Cheers!

1. Gurewitsch, Matthew. “True Colors.” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2008. Web. 10 May 2013. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/true-colors.htm&gt;.
2. Gurewitsch, Matthew. “Setting the Record Straight About Classical Statues’ Hues.” The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 4 Dec. 2007. Web. 13 May 2013. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119672317588212335.html&gt;.


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