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New Audiovisual Presentation Recreates Colorful Ancient Greek Artworks

Ancient Greek artworks
Athena and Herakles black and red figure vessel. Attic bilingual amphora, 520–510 BC. Credit: Bibi Saint-Pol,Public Domain

A new audiovisual presentation which will be part of the gala reopening of the Behrakis Wing of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts recreates the color of the Ancient Greek world in portraying painted statues and the vibrant reds of ancient Greek artworks.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is using all the modern technology at its disposal to augment our appreciation for the artistry of ancient Greece, including the breakthrough of the use of the color red by an Athenian potter known as Andokides.

The museum’s first animated film, “How to Make an Athenian Vase,” produced in partnership with Zedem Media, is a way not only to document this huge breakthrough in the artistic world of Ancient Greece but to show the process to a new generation.

Ancient Greek artworks were colorful, reflecting the vibrant world artists saw around them

As we are aware today, ancient sculptors created their works to be painted, and they were colored with vivid pigments that might even look garish to us in the modern world, including the great statue of Athena Parthenos, which once stood inside the Parthenon.

The new film created by the Museum is one way to reach new audiences by engaging all of their senses, even including sound, to create a more memorable experience for visitors.

The videos will be available in five renovated galleries in the Museum’s George D. and Margo Behrakis Wing for Art of the Ancient World, which will reopen after many months on December 18 of this year.

Five galleries on Level 2 of the Wing create a grand entry to the Museum’s collection of Greek and Roman art—one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world—and a new home for the collection of Byzantine art.

These galleries feature some of the oldest works in the MFA’s collection, yet they tell new stories, reflecting our time through the art of the past. With freshly imagined spaces that include natural light, innovative displays, interactive experiences, and immersive evocations of an ancient Greek temple and a Byzantine church, visitors of all ages can learn about the legacies of these ancient cultures and understand their relevance today.

Other galleries in the Wing to be revealed soon are Early Greek Art, Gods and Goddesses, Roman Portraiture and Byzantine Art.

Adding to the interest in these expansive new exhibits, the new 3-D digital image of the version of the Athena Parthenos statue in the Museum can be accessed using augmented reality via the Museum’s app, and in a fascinating behind-the-scenes video of the process that will be shown in the gallery, according to a new report in the New York Times.

The conservation team at the Museum looked for any traces of pigments on the statue, which has lost most of its original coloring, using specialized lights and photographic tricks along with painstaking chemical analysis.

Then, a digital model of the statue was created by stitching together hundreds of photographs working with the Boston firm Black Math, forming an image of exactly how msshe might have looked to ancient viewers.


MFA’s black and red “bilingual” vessel from Ancient Greece

Like so many ancient sculptures, some parts of the Athena statue have been tragically lost over time; this new, noninvasive technique allows us today to see her as she once was.

The new video presentations also recreate the transformational moment when a talented potter known as Andokides came up with the idea to add the color red to his exquisite pots — rather than continuing to portray all the figures in black.

Incredibly, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has in its collection a pottery vessel that is an example of an early combination of both the traditional black and the new red figures.

The vessel, depicting Hercules driving a bull to be sacrificed, was created 2,500 years ago; as we can see now, its creator experienced an epiphany, causing him to create a new pigment for his pots in the form of red paint.

Alexia Roider, the creative head of Zedem Media, an animation studio based in Cyprus, explained what must have taken place at the time. “Something extraordinary happened to them on that day that changed the course of history.”

In adding different elements to the clay and altering the temperature inside the kiln that fired the vessel, the potter was able to change the colors of the decoration on the pot.

“It’s a very sophisticated technique of pottery making and the strong colors remain until this day,” Roider adds. “The smoke in the kiln gives you the black, and the increase in the temperature brings out the red. There are lots of advanced technologies these days, but they did it with fire and sticks.”

The pot that is displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts is one of only approximately 55 in the entire world that shows both black and red figure painting.

Museum visitors will be immersed in the world of ancient Greece

George Scharoun, the museum’s manager of exhibition and gallery media, tells the Times in an interview “We wanted to portray an epiphany to help visitors appreciate the profound shift from black figure vase painting to red figure vase painting — almost like the shift from black and white to color photography.

“The museum is using the same tools that they use in Hollywood movies to provide new ways to understand and appreciate objects from the past.”

Scharoun stated of the newly-redesigned galleries in the Behrakis Wing “I want visitors to see ancient Greece and Rome as real places, to imagine the living, breathing people who made the objects, and the world they lived in.”

Sound is another important sense that we use in making emotional connections to places; this has not been ignored by the Museum’s curators, who took footage recorded at archaeological sites in Greece this past year, with sound, which will create an effect of total immersion into the world of ancient Greece.

Such new media will be used in the display of a 3-D digital reconstruction of the ancient Temple of Athena at Assos in the Museum.

“You get the same panoramic view of the ocean that the visitors to the ancient temple would have had through a kind of virtual window,” Scharoun noted.

Adding to the complete immersion experience, fortunate visitors to a gallery designed to portray an early Byzantine church, will be able to stand under a golden dome in front of a massive iconostasis while hearing sacred Byzantine music.

“You do have to stretch your imagination to appreciate the depths of time,” Scharoun states, adding “And once you do, you can see the collection in a new way.”

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