Seeing the Past in a New Light

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The Temple of Dendur Comes Alive in Color


  • The Temple of Dendur's original colors conjured by curatorial research and digital techniques. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • An image of the Priestess Tagerem from the Dynasty of Ptolemy (300–250 B.C.) resides within the temple. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Temple of Dendur, detail. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • A detail of the colors illuminating the Temple of Dendur through March 19. Photo: Adel Gorgy

How do you enliven something people have been looking at for 2,000 years? The Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to shine a new light on the Temple of Dendur. Egyptologists at the Met put their knowledge of artistic styles and techniques together with the digital wizardry of the museum’s MediaLab and are illuminating the ancient structure with bright, lively colors. The results can be seen Friday and Saturday evenings through March 19.

Though we’ve come to know them in their monochromatic gravitas, a great many sculptures in antiquity, like those on the temple, were originally painted with ruby red lips, thick locks of dark hair, and whatever was the to-die-for color of current fashion. The practice was meant to make the works more lifelike, more recognizable and relatable. There’s probably no painting that could make falcon-headed Horus seem human, but he’s certainly never looked better.

An interesting thing happened after a few minutes of looking at the tinted image. It was impossible to resist painting the rest with my mind’s eye. Instantly, memories of necklaces embedded with carnelian, lapis and turquoise set the palette for my imagination, and the whole structure came alive in a way I’d never anticipated. I couldn’t help but see Aten’s sun disk on a lintel atop a doorway as deep red and its spreading wings in shades of green. In its day, this little temple from a dusty outpost south of Aswan would have put Times Square on a Saturday night to shame.

Stepping inside the temple brought an altogether different experience and realization. A stunning fragment of a figure poised on a pedestal and lit as though magically, reminded me that, though this is among the great works of art in the world, it was also a place of worship. Even the fact that a small group crowded in with us felt right, as when a quieting and a sense of wonder washes over a community joined in worship to address higher powers. Together we stood in silence, considering a presence we could not hope to understand, but couldn’t resist gazing upon.

Sometimes, things we’ve seen countless times, we hardly look at anymore. Sometimes the most important things are the ones we take for granted. This time, the Met has given us a chance to see one of the Met’s, the city’s and the world’s masterpieces in a whole new light.

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