“I am dying, Egypt, dying.”
—Marc Antony (83 B.C.–30 B.C.) from
1606’s Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
By contrast, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) something is coming brilliantly to life in living color! It is the otherwise dull-looking sandstone Temple of Dendur, a visitor favorite at the MMA. Temporarily it has a new look; but really it is an old look. What most of its 21st-century explorers do not know is that the temple’s elaborate carvings and hieroglyphs were once colorfully painted.
The MMA’s MediaLab, working with its Egyptian Art Department, has developed an experimental lighting display. It offers museum-goers an opportunity to see a portion of the temple in its original, polychromed glory. The entire structure would have looked like this on the banks of the River Nile after it was erected 2,000 years ago.
Titled Color the Temple, this light installation has been created using projection mapping, digital technology that treats the surface of a building or structure as a large canvas for projecting an image.
The project began in 2013. The MMA’s Department of Egyptian Art and the MediaLab teamed up to create the installation as a way to restore the long-lost painted detail without changing the surface.
Dating from 15 B.C. the Temple of Dendur was constructed when Rome ruled Egypt. The Romans’ influence in the region was strong, bringing bright colors to government and religious buildings. Traditionally Egyptian used browns, greens and yellows; this gave way to a rainbow of hues. The Egyptian government gave the temple to the MMA in 1967 at the urging of Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis. UNESCO led the effort to save it from complete submersion by the River Nile after construction of the Aswan Dam.
Little documentation about the temple’s colors exists after the mid-1800s. Following centuries in the desert, and repeated severe flooding of the Nile, the temple’s original paint was lost. The project leaders found evidence of painted surfaces in surveys of the temple’s interior and in reports from other temples from the region—the Temple of Isis at Philae and the Temple of Hathor at Dendera—to point them in the right direction. Painted examples from the MMA’s collection, including a painted column capital from the Temple of Amun at Hibis, also served as guides.
The MediaLab chose a single scene on the Temple’s southern outer wall. In part this was selected because it is away from the wall of windows facing Central Park. What with the building dating from the Roman period, it is appropriate that the scene is the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, depicted as a pharaoh, making an offering to the Egyptian goddess Hathor, who personified joy and motherhood, and to Horus, god of the sky, war and hunting. The MediaLab has suggested that a future project might include other scenes or using projection mapping on the entire temple for an evening.
Because the space where the Temple of Dendur is displayed is flooded with light during the day, Color the Temple will be on view only from 5 to 9 PM, allowing the colors to show up brightly. This unique experience is available during MMA’s evening hours on Friday and Saturday only through March 19th.
Discover an even older ancient Egyptian gift to New York City when you are part of our Central Park Walking Tour.
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT © PHIL DESIERE 2016