On my last day in Oxford I had enough free time to visit the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the earliest public museum in the country, and, although it isn’t nearly the size of the British Museum, it has its share of very important artifacts. While there I came upon the exhibit called “Gods in Colour.” The display was inspired by the fact that ancient Roman statues—and likely those of other ancient cultures as well—were often painted. The elements have worn away much of the decoration, but traces of various chemicals have indicated what hues were likely used to paint these public icons of divinity. We tend to think of classical society as all white marble and stoic formality, but the reality was likely much more colorful. Many god and goddess statues from ancient West Asia also have traces of paint, although in general they were smaller in the various kingdoms of the Levant than the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the latter of which is sadly falling victim to modern day iconoclasts). The Romans weren’t the only ones to see in color.
Seeing these representations of gods in color reminded me of my first exposure to liturgical Christianity. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist tradition, we certainly didn’t have images about (although one of our churches had a pastoral fresco on one wall). The United Methodist Church, in which I spent my teens and early twenties, had adapted the liturgy of its Anglican parent church, but not the iconographic tradition. When I first saw churches with painted crucifixes and states of Mary, I was taken aback at how powerful they could be. Like most ancients, I realized that these weren’t the gods themselves, but they still conveyed much of what the liturgy was communicating through words and music. One priest explained them as crutches for those who needed help to imagine the divine.
Having seen what images can do, I object to the use of the word “idol.” People are visual animals. We rely heavily on our sense of sight, and our religious sensibilities tell us to look for the gods our minds tell us must be invisible. It is difficult to focus on that which we cannot see. Today we have images both in the natural color of their medium and resplendent with color. We spend hours before the computer screen with its endless array of pixels of all colors. We still think of our gods in full array of saturated hues. In ancient times they tended to be made of stone, but we tend to use another form of silicon, apparently, to get the same effect.