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Light Projections Bring Color and Lost Glory to the Temple of Dendur

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“Color the Temple,” a tool to digitally restore color on the Temple of Dendur with projected light (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

We recognize the Temple of Dendur today as a monochromatic sandstone structure, but its walls, like those of most ancient Egyptian temples, were originally painted bright colors. Time and weather have scrubbed the temple of its many pigments, similarly to how the elements have whitened so many sculptures from antiquity. Now, a small section of the outer, southern wall of the Roman-period temple appears close to its original form during the reign of Augustus Caesar, thanks to the help of light projections. For the next month and a half, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which received the two-room temple from Egypt in 1965, is shining a light on a particular carved scene in order to revive the millennia-old building and show visitors that the sands along the Nile were once awash in color.

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Detail of figures on the Temple of Dendur (click to enlarge)

Dubbed “Color the Temple,” the project was conceived by former interns at the Met Medialab Matt Felsen and Maria Paula Saba, and completed in collaboration with former Met Fellow Erin Peters in the Department of Egyptian Art. The scene they chose to focus on is a detailed relief showing Augustus, depicted as Pharaoh, offering wine to the ancient, horn-headed goddess Isis and the falcon-headed god Horus. Columns of hieroglyphs run between them, representing dialogue and filling the vignette with intricate symbols. When colored, the scene really does come alive: the emperor appears as a tan figure, while the deities are rendered in white and striking blue, their features suddenly animated; the hieroglyphs each correspond to a specific hue, making for a dynamic background.

While the team gravitated towards that particular trio because it presented incredibly well-preserved carvings, they also realized that working on the south wall would yield the best results: the surface faces away from the glass walls of the Sackler Wing, receiving the least disturbance from natural light. The public projections occur only during the evenings on weekends.

Coloring the detailed reliefs with as much accuracy as possible was, of course, challenging, as the team outlined in a blog post on the Met’s website. Researchers attempted to use visible-induced luminescence imaging to find traces of original paint on that particular scene, but it proved largely futile, so they were essentially starting from scratch. They looked at early archaeological reports, such as diagrams drawn by British Egyptologist Aylward M. Blackman, who recorded the paint he saw on the temple’s interior walls, giving them a general idea of the sorts of pigments with which they should be working. The comprehensive Description de l’Egypte — the work of scholars who traveled with Napoleon to the country at the end of the 18th century — was also a helpful source, providing illustrations of the Temple of Isis at Philae and the Temple of Hathor at Dendera. Naturally, the team also relied on objects from the Met’s own collection to shape the final color palette: studying a painted column capital from the Temple of Amun at Hibis, they learned that workers in ancient Egypt originally applied a white gesso to the stone before laying on the paint; Charles K. Wilkinson’s “Seth Slaying a Serpent, Temple of Amun at Hibis,” a tempera-on-paper work, shows a vividly colored scene that includes a number of hieroglyphs similar to those carved into the Temple of Dendur.

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Recreated scene on the Temple of Dendur

To kick off the project’s digital stage, the team first recreated the scene with hi-resolution photographs, then overlaid them with vector-based images. They then filled in the shapes as one would the pictures of a coloring book, making sure to compare the digital colors with surviving pigment samples to reduce disparities between the screen and the physical. Since the Temple’s walls are made of sandstone, the researchers had to also spend time further tweaking the produced designs, which had been first translated into light on a white wall.

“Color the Temple” marks the first time the Met has experimented with digital projection, which, as a nondestructive tool, is an increasingly popular way for people to restore works of art to their original condition. Last year witnessed two similar projects: to return color to a partially damaged series of murals by Rothko, conservators at Harvard projected representations over the originals, and Chinese artists paid tribute to the lost Buddhas of Bamiyan, which the Taliban destroyed in 2001, by creating 3D projections of them. The recreated section at the Temple of Dendur is relatively small and, like the Rothko and Buddhas of Bamiyan projects, will never replace the original structure. But it’s a worthy gesture that allows us to revisit the past, parts of which we may have forgotten.

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Detail of the recreated scene on the Temple of Dendur
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Detail of the recreated scene on the Temple of Dendur
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“Color the Temple,” a tool to digitally restore color on the Temple of Dendur with projected light
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“Color the Temple,” a tool to digitally restore color on the Temple of Dendur with projected light
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The Temple of Dendur
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The Temple of Dendur
Fragments from the Temple of Dendur with traces of original paint
Fragments from reliefs that once decorate temples and halls at Armana show traces of how stone would have been painted

Color the Temple” continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on Friday and Saturday evenings through March 19. 

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