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Genuine Ultramarine, Once One of the Most Costly Pigments in the World

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Written by   381
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Ultramarine was once the most expensive mineralic pigment in the world. Genuine ultramarine was originally made from ground lapis lazuli (lazurite).

The earliest known source of this mineral is the valley of the river Kokcha in Afghanistan, where it is still mined after 6000 years - or at least it was until the Soviet invasion in 1978. From the Kokcha valley, lapis lazuli was exported already to old Egypt, where it was used both for gems and as a pigment. They called the pigment "khesbedj". It has been found in paintings in tombs – and the blue hair of many Egyptian gods were said to consist of lapis lazuli. It was also a favoured material for scarabs.

As a material, a stone, lapis lazuli was not only used in old Egypt, but also in old India and old Mesopotamia. It is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest literary works.

Lapis lazuli has been found in many other places during the years, mainly Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and it has been used in all major cultures.

When the expensive pigment came to Europe, it was called ultramarine, because it came from beyond the sea (from Latin ultra, beyond; and marinus, of the sea). It was imported by Venetian merchants and the painters of the Renaissance used it, although very selectively, due to it being so expensive. In Renaissance Italy, it was often reserved for the robes of Mary and Christ.

In 1828, professor Christian Gmelin developed a method to produce ultramarine synthetically. After that the pigment ceased to be expensive and has been used much more by painters and other artists. Synthetic ultramarine has not the same brilliancy as the genuine thing, however, but that is true about almost all synthetic pigments in comparison with their genuine counterparts.

Indeed, it became so cheap that today it is commonly used for bluing of paper and linen, in order to remove the yellowish tone and make it look cleanly white. It's also used in eye cosmetics, as eye shadow or mascara. (Incidentally, already Cleopatra used lapis lazuli as an eye shadow.)

Let's look at the etymology of lapis lazuli.

Lapis is Latin, meaning “stone”.

Lazuli is more special. It has the same origin as azure, and it is from Arabic (al-) lazuward or lazaward [لازورد], which is derived from Persian, Lajward or Lazhward. The latter is a place in Central Asia, where, according to Marco Polo, the stone was mined. It is also a Persian word, meaning sky or heaven.

That this also generated the word azure, or Old French azur (from which English azure originates), depends on a false separation of lazaward, as if l- was the French article l'.

If you you want to see an ancient work of lapis lazuli and happen to be in Europe, go to the Louvre in Paris and look at the statue of Ebih-Il, from the 25th century BC. He was once a superintendent of the city-state Mari, in present day Syria. Pay special attention to his eyes.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria was fond of lapis lazuli, both as a material and as a colour. In the Hall of Mirrors in his Linderhof Palace, you can see examples of the mineral. In the Palace park you'll also encounter his "Venus Grotto". It is inspired by Wagner's Tannhäuser, and also by Capri's blue grotto and he tried to achieve both blue and changing of colours by electrical light - which was very modern at the time. Yet, to his frustration, the perfect lapis lazuli blue eluded him.

All chemical analysts in the kingdom had been driven to despair because they were unable to create the correct blue with their projectors. With Wotan and Parcifal they tried their best: methylene blue, cyanin blue, diphenylamin blue, [...] nothing was exactly to Ludwig's liking." (Erich Adami, in an essay on Ludwig II.)

Appendix/Notes

1. The Blue Grotto of Capri, Grotta Azzurra, has nothing to do with lapis lazuli. It is a fascinating blue world in itself though. There, the blue colour is a result of light that enters through an underwater opening and the water filters out the red tones by absorbing them. Only the blue and bluish light remains. For the best experience, Grotta Azzurra should be visited in the middle of the day on a day with a clear sky and sunshine.

The Grotto was known already during Roman times; Emperor Tiberius, who partly resided on Capri, used it as a nymphaeum, a sanctuary consecrated to water nymphs. The locals believed it to be the home of Nereids, Sirens and monsters, and dared not enter.

Forgotten since, it was rediscovered in 1826 and has become Capri's major tourist attraction.

2. A peculiarity in the quoted text is the spelling “Parcifal”. Chrétien de Troyes spelt it "Perceval", Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote "Parzival", Wagner himself wrote first "Parzival", later, by a misunderstanding of the etymology, he changed it to "Parsifal". In my opinion Wagner's own spelling ought to be normative and the name of his opera should always be written as “Parsifal”.

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Comments

The discovery of lapis lazuli in the Afghanistan by the Italian trader must have been a very great adventure. Discovery is based on exploration. I wonder what the kind of technology used in those days to extract the pigment

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1 month ago

I googled Ultramarine as and when I saw this post and I was awestuck to see that beautiful blue.... I love that colour <3

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1 month ago

Yes, it's a very beautiful shade of blue.

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1 month ago

Since I am a mining engineering student, we have studied gemstones and one of them is Lapis Lazuli. So, this is very useful information for me.

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1 month ago

Glad to hear that it can be practically useful for you.

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1 month ago

This is the first time I am hearing about this gem called ultramarine... It is a rear gem. I want to know, is it still in existence and which country does it domicile?

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1 month ago

Well, the gem, the mineral, is lapis lazuli. The main source has always been Northern Afghanistan, but it is mined also in Russia and Chile, and to a lesser extent in a few other countries.

Ultramarine is the colour pigment one gets if grinding lapis lazuli. Today it also denotes a special shade of blue.

Lapis lazuli is not used as a pigment anymore, since ultramarine pigment is now made synthetically. But it is still a rare and valuable gemstone.

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1 month ago

Thank you very much for this information... I do appreciate it.

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1 month ago

It's sometimes very great to know few things about history just the same way you are trying to take us back to the great days of history when some notable things happened and are documented for our own education as well

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1 month ago