By GREG COOK  |  December 9, 2007

Athena, in a snake-fringed cape, presides over Greek heroes and foreign enemies in a partial reconstruction of the 5th-century-BC pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina. A Greek archer wears a helmet and breastplate decorated with a simple rectilinear pattern. The subdued design of his clothing contrasts strikingly with a foreign archer in a pointed cap and suit boldly patterned with lions and diamonds. This guy may represent the Trojan Paris, whose kidnapping of Helen set off the Trojan War and who brought down the Greek warrior Achilles by firing an arrow into his vulnerable heel.

The Renaissance rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures also inspired the comeback of the nude. “The Greeks were really obsessed with the male nude body,” says Ebbinghaus. They equated nudity with beauty, virtue, and heroism. In sculptures, armor sometimes suggests nudity, as in three plaster copies here of a 5th-century-BC torso outfitted in a breastplate featuring a navel. But Greek warriors — who actually wore breastplates, helmets, and shin armor in combat — were frequently depicted nude in battle scenes. A re-creation of the “Alexander” Sarcophagus, from about 320 BC, shows Greek warriors buck-naked save for some helmets, shields, and capes, while their Persian enemies sport brightly striped and patterned tunics, pants, and coats. The Persians’ elaborate garb suggests how the Greeks viewed them after they defeated them: a people made girly and weak by luxury. Here the reconstructed color helps make plain the prejudices of the Greeks and Romans, and in turn asks us to consider our own.

“GODS IN COLOR” can be seen at the Sackler Museum (Harvard University, 485 Broadway, Cambridge) through January 20, 2008. Greg Cook can be reached at gcook30@hotmail.com.

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