There have been a lot of wonderful articles and even exhibits recently on the importance of acknowledging the color shaped premodern societies as much as our interpretations of them. Although we’re accustomed to seeing classical statues of Greek or Roman persons as stark white marble or ancient deities of East Asian cultures in the dark shades of their wooden or clay materials, vivid coloring was an essential part of bringing these figures to life for viewers.
On the Japan side, we have one example of this kind of work that’s gone public in the last few years: a statue of the Buddhist deity Shukongojin from 733 CE that is a treasure of the temple in Todaiji in Nara. A special figure only shown to the public once a year, the Shukongojin figure was studied by researchers of Tokyo University to find pigment fragments and digitally reconstruct the colors. The result is pretty amazing! Here’s a side-by-side of the original and the digital recreation:
It looks like the original Asahi Shimbun article on this project has since moved or been deleted, but you can find some deeper history on the subject of this object at The History Blog.
Though the colors above might seem more flamboyant than intimidating to our modern sensibilities, even now they’re awe-inspiring! Particularly if you’ve ever seen some of these statues in person– they absolutely loom large over the viewer.
The richness of colors and metal accents also demonstrated the divine nature of the figure (and showcased the wealth and power of patrons).
Of course, I can’t help but look at things like this other Shukongojin statue on the left and think about what a more terrifying image he’d be in full color and gold gilding…!