The monastic nuns of the Parthenon of Sts. Konstantinos and Helen on the Aegean island of Chios, laboring on their intricately hand-crafted artifact, the Chios Crucifixion, would have had no idea that one day their devotional creation would be transformed through lasers, LED turntables and dichroic filters into a hologram and exhibited across the ocean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum.
This artifact of Eastern Orthodox iconography combines all of the nuns’ artistry–the delicate hand-painting of Jesus on the cross, the fine crafting of metal flowers, the embroidering and hand-weaving of satin fabric stitched with pearl-headed pins.
In 2012, scientists and engineers applied equal devotion to the task of converting the analog crucifixion into a hologram. Alkis Lembessis, director of the project and founder of the Hellenic Institute of Holography characterized each step of the production as “a holographer’s nightmare.” The first hurdle was shooting with the RGB-laser camera outside of the controlled lab setting. The holographers also had to contend with the crucifixion’s complex contours, multi-layered depth, wide variety of color and tones, variance in light reflected off of the different materials, and the piece’s fragility.
So why did the holographers go through such an arduous process to re-create something that already existed? Lembessis says it’s the institute’s mission to preserve the artifacts of ancient Greece, Rome, and Christian Byzantium by creating holographic visual captures–what Lembessis calls “optical clones,” which can then be experienced in virtual displays by a wider audience.
In M.I.T.’s exhibit “A Jeweled Net: Views of Contemporary Holography” (on view through September 28, 2013), the holographic crucifixion is mounted on the reverse side of the original artifact. Stepping back and forth to view the original and its clone is an eerie experience. The delicate handmade Jesus and his mysteriously numinous holographic twin hang on their crosses back to back. As you view first one, then the other, they seem to communicate with each other across time–as if the historical Jesus and holographic Jesus were sharing not only a similar fate but a private moment in the dimly lit room of the larger exhibit. “In darker ages,” says Lembessis, “this could well be associated with sorcery.”