Classicist Claims White Marble Statues Lead to Racism; Plus: Scott Wolter Refines His Templar Claims
Last week Vice News ran a segment about ancient statues and racism in which the HBO program discussed a controversy that arose when Classicist Sarah Bond published an essay in Forbes this past spring, and another in Hyperallergic, describing the fact that Greco-Roman statues were once brightly painted and not stark white as they currently appear now that the paint has rubbed off thanks to the ravages of time.
This fact has been known since at least the eighteenth century, but the influential Classicist Johann Joachim Winckelmann essentially shut down research into ancient paint jobs because he believed that the lack of color created a Platonic ideal of the perfect artistic form. “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well,” he wrote, with an undeniably racist undercurrent. However, his overarching point was essentially the same as that of the cinephiles who praise back and white film over color, arguing that restrictions on visual information allow the viewer to focus on form rather than decoration. Nevertheless, the idea that statues were painted has been widely known since the Victorian era (I have a set of tobacco cards showing Classical statues with paint jobs), and every few years another Classical scholar “reveals” the fact to the public, to great shock from the amnesiac media. There was a big flap about it in the early and mid-2000s when Vinzenz Brinkmann began reconstructing the likely original colors.
Anyway, this year it’s Bond’s turn to cause the vapors among those who have never read a book on the subject, but more for the political ends to which she has applied what began as an artistic argument. Bond, you see, believes that museums and the media depict Classical statues in bare marble not because that is how they currently exist and how photographs would capture them but because it reinforces white supremacy.
In April, she wrote: “So what does it say to viewers today when museums display gleaming white statues? What does it say when the only people of color one is likely to see appear on a ceramic vessel? Intentional or not, museums present viewers with a false color binary of the ancient world. One that, in its curation, perpetuates this skewed representation of antiquity.” A couple of months later, she was much blunter: “Most museums and art history textbooks contain a predominantly neon white display of skin tone when it comes to classical statues and sarcophagi. This has an impact on the way we view the antique world. The assemblage of neon whiteness serves to create a false idea of homogeneity — everyone was very white! — across the Mediterranean region.”
She explicitly claimed that white statues support white supremacy and Republican politicians and therefore need to be opposed in the name of diversity. “It provides further ammunition for white supremacists today, including groups like Identity Europa, who use classical statuary as a symbol of white male superiority,” she wrote. “It also continues to buttress the false construction of Western civilization as white by politicians like Steve King.”
Bond raised the ire of conservatives by calling on museums and the media to display a greater variety of ancient skin tones to counter the narrative perpetrated by the whiteness of the marble, either by displaying recreations of the paint or by projecting paint colors onto ancient statues. White statues, she told Vice, are “a fiction we really like telling ourselves.” Writers from conservative publications like The National Review and The Blaze issued angry denunciations, and Bond received death threats from alt-right types who had been triggered by Bond’s claims.
The Vice segment presented Bond’s views without criticism or context, despite the political firestorm noted above, presumably because Vice itself has a political agenda to push.
This is, frankly, a little silly. If marble statues seem too “white,” what then do we make of bronze statues, which in antiquity were as popular as marble? Or the purple porphyry statue of the Tetrarchs? Or those in deep black basalt? Or in ruddy terra cotta? Ancient statues had many different colors of material used for them. Surely, we cannot blame them for the racism Bond sees in the fact that more marble statues survived than bronze. Yet at the same time, Bond did not ask that Egyptian statues or those of the Mesoamericans receive the same treatment. That’s because under the guise of attacking Western society’s political agenda, she has one of her own to push.
“I think that Western civilization itself is a cultural construction, something that has been used to argue for the superiority of Europeans and Western civilization and thus to connect the U.S. to Europe and its cultural heritage,” Bond told Vice News. She also denied to Art Forum that her comments were motivated by liberalism.
Bond’s argument is that museums and the media favor white marble because of unintentional racism, identifying their whiteness with the presumed whiteness of the Greeks and Romans, a presumption belied by facts, since the ancients were neither lily white nor homogenous. But while few would argue that scholars should deny the diversity of the ancient world or misrepresent ancient art, Bond is not actually looking just to represent reality as it was. Instead, she claimed that a primary focus of Classical studies should be to evangelize for the “vast palette of skin tones” in the Classical world, an argument that has much less to do with Greco-Roman Antiquity than with fighting modern political battles by proxy, something that, ironically, unites Bond with the earlier generations she despises for doing the same thing from an unsavory socio-political perspective.
And Now for Something Completely Different
It’s probably a sign of how far former TV personality Scott Wolter’s star has fallen that he dropped a new blog post on Sunday, and almost no one noticed. The subject of his current posting is ostensibly the anniversary of the death of Richard Nielsen, his onetime writing partner who later publicly broke with him over some of Wolter’s more extreme interpretations of the Kensington Rune Stone. The remainder of the blog post simply reiterates old material Wolter has been over many times since roughly 2009, in which Wolter attempts to assert that irregularities found on the Kensington Rune Stone imply that there is a secret code spelling out the word “GRAL,” referring, he believes, to the Holy Grail, which for him is the secret bloodline of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
The only interesting part of the posting came in the comments when Wolter made some new claims about his fantasy of Knights Templar exploring the central United States in the fourteenth century:
Yes, we have new information we have not yet released to the public regarding the KRS party and much more. No, the Templars who cam[e] were not missionaries in any way; like their Native American brethren they venerated a feminine Deity first and foremost; there is absolutely no question about that. You can put to rest the notion of the Roman Catholic Church being involved in their mission out of your head. The RCC were the ideological mortal enemies of the Templars and Native Americans.
The last sentence is the one to note because it seemingly contradicts Wolter’s prior claims about Templar and “proto-Templar” activities in North America, specifically his earlier claims that the “proto-Templars” crossed the United States to colonize Arizona, that the Templars issued a warning to the residents of Cahokia that prompted its collapse, and that the Templars buried secret treasure somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. But to all of this, we must also add the allegations Wolter made in his book Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers that the Knights Templar also explored Mexico and Peru and colonized both. Granted, we never quite get a master timeline that states exactly when each fictitious event was meant to take place, so it’s entirely possible that some of these claims are a sort of moveable feast that can be relocated in time to whenever the newest claims need them.
I can’t imagine how he came to the conclusion that the Knights Templar worshiped a goddess, since there is no document to that effect, nor any such allegation from the Church or any other enemy of the Order. But when you get to make things up and invent your own fantasy about secret goddesses and hidden Jesus bloodlines, you don’t really need evidence to that effect. Wolter didn’t invent the claim, of course. He is merely copying from a series of authors who spoke of the “Goddess-worshipping Templars” in the 1990s, constructing fantasias based on few facts in the wake of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, the ur-text of the goddess/bloodline genre. The whole warrant for it traces back to the Templars’ alleged veneration of Mary Magdalene, whom fringe writers identify with Isis or some other pagan goddess via the so-called Black Madonna statues. The argument ran that such statues were holdovers from paganism and symbolized not the Virgin but the Magdalene. All of this tied into local folklore in Provence, attested from the Middle Ages, that the Magdalene had lived in France and was venerated as an important saint in the region. By the nineteenth century, the first writers began to suggest that the Provencal Magdalene was the wife of Jesus and the mother of his child. Wolter’s current fantasies are secondhand, to which he adds neither depth nor insight.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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