The Alchemy of Paint
Spike Bucklow

Extract from Chapter Two – Ultramarine: from over the seas


According to an artists’ manual, the pigment ‘comes from across the seas and so is called ultra-marine.’ Marco Polo claimed that the finest came from Badakhshan. The mines, on the precipitous walls of the upper Kokeha Valley, in north-eastern Afghanistan, were already ancient by the time he visited, sometime between 1271 and 1292.

The average modern westerner’s idea of Afghanistan is generally of a remote and dangerous place. So we might expect that the medieval Europeans – who did not enjoy the advantages of air travel, internet and other modern conveniences – would have found Afghanistan even more remote and dangerous. But this wasn’t the case. Marco Polo identified it as near Prester John’s utopian province and, if we consult a medieval map of the world, we see that Europeans considered Afghanistan to be physically distant, but spiritually, it was relatively close.

The Hereford mappa mundi was made around the same time that Marco Polo was in the east. The map, which is still in Hereford Cathedral, is nearly two metres across and shows the entire Old World. Afghanistan is not marked, but it can be found, and its position helps explain European attitudes to lapis and ultramarine. To the modern eye, the map may appear fanciful since it does not faithfully copy the physical shapes of Europe, Africa and Asia. However, distortion in maps is inevitable. After all, maps are flat and – as we know, and as the ancients were also aware – the world is round.
When we look at modern maps we know that conventions are used to squash or stretch countries and continents and we interpret accordingly. The Hereford mappa mundi might have different conventions but it too is perfectly functional. For example, it shows all the rivers, Alpine passes and seas that a pilgrim must cross to get from Hereford to Rome or Jerusalem.

In the middle ages geography had a spiritual side, in keeping with a tradition already millennia old, and this shows in medieval For example, in the Hereford mappa mundi north is not at the top, as it is in modern maps – pre-eminence is given to the east. Like a church, the world is ‘oriented’ towards the east; the ‘orient’.

The Hereford mappa mundi is a ‘Noachid map’ with three continents, one for each of Noah’s sons, their wives and offspring. Such maps are also known as a ‘T-O maps’ because a T-shaped cross divides the three continents. The vertical of the cross is formed by the Mediterranean Sea, running from east at the top to west at the bottom, separating Europe and Africa. The River Nile in the south and the River Don in the north form the horizontal of the cross, separating Africa and Europe from Asia. Europe is to the left of the cross. So Christendom is on Christ’s right side, the traditional position of the blessed in images of the crucifixion and the Day of Judgement. So, the mappa mundi charts sacred geography.

Painters knew all about the origins of their best blue. After all, as mentioned above, they called it ultra-marine, literally; ‘over-seas’ – and the sea over which it came was the Mediterranean, literally; the sea at the ‘middle of the earth’. So one could be in no doubt that this blue was exotic, coming as it did from the other side of the world. And, moreover, it came from a very special place on the other side of the world.

The spiritual centre of Christendom is Jerusalem, so it marks the physical centre of many medieval maps, including the Hereford mappa mundi.viii (Before Jules Verne borrowed it, the phrase ‘journey to the centre of the earth’ meant pilgrimage to the spiritual centre.) But the pilgrimage to Jerusalem would only take you half-way to where lapis was found. The Hereford mappa mundi shows another major landmark well beyond Jerusalem. Right at the top of the map, on the very edge of the world, lies Paradise, in the orient.
The word ‘orient’ comes from the Latin word for ‘rise.’ The sun, a symbol of God, rises in the orient and – with the east at the top – the sun does not circle around the world so much as descend into it. The same Latin root is shared by the word ‘origin’, so the location of Paradise in the orient echoes man’s origins in Paradise. At the top of the world, immediately below the face of God, the Hereford mappa mundi shows Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise, making their way south, to India. So, in the medieval world, Afghanistan, on the edge of the Indian subcontinent, is right next to Paradise. Lapis and ultramarine come from overseas, from the doorstep of Paradise.

