Pre-Modern – Polychrome Sculpture

Colour has been a feature of sculpture since antiquity with sculptors using pigments and inlaid eyes to create an illusion of reality.

In antiquity, statues tended to be painted. These have faded over time due to a variety of reasons including burial conditions, natural ageing, exposure to the elements, cleaning and, at times, because the fashion has been to have no colour. In the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque periods colour was still in use to create lifelike figures. This type of polychromy is known as mimetic, from the Greek, mimesis, meaning ‘imitation’. Many medieval figures were originally polychromed.

Until the end of the 15th century limewood sculpture and altarpieces tended to be painted. Colour was significant for sculpture as is highlighted form and worked with changing light.

Polychromy relied on the same techniques as panel painting. The wood was coated with glue size to ensure that the paint would not be absorbed into the wood. Raised areas, such as knots and joints, were covered with textiles or plant fibres. After that several layers of a chalk-based ground were applied to allow for the addition of layers of pigments and metal leaf. Sometimes, at this stage, fine relief was worked into the wood with knives before colour was added.

A relatively limited range of colours was used – azurite, indigo, terre verte, verdigris, madder, vermilion, red lead, carbon and white lead – mainly blue, green, red, black, white and gold leaf. The range of textures was, however, relatively extensive modelled on Renaissance textile surfaces such as satin, damask, velvet, silk and brocade. Within these textures were different surfaces, matt, glossy, metallic, translucent and patterned.

  • Matt surfaces – used for interior faces of drapery and for backgrounds.
  • Glossy surfaces – were painted with a medium of oil or resin.
  • Metallic and gold surfaces – made with gold leaf over red bole.
  • Translucent surfaces – less common, preferred pigments were red or green.
  • Patterned surfaces – sometimes modelled in gesso but tin foil was also used. Foil was stamped in a pattern, gilded, painted and attached to the sculpture.
  • Patterns were finely striated to suggest weave of cloth and pick up different sources of light.

Between 1490-92 Tilman Riemenschnieder created an altarpiece for a church in Münnerstadt. This was the first known altarpiece in monochrome. Polychrome altarpieces continued to be made through to the Baroque period but monochrome carving developed in a new direction. Economically, painting and gilding could be more expensive than carving and, as carving techniques developed, the expertise of the sculptor using either stone or wood alone made it less likely that colour would be used.

Monochrome sculpture was not made of unfinished wood. In any one carving, different pieces of wood could have different shades. To unify the sculpture brown glazes were used. Colour could also be used for the eyes and lips. The loss of colour was less problematical than loss of the coat of gesso which allowed for detail to be added. Sculptors had to work innovatively to create texture on the surfaces and respond to varying conditions of light.

In the 19th century there was a reaction against the use of colour and many figures had the colour removed.


Baxandall, M. (2004) The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany. London: Yale University Press

Chapius, J. Late Medieval German Sculpture: Polychromy and Monchromy. At: (Accessed: 19.04.17)

Getty Museum, The Colour of Life: March 6-June 23, 2008. At: (Accessed: 19.04.17)