Paint like an Egyptian

I knew that ancient sculptors would paint their statues, rather than leaving them as plain stone, as we usually see them — the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for instance, is adorned on the outside with classical-style sculptures painted in lifelike colors, and they are amazing. It’s too bad the colors of winged Nike and Venus de Milo and all those statuary busts aren’t restored as well.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art is doing something interesting, though. Egyptian art was also painted in bright colors, so what the Met is doing with the Temple of Dendur is painting it with light, using projection mapping, to hint at what it looked like in its glory days.

Gorgeous. I want to see it. I want a time machine so I can really see what it was like, too.


  1. Gorogh, Lounging Peacromancer says

    Gorgeous. I want to see it. I want a time machine so I can really see what it was like, too.


    That said, I vaguely recall someone redo the paint on some Greek or even Egyptian statues, and they looked rather weird. Since they had to make due with the available pigments, the skin was yellow or something, just very strange. But the above, that is great.

  2. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Agreed, this is great. No damage is done to the art and yet we can see it in a new (or rather, very old) way.
    +1 for modern technology

  3. opposablethumbs says

    Brilliant, to do it with light – they can make any changes they need to in the light (oops!) of such new information that might come to light (sorry!) in future, and all without touching the original :-) Talk about a light touch (I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m really sorry just not quite sorry enough but I won’t do it again (until next time)).

  4. corwyn says

    Personally, I want to see what the pyramids looked like with a brand spanking new layer of white limestone on the outside. Must have been blinding.

  5. cartomancer says

    There is considerable debate over both how much classical statuary was originally painted and how realistic or exaggerated the paint schemes generally were. It is unlikely that absolutely all statues and carvings were painted. Bronzes, for instance, show no signs of having been painted, and much Roman funerary sculpture wasn’t. It is possible that painted statues were mainly for big, expensive public building projects, while the more modest private commissions were usually bare. Bright colours were expensive in the ancient world. Blues in particular, since blue was really only available from Lapis Lazuli, though Spanish Red was a well-known luxury pigment in the Roman world. It is probable that painted statuary would have been seen as a kind of extravagant conspicuous excess for private individuals. Cicero certainly writes to his friend Atticus about how his agents are having trouble finding him the right Greek statues to decorate his library with (you can’t have Maenads in a library, you need Muses!), and he was no stranger to projecting the image of wealth and taste. On the other hand statues carved from unusual or expensive stone like Porphyry were also signs of wealth, and you wouldn’t want to paint those and conceal the stone from view.

  6. chris61 says

    My spouse and I wanted to get married in (or in front of) the Temple of Dendur. Sadly, the Met wouldn’t allow either.

  7. Rich Woods says

    @Corwyn #4:

    Personally, I want to see what the pyramids looked like with a brand spanking new layer of white limestone on the outside. Must have been blinding.

    Indeed. Polished limestone would have been an excellent choice to reflect the heat of the desert sun away from all that stored grain.

  8. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    The Terracotta Army was vibrant.

    Originally, the figures were also painted with bright pigments, variously coloured pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white and lilac.

    Image: Recreated colored terracotta warriors

  9. edmond says

    Fantastic idea, but… are tripods really that expensive? Put the camera on a table or something.

  10. thebookofdave says

    Every rediscovery of antediluvian technology simply fills me with awe. Noah had quite an impressive bag of tricks.

  11. unclefrogy says

    there is this contrast between what we see now as the classical as being strong but restrained and elegant and what we know through analysis as demonstrated here that in those classical times it was what we would characterized now as loud and garish those Egyptian wall carving give the impression that they would not look out of place on the cartoon network right next to Bob’s Burgers or South Park. decidedly funky.
    that contrast seems to have some significance that might deserve further thought and study.
    uncle frogy

  12. says

    I wonder if they could do something similar with smaller artifacts? Light can damage them (and a repaint is probably out of the question if you ever want to do historical research), but projecting a hologram side-by-side with one could be interesting.

  13. magistramarla says

    If you get the chance to visit Memphis, Tennessee, I highly recommend a visit to the replica of the Parthenon. The statues are painted as historians think they might have looked in Antiquity.
    The husband and I had a lot of fun there several years back when I attended an American Classical League Convention in Memphis. Imagine a large group of Latin teachers and their spouses dressed in togas and stolas, enjoying an after-hours cocktail party in the Parthenon, at the feet of the reconstructed statue of Athena. Good times!

  14. dustbunny says

    Do you mean the one here in Nashville, TN? I was just there a little while ago enjoying a beautiful spring day. It really is an amazing replica!

  15. sugarfrosted says

    This is similar to the fact that people used to think that roman statues didn’t have arms. It’s just that they don’t have arms now because they broke off.

  16. magistramarla says

    Damn! I messed up again. I can’t remember anything right anymore, and the last time that I said that it was in Nashville, someone else told me that it was in Memphis, so that’s what I remembered.
    The Parthenon replica and the park surrounding it is a beautiful place to visit. I’ve seen the real thing in Athens, too.
    It was hot that day, and much more difficult to get to.

  17. methuseus says

    For everyone interested, Disney does something similar with a huge circular Mayan (I think) stone. They display it without and with the colors projected, with a timer controlling it. It’s really interesting, but I never spent too much time with it, having small kids whose attentions wander. Unfortunately I cannot find anything about the exhibit on the Internet, as everyone is more concerned with the dining and rides in the Mexico area rather than the cultural things.

  18. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @methuseus #17:

    Disney does something similar with a huge circular Mayan (I think) stone.

    Video: YouTube – Epcot’s Calendar Stone

    Inside the Mexico Pavilion at Epcot, stands a reproduction of an Aztec calendar. Using projection mapping, it goes back and forth colorizing how it would’ve looked thousands [hundreds] of years ago.

    Article: Wikipedia – Aztec calendar stone

    Most scholars think that the stone was carved some time between 1502 and 1521, though some believe that it is several decades older than that.