Musing in Ultramarine Blue

“The blue colour is everlastingly appointed by the Deity to be a source of delight; and whether seen perpetually over your head, or crystallized once in a thousand years into a single and incomparable stone, your acknowledgment of its beauty is equally natural, simple, and instantaneous.” John Ruskin.

How do you capture blue? The pure azure of the sky cannot be distilled nor the deep ocean indigo bottled. Until the discovery of a certain precious, blue-hued mineral, humans struggled to capture the most enigmatic colour of all…

Lapis Lazuli, mined from the mountains of Northern Afghanistan has been known since antiquity for its intense colour and was valued by ancient civilizations. In Egypt, the stone was a favoured ornament for amulets and scarabs. It was used on the funeral mask of Tutankhamun and even ground up and worn as eye-shadow by the legendary Queen Cleopatra. Perhaps the earliest people were enraptured by a colour that echoed the vast emptiness of the sky above, or perhaps it was its rarity and value that made it so sought after. It seems, from earliest times, Lapis has been preserved for the highest echelons of society. Synonymous with royalty and power.

Lapis was brought to the shores of Europe by Italian traders in the 14th and 15th centuries, where it was transformed into Ultramarine – a pigment produced by grinding the mineral into a fine powder. It created a deep blue of exceptional richness and beauty. A colour of royalty, luxury and wealth. Hugely prized, and enormously valuable, Its great cost (it was worth more than five times its weight in gold) meant that it was used most sparingly, with only the wealthiest patrons having means to afford such a luxury. Renaissance painters fortunate enough to have access to Ultramarine often reserved it solely for the robes of The Christ Child and The Virgin Mary, the exceptional shade of blue embodying their perceived godliness, purity and humility.

The costliness of Ultramarine endured and at last, due to high demand, a generous reward was offered for anyone who could synthesize a replacement. A French chemist – Jean Baptiste Guimet, scooped the prize and in 1824 the artificial “French Ultramarine” was created. Today the hue is no longer prohibitively expensive, and any painter can liberally apply what Michael Angelo himself could scarcely afford. But the strong connections of Ultramarine to luxury and sanctity endure.

To me Ultramarine is a still a mystery. How did we capture the sky? The Ocean? How did we capture blue?
Add Ultramarine to your collection today.

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