The finest blue known to the ancients, was obtained from the precious stone lapis lazuli also known as lazurite, or lapis for short, a costly mineral. The mineral lazurite is a complex sodium calcium aluminum silicate sulfate also a precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense color.
As early as the 7th millennium BC, lapis lazuli was mined in the Sar-i Sang mines in Shortugai, and in other mines in the Badakhshan province in northeast Afghanistan. Lapis was highly valued by the Indus Valley Civilization and Lapis beads have been found at Neolithic burials and even as far as Mauritania. It was even used in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun.
Lapis was also used in ancient Mesopotamia by the Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians for seals and jewelry. In the Mesopotamian poem the Epic of Gilgamesh, lapis lazuli is mentioned several times. There are also many references to “sapphires” in the Old Testament, but most scholars agree that, since sapphire was not known before the Roman Empire, they most likely are references to lapis lazuli.
At the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli began to be exported to Europe, where it was ground into powder and made into ultramarine, the finest and most expensive of all blue pigments, which literally means over the sea. It was used by some of the most important artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, including Masaccio, Perugino, Titian and Vermeer, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelagelo and was often reserved for the clothing of the central figures of their paintings, in particular the Virgin Mary.
Synthetic ultramarine began to be produced at the beginning of the nineteenth Century. Today, mines in northeast Afghanistan and Pakistan are still the major source of lapis lazuli although important amounts are also produced from mines in Russia, the Andes mountains in Chile, Italy, Mongolia, the United States, and Canada.
Stay tuned for our next installment on blue pigments when we discuss the history and uses of Smalt Blue.