Temple of Dendur’s Lost Colors Brought to Life at the Met
As depicted in popular culture, ancient Egypt is awash with the color beige. A trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art would seem to reflect that notion: The Temple of Dendur, with its weatherworn sandstone, could fit in naturally with the earth tones of “Aida” or “The Mummy.”
But Egyptologists know that this temple, like many others of the ancient world, was painted with vivid colors and patterns. In “Color the Temple,” a marriage of research and projection-mapping technology, visitors to the Met can now glimpse what the Temple of Dendur may have looked like in its original, polychromatic form more than 2,000 years ago.
The Met’s MediaLab has installed a projector that fills in the temple’s carvings with color. Through March 19, one section of the structure’s south side is on view: a scene of the Roman emperor Augustus, dressed as a pharaoh and making an offering to the deities Hathor and Horus. Because the sun would wash out the projector’s light (the gallery has floor-to-ceiling windows), the scene is illuminated on Friday and Saturday evenings, when the Met offers extended hours.
Ron Jenkins, 63, a theater professor at Wesleyan University, visited the Temple of Dendur on Friday with his 4-year-old son, Nicander. Mr. Jenkins said that he might have heard before that Egyptian temples were painted, but he was surprised by how rich and fresh the colors appeared in person. “You feel closer to the creators,” he said. “It’s not just dead stone.”
The stone has long appeared lifeless to the naked eye. Threatened by its location on the banks of the Nile, the temple was subjected to centuries of annual flooding that stripped away the painted exterior. Still, in a 1906 survey Aylward Blackman, the British Egyptologist, wrote about painted scenes on the temple’s interior walls; he even drew diagrams that later proved handy for the Met. By the 1920s, Dendur was flooded nine months of the year, which contributed to further erosion.
In the mid-1960s, Unesco led a salvage campaign that eventually moved the temple to the United States, and President Lyndon B. Johnson gave it to the Met in 1967. By then, no visible color remained. “We tried to find paint,” said Marsha Hill, a curator in the Met’s Egyptian art department, “but so far, nothing.” Even using imaging technology, the Met has been unable to detect any color.
But bringing this temple’s colors to life became increasingly possible with the advent of the MediaLab and the arrival in 2013 of Erin Peters, then a fellow in the Met’s Egyptian art department and a doctoral candidate whose research included ancient polychromy.
Ms. Peters helped provide information on how the Temple of Dendur could have looked when it was constructed around 15 B.C. Guiding her were Mr. Blackman’s survey, as well as illustrated, colored temples in the Napoleon-era publications “Description de l’Égypte.” The publications depicted brilliant paint inside the Temple of Hathor, from the same period as the Temple of Dendur.
Eventually, Ms. Hill said, the Met arrived at a safe, confident idea of how the scene currently on view may have looked: Augustus in a white kilt, Horus colored a rich blue and Hathor with white skin and wearing purple. “But,” she said, “in the Roman period, they started doing pretty wonderful things with paint.” Kilts could have been colored with patterns, for example, or depictions of battle scenes. And the paint may have been finished with a wax or varnish to look bejeweled, she added.
The MediaLab created alternate projections for those other possibilities, including one in which the entire temple is painted with a white background. Marco Castro Cosio, manager of the MediaLab, said the different patterns would be on view. His team can change the display to show the various options and to highlight objects in the scene — a useful tool for talks and tours.
Mr. Castro said that visitors could expect projection mapping to appear elsewhere at the Met. He would even like to color the north side of the Temple of Dendur so people in Central Park could see it through the windows. “We’d love to do all of the scenes,” he said. But, he added, creating this first one took two years, and “it’s a big temple.”