Rediscovering Color on an Ancient Relief

The fragment of an ancient Roman marble relief Attendant of Mithras with signs of the zodiac (23.238) recently came to the conservation lab, giving Walters Art Museum conservators a chance to learn more about its colorful original appearance.

Attendant of Mithras with Signs of the Zodiac

The fragment of an ancient Roman marble relief Attendant of Mithras with signs of the zodiac (23.238) recently came to the conservation lab, giving Walters Art Museum conservators a chance to learn more about its colorful original appearance.

The fragment was probably carved sometime in the first century A.D.  It is part of one side of a much larger carved marble relief that likely depicted the Persian creation god Mithras flanked by his two attendants and torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates, surrounded by depictions of the twelve signs of the zodiac. This fragment shows one of the attendants holding his torch downward and parts of the zodiac signs for Capricorn, Sagittarius, and Scorpio.

When this object arrived in the conservation lab, conservators carefully documented the condition in photographs, diagrams, and written reports. While examining the surface closely, conservators noticed faint traces of colorful pigments on the figure of the attendant.  Traces of bright blue pigment were identified in the folds of the tunic and leggings.  Faint remains of pink or red pigment were seen on the belt and hem of the tunic, as well as in the nostril of the goat Capricorn. And small specks of gold leaf were found on the heel of the figure’s shoe.

Using an imaging technique called visible induced infrared fluorescence photography [discussed in “Cartonnage:  Fragments of a Mummy Wrapping Part II”], conservators identified the blue pigment as Egyptian blue, an ancient synthetic pigment used throughout the Roman Empire.

The reddish pigment could not be conclusively identified using non-destructive methods, but it is possible that it is a preparation of madder root, a dye that can be used to create pink or red pigments.

 

Though only traces of gilding remain, the surfaces of the shoe are stained a purplish color that may be caused by gold oxides, a type of gold corrosion that may form over long periods of time when objects are buried in the ground.  Similar staining is present on the torch held by the attendant, which might suggest that it also was originally gilded.

Interestingly, the surfaces with traces of pigments or gilding appear to have been intentionally left rough by the sculptor, perhaps so the paint and gold leaf would better adhere to the surfaces.  The neck and hand of the figure are polished very smooth, and have no traces of pigment.  This suggests that the smooth white surface of the marble was used to represent the attendant’s skin.

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This color reconstruction is speculative, but it gives some indication of how this relief may have appeared when it was first made.

Stop by the Ancient Art galleries on the second floor and take a closer look at the Attendant of Mithras with signs of the zodiac.