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Mark Zemlan of Surface Optics assists with X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy of the Orpheus Relief fragment at the Georgia Museum of Art.

Object in Focus: The Orpheus Relief Project

When initially considering Roman statues and bas-reliefs, one usually tends to visualize them as spotless sculptures of pure marble, adorned with details such as ivy, robes or a vase. In actuality, however, both Greek and Roman classical sculptures were frequently painted in bright colors. One relief in the collection of the University of Mississippi Museum that demonstrates this polychrome quality will be coming to visit the Georgia Museum of Art for a semester. An analysis of the relief shows traces of pigment from when the statue was originally created and painted, to heighten its sense of naturalism. The relief is a fragment of a much larger scene, and because it is a Roman copy of the Greek original (currently in the Louvre in Paris), researchers have found that the painted figure is Hermes, known as the herald of the gods of Greek mythology, holding Eurydice’s hand.

For those unfamiliar with the original myth, Eurydice was first married to Orpheus, a man whose voice was so melodious and sweet that when he sang, even the most emotionless person would be moved to tears. One day, Orpheus played music for Eurydice, and she danced beautifully until she fell to the ground, bitten by a venomous snake. She died soon afterward, and went to the Underworld. Unwilling to live without his true love, Orpheus found a way to reach the Underworld and confronted Hades, the god of the dead with a heart of stone. Orpheus sang and played his music for Hades, who was so touched that he allowed the lovers to reunite on the condition that Orpheus lead Eurydice out of the Underworld without looking at her until they were back on the surface. Orpheus agreed, and he and Eurydice began to leave. But doubt began to grow in Orpheus’ mind, and he wondered whether Hades had tricked him. Eventually his doubt overpowered him, and he looked back. Eurydice was there, but Hermes, acting in his capacity to escort souls to the Underworld, appeared next to her, and as per the arrangement led her back to the realm of the dead.

The relief is nearly 2,000 years old, having been carved in ca. AD 100, and is thought to originate from Athens, Greece. There are other examples of Roman copies of Greek originals which were carved in Athens and then exported to Rome to be displayed in villas in central Italy. Although the Hermes relief has withstood the test of time, the researchers involved with the analysis intend to treat it with care. That is not say, however, that the piece is so old and fragile that they cannot glean further information from it—it was through a simple and non-invasive analysis they originally found the ancient pigments on the stone. Throughout the rest of this year, Mark Abbe, assistant professor of art; Lynn Boland, Pierre Daura Curator of European Art at the Georgia Museum of Art; and Carissa DiCindio, curator of education at the Georgia Museum of Art, will collaborate with University of Georgia faculty and students in chemistry, classics and art, as well as with faculty and students at the University of Mississippi to perform a thorough examination of the relief in five phases.

Phase 1 covers the documentation of the ancient pigment and observation of its properties under regular, raking, ultraviolet and infrared light. Phase 2 will entail the microscopic inspection of the relief surface for further superficial clues. Phase 3 involves the use of a non-destructive X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, which will determine what colors may have been used by measuring the rate at which the faded pigment absorbs and emits photons. Alongside the Center for Archaeological Science, Jeff Speakman, associate director of the university’s Center for Isotopic Studies, will help coordinate this particular effort. Phase 4 will be a chemical analysis of samples through the University’s department of chemistry to determine what elements the original artists used to create their paints. The Romans engineered a pigment that adhered to a surface for almost two millennia; in the interest of science, one might consider it counter-productive to the development of technology not to analyze the properties of such a marvel. Phase 5 of the research project will cover the literary aspect of the relief in collaboration with the department of classics.

There is much more to this relief than a science project. One of the main goals of the process is to unearth qualities of both cultural and artistic histories that have remained buried. Within the form of this painted Hermes lies new knowledge. Moreover, by collaborating in this manner, the departments of chemistry and classics solidify the link between the sciences and humanities. Those involved with this project exemplify the import of a well-rounded education.

Though the relief will spend a significant amount of time under study, there will also be opportunities for the general public to this work of art. The relief will be on regular display until March 10, 2013, in the museum’s Samuel H. Kress Gallery. Additionally, both Abbe and one of the project leads will give gallery talks given in early 2013, which will be open to interested audiences. This fall, the relief will be a prominent subject within Abbe’s mixed graduate and advanced undergraduate art history course, “Overcoming Chromophobia: Color in Ancient Art.” For anyone who wishes to read an overview of the project with regular updates of the results uncovered during the five phases of the process, UGA and the University of Mississippi are collaborating on a Wordpress blog.