One can also interpret something otherworldly about the origin of lapis and ultramarine in medieval maps. On a T-O map, Europe is below the cross on Christ’s right and Asia corresponds to the sky above the cross. Something imported from Asia into Europe descends, as if from the heavens, into the land of the blessed – it is not surprising that Albertus Magnus claimed that eastern stones have more power. But lapis is not from heaven, it is of this world – from Afghanistan – and, like all things on earth, it is imperfect. So, when artists got it, they needed to purify it.


Lapis is a mixture of minerals, one of which is blue, one white and one golden. As befits a stone with heavenly associations, lapis was described in terms of the night sky. Heaven and the celestial throne were compared to sapphire (lapis and sapphire were interchangeable names for the stones and the colour) and Albertus Magnus described the white streaks that crossed the blue stone as ‘clouds’. ‘Stars’, or specks of gold, accompanied the white clouds in the stone. Lapis’ white clouds were made of minerals like calcite. The star-like specks were actually golden crystals of pyrite. As stars and clouds, these gold and white minerals may have reinforced the stone’s heavenly character, but they posed a problem for the artist who wanted to grind it up and use it as a blue pigment. The stars and clouds had to be removed from lapis to make pure midnight-blue ultramarine that could be used on its own or mixed with other colours. There are numerous recipes for purifying lapis, some of which sound rather strange, like this one from a 3rd century papyrus from Hellenistic Egypt.

‘The lapis lazuli employed is first dipped into the bile of a tortoise and then
placed in a dye bath for amethyst for just as many days as for this and so

One feels that there are some details missing here. Other recipes are more detailed and many involve mixing the powdered stone into a paste-ball. For example, a collection of recipes in the fifteenth century Segreti de Colori makes paste-balls from varnish, oil, pitch (Naval, Spanish and Greek), suet (mutton and goat) and incense, as well as resins, gums and wax. The painter Cennino Cennini wrote a particularly detailed version of this type of recipe. It is over three pages long and is very easy to follow.
In brief, Cennini recommends grinding the lapis in a bronze mortar, working-up the powder on a porphyry slab and sifting it through a fine cloth. For each pound of powder, you add six ounces of resin from a pine tree, three ounces of gum from a mastic bush and three ounces of fresh bee’s wax. The lapis, resin, gum and wax are warmed and mixed into a paste having first covered your hands in linseed oil. The paste-ball is kneaded every day for at least three days. Then, the paste-ball is placed in a basin full of warm lye and kneaded – with two sticks – until the lye becomes saturated with a blue colour. This saturated lye is drained-off into a glazed pot, and fresh lye is added. The kneading and draining process is repeated eighteen times. For each of the containers of saturated lye, the blue powder is left to settle to the bottom, and the colourless lye is decanted. Finally, the powder is washed and dried.
Cennini notes that the colour from the first batch of lye is a rich violet-blue. This is better than the colour from the second batch, a rich true-blue, and the quality decreases until the last batches of lye produce a pale blue-grey called ‘ultramarine ash’. The individual batches are then combined to create several grades of pigment ranging from a fine blue – worth eight ducats an ounce – to a poor quality blue- grey.

Cennini does not mention any pre-treatments, but some recipes describe heating the stone and quenching it in vinegar before grinding. This was a traditional way of breaking rock. (Hannibal used fire and vinegar on a somewhat larger scale – to widen Alpine passes for his elephants.)
The raw material is so expensive and the process to convert it into a pigment so intricate that it seems unlikely that artists would have developed it without some
guidance. So how did this complicated purification technique arise? The key to answering this question lies in ‘four element theory’, a way of thinking about the world that endured in Europe for well over two thousand years but that has slowly been forgotten. It is worth looking at Cennini’s process in terms of the theory. Four elements theory is very different from modern scientific thinking. But if we approach them with sympathy, then strangely familiar glimpses of a long-lost world start to emerge.

