A stone of the gods and coveted as much by mere mortals, lapis lazuli has held civilisations across the world in its hypnotic allure. Dating back to antiquity, this brilliant blue semi-precious stone with twinkling flecks of gold has been used in jewellery, to adorn objects d’art, and the most coveted paintings of the world. It has even driven Renaissance artists to bankruptcy in their quest for the dazzling pigment made from this fabled stone.
Lapis was initially mined in the Sar-e-Sang Valley of the Badakshan Mountains in north-east Afghanistan. Marco Polo, who encountered it during his travels, is said to have remarked: ‘There is a mountain in that region where the finest azure [lapis lazuli] in the world is found. It appears in veins like silver streaks.’
The earliest uses of the stone can be traced to the pre-Indus Valley settlement of Mehrgarh in Balochistan, Pakistan, where beads made of lapis lazuli have been found by archaeologists. During the Indus Valley civilisation itself, the stone was used to make beads but was mostly exported.
Lapis lazuli was one of the most important commodities traded by the Indus Valley civilization. In fact, it was from the Arabian Sea ports here, that it travelled to the ports of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Sumeria.
Ancient Mesopotamians used lapis to adorn temples and create jewellery and seals. The Egyptians believed that the stone had a spiritual aura, and lapis lazuli, carved in the shape of an eye and set in gold, as an amulet of inestimable power has been recognised by The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Legend has it that Cleopatra wore powdered lapis lazuli as eye shadow. The Egyptians tried but couldn’t make a pigment from the stone and all their attempts resulted in a dull grey pigment.
Lapis was traded from the port of Barbarikon (near modern-day Karachi) for another semi-precious stone, carnelian, from the port of Muziris (on the Malabar coast of Kerala). It even reached Rome at the height of the Roman Empire via the ports of the Red Sea. In the Roman Empire, it was used extensively for beads, ornaments and small decorative objects.
In India, the stone was called ‘Rajwart’ in Sanskrit. It was important in Astrology and Ayurveda, and was used to make surma (kohl) as well as remedies to cure tuberculosis, jaundice and improve digestion. It was in great demand in India, from Rajasthan to the Gangetic plains.
It was around the 5th century CE that a pigment derived from lapis lazuli was successfully created and used in the paintings of the Ajanta Caves in Western India. Due to flourishing trade, this pigment was also used in paintings in the Bamiyan Caves in Afghanistan in the 7th century CE.
For a long time, lapis lazuli was used in murals in the Indian subcontinent and it finally travelled to Venice as a pigment 700 years later. It soon became the most sought-after pigment in Europe.
The pigment derived from lapis lazuli came to be called ’ultramarine’ – ‘beyond the sea’, an ode to the allure of the colour and a play on the fact that it travelled from mines in Afghanistan to Venice by sea. Italian artist Cennino Cennini in his 15th century treatise The Book of Art calls ultramarine ‘the most perfect of all colours’. While it continued to be used in Mughal and Rajput miniatures as well as small decorative objects in Mughal India, the pigment’s significance reached new heights in Renaissance Italy.
In Medieval Europe, lapis lazuli cost as much as gold did. It was so important that besides the painter’s fees, the patron had to pay for the gold and ultramarine in the painting. Thus, swathing the Virgin Mary in drapes of ultramarine became a way for patrons to show their wealth and devotion. The Medicis of Florence were so fascinated by it that they commissioned a collection of objects ranging from bowls, goblets to inlaid pictures and furniture using the stone.
Ultramarine was an important part of the palette of all the major Renaissance artists like Titian, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Masaccio and Perugino. Using it in their paintings was a sign of prestige. Even the great artists who could use it only in small quantities, like depicting the Virgin Mary’s drape and only the exceptional could use it to depict the sky or the sea.
In fact, artists were driven to despair and to acts of desperation in their quest for the blue. Rafael would use a cheaper, more available pigment, as the base and only use the rich ultramarine as the top coat to save costs. According to lore, a young Michelangelo left his painting The Entombment incomplete because he couldn’t afford the colour! Michelangelo finally worked with the pigment when he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel by the Pope in the mid-16th century.
The 17th century Dutch baroque artist Johannes Vermeer spent so much on acquiring the pigment that he ended up bankrupting his family. He is best known for Girl With A Pearl Earring, which shows a girl draped in the fabled blue.
Another aspect of ultramarine which made the pigment a darling of artists was its remarkable stability and non-toxicity. While many pigments change colour or darken or lighten with time, ultramarine shows no significant change. In fact, paintings that are centuries old still have the same vibrancy as more recent ones. Many pigments also contain toxic elements like mercury and arsenic, which are known to be fatal.
In fact, the fascination with the stone stretched as far as Russia, to Faberge, the legendary jeweller of the Tsars. Of the 50 imperial eggs he created, one of the most special can be said to be the Tsarevich Egg, which was created in 1912 for the Empress as a tribute to her son soon after he had a near-death experience due to his haemophilia. While most of the eggs are composed of gold or diamonds, the shell of this egg is a made of lapis with gold lacework covering the joints in the stone, making it look like a single block of lapis lazuli.
The pigment was so prized and so irreplaceable that in 1824, the Societé d’Encouragement of France offered a reward of 6,000 francs to anyone who could develop a synthetic alternative to ultramarine. There was a fierce contest between Jean-Baptiste Guimet, a French chemist, and Christian Gmelin, a German professor. The prize finally went to Guimet and the artificial blue he created became known as ‘French ultramarine’. Much cheaper and easier to produce, this synthetic ultramarine was used widely by artists due to its easy availability. It can be seen in the works of Impressionist artists like the 19th century French artist Renoir.
Although the synthetically produced ultramarine is used extensively in paintings today and more sources of lapis have been found in places like Chile, Siberia, the United States, Burma and Angola after the 18th century, none of them have been able to match the Afghan lapis.
This is due to one element which is only found in the Afghan vein of the stone – pyrite. Pyrite, a mineral impurity with a metallic lustre, is also called ‘fool’s gold’. The pyrite in the stone looks like speckled gold, making the Afghan lapis remarkable. Even when ground into pigment, the impurity makes the light refract and transmit in subtly different ways. Thus each grain of the pigment is distinctive and each stroke of paint exceptional. Stand at the right angle and you might catch a quiet glimmer of white or gold, like a speck of light from across the sea.