The ‘stone from Heaven’ used to create a masterpiece… that’s now enriching the Taliban
The brilliant-blue scarf wrapped around the head of the Girl with a Pearl Earring; the wide open sky above the streets of Delft; the upholstered seat of an elegant wooden chair. Ultramarine is everywhere in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. At its height, the price of this pigment rose to 100 times more than that of others – it even surpassed the value of gold. Yet the 17th-century Dutch master applied it lavishly to his canvases, and mixed it with other pigments to achieve colours beyond blue: to make his whites brighter, to add nuance to his greens and reds. If you’re in Amsterdam in the coming months, you can appreciate these effects in the largest exhibition ever devoted to Vermeer’s paintings, opening at the Rijksmuseum on Friday.
For more than 6,000 years, both ultramarine and lapis lazuli, the stone from which it’s derived, have appeared on all manner of precious objects, from jewellery and objets d’art to paintings and the pages of medieval manuscripts. Yet, as with many prized commodities, this deep and sparkling blue has a darker side. Mining lapis is difficult and dangerous, and in recent years profits from the trade have become a significant source of income for the Taliban, aiding the Islamic fundamentalist group’s return to power in Afghanistan.
Lapis lazuli – literally, “stone from heaven” – is almost exclusively mined in Sar-e-Sang, an isolated settlement in the north-east of Afghanistan. The rock is composed of three minerals: deep-blue lazurite; pyrite or “fool’s gold”; and whitish calcite. It’s the lazurite that miners are really after: the higher the lazurite content, the purer the blue. (While lapis deposits have been found in the Andes and Siberia, these tend to have a lower lazurite concentration, resulting in a paler blue.)
Until the 20th century, when safe explosives became widely available, miners would retrieve the lapis using the “fire-set” method: setting fire to wood piled against the rock face, then pouring water on it, causing it to shatter so they could access the stone.
Importing the product via the Silk Road, the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians used lapis to make beads, amulets and seals, and as decorative inlay for other objects. The substantial cost of mining and transportation meant it was already a luxury commodity – worthy, for instance, of Tutankhamun’s gold death-mask, on which thin bands of lapis lazuli were used for his lashings of eyeliner and brows, alongside quartz for the eyes and obsidian for the pupils.
There is some recent evidence that the Egyptians ground up lapis and mixed it with another blue pigment for tomb paintings, but the earliest use of ultramarine comes much later: in Buddhist temples and cave paintings in Afghanistan, dating to the fifth and sixth centuries. Over the following centuries, it began to appear in murals in China and India, arriving in Europe (via Venice) in the Middle Ages. There, the pigment was christened “oltramarino” in reference to its foreign origins – “beyond the sea”.
David Coles, an oil-paint maker and author of Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour, explains the evolution of the “long and laborious” process of extracting ultramarine. The earliest pigment-makers simply ground the lapis into a fine powder, but by the 10th century, he says, they had developed “extraction methods which allowed the removal of unwanted colouring materials such as pyrite and calcite – increasing the purity of colour.”
The best-known process is documented in Cennino Cennini’s 15th-century The Craftsman’s Handbook, based, it’s believed, on a ninth-century Arabic source. “This complicated and time-consuming recipe,” says Coles, “describes how ground lapis was mixed into a paste of melted wax and resins. When cooled into a pliable putty, it was kneaded into an alkali solution to draw out the blue lazurite. Using this process, the return is meagre: for every 100g of lapis ore, generally only 4g of ultramarine pigment is collected.” The pigment would then be mixed with a binder, such as water or oil, to create paint.
Cennini’s method praises ultramarine as “a noble colour, beautiful, the most perfect of all colours”. Marcia Hall, professor of Renaissance art at Temple University in Philadelphia, explains that by the 14th century ultramarine had become “the preferred pigment” for the most sacred of subjects: the robes of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. (Before ultramarine, it had been vermilion red – now demoted to second place.)
“Even in dimly lit churches,” she adds, “it would hold its own with the often abundantly-used gold leaf.” Think, for example, of the famous frescoes painted by Giotto for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, where on the vaulted ceiling vast expanses of blue sky are punctuated by tiny gold stars. Ultramarine is also far more stable than other natural blue pigments such as azurite, which tends to fade to green over time. Giotto’s frescoes contain both ultramarine and azurite, but more than 700 years on – with the aid of climate control and conservation work – his vision of the starry heavens remains remarkably vivid.
The Scrovegni were a banking family, and not all artists had patrons as generous – or as showy. Vermeer may have spent too much on his supply of ultramarine: when he died, in 1675, he left his family heavily in debt. The discovery in the early 18th century of Prussian blue, the first synthetic pigment, would be a game-changer. Not only did it make blue – albeit a darker, more greenish blue than ultramarine – affordable for painters, it also opened up the possibility that other synthetic pigments could be formulated.
In the 1820s, a French industrial organisation launched a competition for the development of a commercially viable synthetic version of ultramarine, with a prize of 6,000 francs. The award went in 1828 to the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Guimet – not without controversy, because a German chemist had synthesised his own ultramarine around the same time. But “French ultramarine” won out – and soon eclipsed the use of the natural kind. It’s the artificial pigment which is found, for instance, in the registered paint formula of Yves Klein’s trademark International Klein Blue.
Today, few artists would use lapis-derived ultramarine, although the stone still appears in jewellery and decorative art. “Contemporary use of genuine ultramarine is confined mostly to painting conservators, traditional icon painters of Orthodox churches, and those who love its historic associations,” says Coles.
But associations can change. Is a blood diamond, for example, ever truly beautiful? In 2016, a report from the international non-governmental organisation Global Witness classified lapis lazuli as a “conflict mineral” after finding that the Taliban and other armed groups were earning up to $20 million a year from illegal and untaxed lapis mining in Afghanistan.
Clashes over control of the mines were resulting in injuries and deaths. Since the Taliban’s return to power in the summer of 2021, the militant government has continued to receive income from the mines via taxation.
Meanwhile, as Coles points out, “the lapis miners and mine owners have always eked out a poor – and for the miners, highly dangerous – life”. Just as lapis miners in Afghanistan reportedly receive $10 per day for labour, similarly, only a fraction of the price paid by Giotto’s wealthy patrons would have made its way to miners in the 14th century. The market price was then – as it is now – inflated by a mix of factors, from merchants and other middlemen to the Catholic Church, which at points intervened to restrict the ultramarine supply.
For the artists and patrons of Renaissance Europe, the distant and mysterious roots of lapis lazuli were part of its allure. But when we know more – and care more – about how it gets to us, it’s possible that this shade of blue may not look quite the same as before.
The meanings we ascribe to colours are based on more than their hue alone – as the multi-faceted history of lapis lazuli surely attests.
'Vermeer' is at the Rijksmuseum from Friday until June 4. Tickets: rijksmuseum.nl