‘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.
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.
“Elephants have continual warre against Dragons, which desire their blood, because it is very cold: and therefore the Dragon lying awaite as the Elephant passeth by, windeth his taile, being of exceeding length, about the hinder legs of the Elephant, and when the Elephant waxeth faint, he falleth down on the serpent, being now full of blood, and with the poise of his body breaketh him: so that his owne blood with the blood of the Elephant runneth out of him mingled together, which being colde, is congealed into that substance which the Apothecaries call Sanguis Draconis, that is Dragons blood.”
As fantastical as this medieval tale is, in reality the colour is a blood red resin produced by the Rattan Palm. Dragon’s blood was in use as a medicine and colourant since the ancient world, carried up the Red Sea in ships from Yemen having rst been harvested from the islands that today make up Indonesia. It was used to colour varnishes applied over gold to create a more ruddy effect, which was highly valued in the Middle Ages.
For the medieval manuscript illuminator the most important yellow came from saffron, the stamens of the crocus. About 8000 owers were hand-picked to collect 100 gm of red saffron threads! It produced a strong, pure, transparent yellow to imitate gold leaf.
Most recipes for saffron paint were extremely simple; soaking the saffron strands overnight in glaire (putrified beaten egg whites) and allowed to infuse. It was also commonly mixed with blues to get a wider range of green tones. Cennino says that a blend of saffron and verdigris produces ‘the most perfect grass colour imaginable’ However, because saffron fades, the medieval manuscripts we are now left with have blue grass, trees and clothes where green was intended.
Saffron’s use as a pigment effectively ended with the advent of cheaper lightfast synthetics. Now it is best known only as a avouring and colourant of foods.
Smalt is a a ground blue potassium glass containing cobalt used from the 15th to 18th centuries.
Its origins probably lie in the ancient pigment Egyptian Blue; both pigments are made from glass that has been coloured blue. However, Egyptian Blue contains copper, whereas Smalt’s colour comes from cobalt.
Widely used from the 16th century, Smalt is manufactured by thoroughly mixing cobalt oxide and potassium carbonate with molten glass. Once thoroughly combined, the hot glass is added to water where it shatters into small pieces. Smalt was popular because of its low cost. The best grade of smalt had a purplish cast, commending it as a substitute for expensive genuine ultramarine. But this lustre sadly diminishes when mixed with oil as the yellowing of the binder reduces its colour.
But what about the medieval artist who wanted a brilliant blue but didn’t have deep pockets.
Ultramarine was far too dear for any but the smallest or choicest works, Azurite was by no means cheap, indigo and woad were not bright enough for all purposes.
There was however another choice: Blue Verditer, which was probably more significant in medieval painting than all the other blues put together. It is certain that for every kilo of ultramarine used in the medieval painting, many tonnes of copper blues were used.
It is a synthetically manufactured azure blue pigment, prepared by the reaction of a copper sulfate with calcium carbonate. This basic copper carbonate was first made in the Middle Ages and continued to be widely used up to the 19th century for panel painting, distemper and oil based interior house paints. Blue verditer particles are more rounded and regular in size than ground azurite to which it is chemically related.
A dense pale yellow pigment composed of lead monoxide. Massicot is the name used for both the native mineral as well as the lead monoxide product made by heating lead carbonate to 300C. Also called giallorino, Massicot production can be dated back to the Middle Ages.
It was often confused with Lead Tin Yellow as the term Massi- cot was historically interchangeable with any lead based yellow pigment.
Not to be confused with Litharge. Although holding the same chemical constituents, it was manufactured in a different man- ner and was speci cally built as a drying agent for oil paints.
A synthetic pigment composed of lead antimonate, it is produced in a range of yellows from lemon to a dusty yellow-orange. Although occuring naturally as the min- eral bindheimite it has been produced synthetically as a pigment from 1500 BC. It is, together with Egyptian Blue, one of the oldest synthetic pigments known.
Lead antimonate yellow has been identified in objects from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, and Celtic cultures.
In Western European art, Naples Yellow has been in use for painting from about 1600. It was most frequently used during the period 1750-1850 after which it was gradually replaced by the chromes and cadmiums.
Genuine Naples Yellow continues to be manufactured in limited quantities but the name “Naples Yellow” is now used by most paint manufacturers to indicate a color shade made by mixing together other pigments, such as cadmium yellow, zinc white, and red ochre.