Digital Ancient Art: Technology Provides Glimpse Of What Was, What Might Have Been

The use of digital images is something that, if you think of it at all in an art context, is normally associated with Contemporary Art. We’ve all seen examples in the news of things being projected onto buildings, or weird images in exhibitions that exist only on monitors. Yet in an art history context, the use of digital images can provide us with an experience that is truly enlightening, by showing us things that no longer are, but once were.

Among the most dazzling examples of this is the projection of overlays showing what the original, painted decoration of a Gothic cathedral façade would have looked like. Far from the monochromatic, grey-and-beige faces which they now present to the world, many of these monumental structures were decorated in vivid colors both inside and out. In this, the Medieval Europeans were merely following the example of ancient cultures of the Mediterranean basin, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, who lavishly (and indeed garishly) colored the statuary on both the inside and outside of their buildings.

Back in the late ‘90’s, restorers working at the 13th century Cathedral of Notre Dame d’Amiens, were able to determine what the original, painted color scheme of the West Front, the main façade of the church, would have looked like from remaining painted surface decoration. Amiens is the tallest complete Gothic church in France [N.B. Yes, Beauvais is technically taller, but it is half-collapsed], and its entrance is known for its host of sculptures, with multiple Biblical scenes and dozens of statues of saints. Using digital technology, the Cathedral projects overlays onto the West Front in the evenings during the summer and at Christmastide, which give visitors an idea of what the bright, colorful façade must have looked like in its heyday. You can see a spectacular video of the projection here.


Another use of digital image technology that was recently announced for the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, about half an hour south of Paris. The luxurious castle, built for Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance Nicholas Fouquet, is one of the grandest private residences in France. The main interior element of the château was to be the ceiling of the grand salon, a domed room that is about 60 feet wide and 60 feet high, which was to be covered in an elaborate mythological tableau by the greatest French artist of the period, Charles Le Brun (1619-1690). The ceiling was never completed however, since in 1661 Fouquet fell from grace and was imprisoned for his mishandling of the country’s finances.

Today the visitor to the estate who enters the grand salon will see a ceiling painted with a simple blue sky and a soaring eagle. However, we know from Le Brun’s drawings and contemporary documents what he originally planned to paint on the surface of the ceiling. As reported in The Art Newspaper, current owners Alexandre, Ascanio, and Jean-Charles de Vogüé are now engaged in a fundraising campaign to create a digital projection for the ceiling which would represent, as close as possible, Le Brun’s original intended decoration for the space. Since a full set of engravings for the final plan exist, all the digital artists will need to do, essentially, is color them in; figuring out how to actually project them will be another matter.


Finally, there is the example of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, famously the site of the greatest art theft of the 20th century. The paintings are still missing, and the search to find them remains one of the great, fascinating quests in the area of art crime. Rumors ranging from their destruction to their being held as collateral by the mafia abound, and periodically various theories crop up as to what exactly happened to them, and, if they still exist, where they are today. The frames from which the paintings were cut still hang, empty, throughout the museum as a testament to their loss.

Now, a Boston-based technology firm has created “Hack the Heist”, which offers visitors to the Gardner the chance to see part of the museum as it was before the robbery. Using digital imaging, app users inside the museum can “see” some of the missing pictures placed back in the spaces where they once hung. Although not officially sanctioned by the museum, the app continues to keep alive public interest in solving this mystery, with the hope that, one day, the paintings will return.



17th Century Masterpiece Discovered at the Hotel Ritz in Paris

There has always been something very special indeed about the Hotel Ritz in Paris.  Whether it was Hemingway and Fitzgerald getting plastered and arguing in the bar, or Count Esterházy bringing in a troupe of Hungarian gypsy musicians to serenade him and his dinner guests – a moment lovingly referenced in the woefully under-appreciated Audrey Hepburn/Gary Cooper classic “Love in the Afternoon” – this grandest of grand hotels has played host to numerous famous people and important events.  The Nazis took over the Ritz as the headquarters for the Luftwaffe in World War II, while Princess Diana dined at the hotel just before the car crash which took her life.

The Ritz closed in August for a two-year complete renovation, and as part of this many of the historic rooms were temporarily emptied of their fine French furnishings.  One of these was the suite where the legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel lived for over three decades.  In the process of cleaning out her former living space, thanks to the keen eye of a French art historian who had been viewing the rooms before their closure, the hotel has managed to bring about the re-discovery of a major work of Baroque painting.

Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) was the preferred court painter of Louis XIV; in fact the Sun King referred to Le Brun as “the greatest French artist of all time.”  His first royal commission so pleased the king that he raised Le Brun to the nobility, and put him in charge of all decoration in the royal residences.  The famous “Hall of Mirrors” at the Palace of Versailles for example, is covered in his work.  Le Brun was appointed the director of the newly-established royal academy of painting and sculpture, which later became known as the “Academie des Beaux-Arts”, and laid the foundation for the academic tradition in French art for nearly three centuries.

The work which hung unnoticed at the Ritz appears to be Le Brun’s depiction of the Trojan princess Polyxena, who was executed by the Greeks for complicity in the death of the hero Achilles.  If you remember your histories of the Trojan Wars, one retelling of the story is that Achilles made the mistake of letting Polyxena, whom he had fallen in love with, learn the secret of his vulnerable heel.  Her brother Paris later used this knowledge to kill the Greek hero with a poisoned arrow.

The painting is signed with Le Brun’s initials and dated 1647, which places it prior to his coming into the service of Louis XIV.  As such it is an important example of the younger Le Brun absorbing the lessons of the painters whom he studied in Italy during a three-year-long stay there, including the High Renaissance master Raphael, and his own countryman Poussin.  Taking what he had learned from these, Le Brun adding greater exuberance and theatricality to his own, highly fluid style, which perfectly exemplified the more emotional and dramatic style of the Baroque.

Le Brun’s re-discovered masterpiece is set to be auctioned at Christie’s with what to me sounds like a rather low pre-sale estimate of half a million euros.  While it is a large work, it is not nearly the size of the absolutely gigantic canvases which Le Brun was able to execute on behalf of the Sun King later in his career.  So should you have a spare million or two sitting around, gentle reader, owning a painting of this quality, formerly the property of the most famous hotel in the world, and which Chanel herself probably looked at every day, would not be a bad investment.


“The Sacrifice of Polyxena” by Charles Le Brun (1647)
Hotel Ritz, Paris