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Ancient Paint

The Colors on Egypt's Temple Walls Endure the Ages


Within the sand swept desert, under the piercing sun, paint more than 3,000-years-old clings to ancient Egyptian temples, at the continued mercy of the elements, human touch and increasingly polluted air. At their creation, a countless number of temples were covered in brilliant color, intended to be seen from miles away, but the millennia have soaked up the colors' vibrancy. In most places the onetime paint is non-existent, but where there are still traces, the color is faded to a sun-bleached, end-of-summer hue.

Hints of paint are most evident in shaded corners and on ceilings, but residues of color nonetheless miraculously exist on some surfaces exposed to constant sunlight. The longevity of the paint is attributed to its composition of mineral compounds. Ancient artists adorned the plastered temple walls with outlines of charcoal, which were then engraved and painted in brilliant hues, depicting scenes of the gods and royal family and messages in hieroglyphics. Paintbrushes, crafted from fibrous wood with frayed ends, created smooth edges and captured fine details. The walls were then covered in a type of varnish that served as a protective layer.

The ancient Egyptian artist used six colors: black, white, red, green, yellow and blue. The pigments, ground with a pestle, were mixed with water and glue, gum or egg as a binding agent. Each color had a symbolic meaning, and the gods were often depicted with different skin colors. Black, representative of death and night, was derived from carbon compounds like charcoal and soot. White, a reference to omnipotence and purity, was created from chalk and gypsum. Artists mixed red, a symbol of life, victory, anger and fire, by combining naturally oxidized iron and red ochre. Green, symbolic of vegetation and new life, was created by mixing oxides of copper and iron with silica and calcium or derived from malachite. Natural ochre, oxides and orpiment (arsenic trisulfide) were all used to make yellow, like the sun and gold, eternal and indestructible. Blue, symbolic of the sky and water and used to reference the Nile, is often visible on temple ceilings. Artists created blue paint by mixing iron and copper oxides with silica and calcium.

For most of modernity, Egyptian temples have been almost completely buried in sand, which was a dry environment ideal for preservation. Many people sought refuge in the mostly buried structures in the early centuries, creating fires that left charred ceilings in several temples. Early Christians chiseled away at renderings of ancient gods on the walls, which they deemed to be sacrilegious, and much of the paint disintegrated in the process.

The walls of Egypt's temples have stood through thousands of years, centuries of neglect, defacement, brutal elements and tourism. The color in the paint, though slowly fading, still endures, telling the stories of an era too ancient to comprehend and too grandiose to believe.

Published: December 01, 2006
Issue: Holiday 2006