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Colored Gods and Painted Saints

When we all think of sculpture, we think of ancient statuary, perhaps those of the Greeks, or the Egyptians, or the carvings and reliefs of saints upon the tympanum of a Gothic or Romanesque cathedral. All of them are rather naked, referring to some of the nude subjects, but also to the fact that the only color on these statues is that of the stone itself. Greek and Roman statues are known for the pristine, white, marble surfaces, while Egyptian statuary is light brown from the color of the limestone and sandstone that is abundant along the Nile. However, recent developments in forensic technology have now revealed that these statues were not as pristine as most think of them to be.


What got me interested in the subject was Caroline Bruzelius, a professor of art history at Duke University. I had the pleasure to hear her give a lecture about updating museums to suit a more technologically adept population. At the Nasher Museum at Duke University, there are four reliefs of saints or apostles that are hanging on the wall. They were originally placed on the outside of a church near the portal to greet churchgoers as they entered. New evidence now shows that many of these reliefs and statues were brightly painted. Some statues and reliefs seen in large churches and cathedrals in Europe are still painted, and have been preserved to maintain the effect that these colors once had on medieval Christians. So Bruzelius has initiated a program at Duke called the Lives of Things, where the museum tries to show the many aspects, or lives, of a work of art rather than just let it sit on a pedestal or hang on the wall to be gawked at by visitors. For the saint reliefs, Duke University did this by wirelessly connecting two iPads to a projector, so visitors can color the hair, garments, and halos of the saints, making them bright, colorful, and more accurate to how they may have looked a few hundred years ago. You can color in the saints yourselves in an online version of the exhibit by clicking here.


However, bringing statues back to life has not been confined to schools and college museums. Recently, one of my favorite places, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has begun to show the previous lives of some of the works in its collection. One of the most famous pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest part of their Egyptian collection, known as the Temple of Dendur. It takes up an entire, enormous room with a large, slanted, glass wall to let as much light in as possible. The temple itself was built by the Romans upon the orders of the Emperor Augustus to honor the Egyptian gods Isis and Horus. It was donated to the United States by the Egyptian government in 1965 to recognize American assistance in rescuing and relocating several ancient Egyptian sites so that they wouldn’t be submerged when the Aswan High Dam was completed in 1970. There were once plans to reassemble the temple on the banks of the Potomac River in Washington D.C. However, the temple was disassembled and given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has been on display in its current room since 1978.

The Met, like the Nasher Museum at Duke, has installed a projector near the temple, so that the original colors of the reliefs that are carved into the side of the temple can once again be seen. This new project is creatively called ‘Color the Temple’, which will be available to Met visitors until mid- to late March. As someone who as visited the Temple of Dendur many times, I have to say that, until now, no one was really paying attention to the reliefs on the exterior walls of the temple. Most visitors were fixated on the columns, the gate at the front of the temple, the large sphinx statue to the side of the temple, or the many names of passing European, North African and Middle Eastern travelers who have carved their names and the year into the rock of the temple. But now, people can see the gods Isis and Horus accepting an offering from the Emperor Augustus, shown in the traditional robes of an Egyptian pharaoh.

So, the next time you see any statue, relief, or sculpture in a museum, don’t think of it as a plain, white marble piece. Think of its past life or lives. Think of what color the hair may have been, or how the robes might have been decorated. Yeah, the color arrangement may have been gaudy or loud by modern standards, but at least the once bland piece now has a spark of life that its creator had once given to it.

About Nathan Scheer

Nathan Scheer is contributor to The Artoholic and a webmaster for TheArtExperts.org, who is currently studying History and International Studies at Elon University in North Carolina. He has also worked for Rehs Galleries, Inc. and Rehs Contemporary Galleries, Inc., which specialize in 19th and 20th Century European paintings and contemporary academic paintings, respectively, as well as Christie's Rockefeller Center.


One thought on “Colored Gods and Painted Saints

  1. Fascinating as usual. I’ve seen the Temple of Dendur. What great insight you bring to it. Thanks. Keep writing. Murrie B

    Posted by Murrie | March 1, 2016, 12:14 pm

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