‘Ultramarine blue is a colour illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colours’
How could a colour cost more than gold itself? Ultramarine (Latin ‘from beyond the seas’) is extracted from the natural rock Lapis lazuli (‘blue stone’) sourced almost exclusively for 6,000 years from a single mine in the mountains near Sar-e-sang, Afghanistan.
The blue mineral lazurite gives the rock its colour but it is intimately mixed with impurities of fool’s gold and white calcite that must be removed to provide the exquisite blue beloved of renaissance painters.
The extraction process is from a 9th century Arabic alchemical source and the complicated and time-consuming recipe describes how ground lapis lazuli was mixed to a paste with wax, colophony and mastic resin. This paste is then kneaded like dough, rested and then labouriously kneaded again in a bowl of liquid lye to draw out the blue lazurite.
For every 100gms of lapis lazuli only 5gms of Ultramarine pigment is collected.
Given its incredible cost, the colour was reserved for only the most important subjects.