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.