High-Tech Lights Bring Color Back to the Met’s Temple of Dendur

Experimental lighting display Color the Temple, Scene 1, on view Friday and Saturday evenings (5 to 9 p.m.) through March 19, at The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Filip Wolak

Experimental lighting display Color the Temple, Scene 1 at The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Filip Wolak)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sandstone Temple of Dendur is a fan favorite among visitors to the museum. But what many who enter the temple’s preserved chambers don’t know is that its elaborate carvings and hieroglyphs were once colorfully painted.

Now, an experimental lighting display created by the Met’s MediaLab in conjunction with the Egyptian Art Department will give visitors a chance to see the the temple in its original glory, as it may have appeared on the banks of the Nile River when it was first erected 2,000 years ago.

Color the Temple is a light installation created using projection mapping, a digital technology that utilizes the surface of a building or structure as a large-scale canvas for projecting imagery.

“We were interested in using projection mapping to tell a story through art,” MediaLab manager Marco Castro Cosio told the Observer.

The project began with research from Egyptian Art department fellow Erin Peters and two MediaLab interns, Maria Paula Saba and Matt Felson, in 2013. Together, the team created the installation as a way to restore the long-lost painted detail to the building without altering the physical surface.

The Temple of Dendur dates to 15 B.C. and was constructed during the Roman period. During that time, cultural influence from the Roman empire flourished in the region, bringing bright and colorful accents to friezes on government buildings and religious structures.

“What is distinctive about the colors of this time (the Roman time) is the change from traditional Egyptian colors: browns, greens and yellows gave way to rainbow hues,” said Marsha Hill, curator of Egyptian Art.

According to Ms. Hill, there were only a few examples of documentation from after the mid-1800s that indicated traces of color on the temple. After centuries in the desert, and a rise in severe flooding along the Nile in the 19th and 20th centuries, the temple’s original paint faded. (The entire complex was gifted to the Met in 1967 after UNESCO led a campaign to save it from being completely submerged by the river.)

However, evidence found in an early survey of the temple’s interior and in reports from other temples found in the region—the Temple of Isis at Philae and the Temple of Hathor at Dendera—were still enough to point Ms. Peters and MediaLab staff in the right direction. In a post on the MediaLab’s blog, the team explains how painted examples from the Met’s collections, such as a painted column capital from the Temple of Amun at Hibis, were also used as inspiration.

For the MediaLab’s installation, a single scene was chosen on the Temple’s outer wall, depicting the Roman emperor Augustus as a pharaoh making an offering to the Egyptian deities Horus and Hathor.

According to Ms. Hill, the scene’s carvings were impressively intact and its proximity on the Southernmost wall of the temple—away from direct sunlight—made it ideal to project onto.

Ms. Hill said she hopes future projects might expand to other scenes carved on the Temple—or maybe even one day cover the temple in its entirety for an evening.

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Color the Temple will be on view every Friday and Saturday from 5-9 p.m. at the Temple of Dendur, through March 19.

High-Tech Lights Bring Color Back to the Met’s Temple of Dendur