If you’ve ever seen a Medieval European painting that has a deep, rich blue, you’ve seen a color called ‘ultramarine,’ which was made from the semi-precious stone called lapis lazuli.
The stone was ground to a fine powder, then mixed with oil or some other medium. It gave a rich blue that did not fade over time. The remarkable thing is that the lapis lazuli the pigment was made from came from Afghanistan, and only from Afghanistan, from a few mines in the Badakhshan region.
The trade route was from Muslim Afghanistan to some Mediterranean port, and then to Europe by Venetian or Genoese trading ships. The distance from the mines to the painter’s canvas would have been something like 7,000 kilometers. In Europe, for many years the price of an ounce of lapis lazuli was about the same as an ounce of gold.
Ultramarine was both a deep color and long-lasting pigment, and expensive. It was considered especially appropriate to use for depicting the robes of the Virgin Mary. Wealthy people often contracted with artists to produce a painting on a specific topic. People commissioning a painting often specified ultramarine made from lapis lazuli for the Virgin’s robe as a kind of way to show their piety—only the best for the Virgin Mary. A synthetic blue did not become available until the 1800s.
The mines have been worked for 6,000 years or more. The lapis mined there has been used all over the Middle East, including the ancient Indus Valley civilizations and in Egypt.
One of the uses of the beautiful blue pigment was to make eye shadow for Cleopatra.
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