The four elements

Sometimes there are said to be four elements, and sometimes, five – the difference depends upon whether one is considering the whole universe or just the world in which we live. The fifth element – the quintessence or ‘ether’ – could only be found in the heavens. It was shrouded in mystery.xxiixxiii The four terrestrial elements are ‘fire’, ‘air’, ‘water’ and ‘earth’. They are not like the hundred or so ‘elements’ that modern science regards as the building blocks of existence. The four elements describe the four modes of existing. ‘Earth’ relates to the solid mode of existing, and ‘water’ to the liquid mode. ‘Air’ relates to the gaseous mode, and ‘fire’ relates to the consuming mode.
The elements do not exist independently. Everything in the world – whether animal, vegetable, mineral or artificial – is a mixture of elements. Solid things are not only made of the element earth. For example, some solids are harder or softer than others because they are mixed with other elements. These additional elements – water, air or fire – can tell us why some solids dissolve, like sugar, or are transparent, like glass, or burn, like wood. Similarly, liquid things are not just made of water. The addition of earth might make a liquid thick and sticky, like syrup, the addition of air might make it fizzy, like champagne, and the addition of fire might make it burn, like oil.
The behaviour of things can be understood in terms of the behaviour of the element that dominates the mixture. The elements’ behaviours are due to three main factors – their ideal distribution in space, their shape and their qualities. It will help to look at each of these in turn before returning to show how they relate to raw lapis and Cennini’s recipe ingredients.

Elements – distribution in space

Most people in the ancient and medieval world agreed on two basic facts – the earth (meaning the world in which we live, rather than the element of solidity) is a sphere, and it lies at the ‘centre of the whole heavenly sphere’.xxiv The entire cosmos was a set of nested spheres. The heavens are made of perfect spheres and the earth is made of imperfect spheres. The perfect heavenly spheres will be discussed in a later chapter, but one key to understanding the behaviour of the four elements is the imperfection of the four terrestrial spheres.
The outermost terrestrial sphere is predominantly elemental fire. When we look up at the heavens at night, we see the stars and planets through this invisible layer of fire. It marks the boundary between heaven and earth. (In modern terms, it could be thought of as the region where spacecraft risk burning-up as they re-enter the atmosphere. In the absence of spacecraft, the heat could relate to friction as the highest imperfect terrestrial sphere is rubbed by the rotation of the lowest perfect celestial sphere.) The next sphere is mainly elemental air. This too is invisible and we can usually see right through it, yet we know it is there – it supports birds as they fly overhead. The third sphere is mainly elemental water. This is visible, although we can usually still see through it to a limited extent. The lowest sphere is predominantly elemental earth.

Like water, this too is visible, but only rarely can we see through it. The imperfection of the terrestrial spheres is most obvious at the boundary between the two visible elements; water and earth. If the four spheres had been perfect – fire, then air, water and earth – then we would all drown. However, some earth projects above the water providing support underfoot. Such apparent imperfections are part of the earth’s providential design.
The two higher spheres – fire and air – are invisible because they are ‘subtle’, and the two lower spheres – water and earth – are visible because they are ‘dense’. Descent from heaven to earth is marked by steps of increasing density. This determines the elements’ ideal positions – subtle over dense. It also determines the natural movement of composite bodies made of mixtures of the elements. This is best illustrated with a few examples.
If we put lots of sugar in a cup of tea and leave it to cool, then the mixture of elements will eventually separate – the sugar settles to the bottom of the cup. This is because a solid material, composed of elemental earth, is relatively dense and has ‘gravity’ in the sphere of water. On the other hand, if a glass of champagne is left to go flat, then the mixture of elements will again separate – but this time, bubbles escape from the surface. This is because a gaseous material, composed of elemental air, is subtle and has ‘levity’ in the sphere of water. These elemental movements also show on a larger scale. For example, if a drop of (dense) water is in the (subtle) sphere of air, then it has gravity and falls as rain. But if the water is in the (even denser) sphere of earth, then it has levity and rises as in a spring or a well. When water is in the sphere of water, in other words in the sea, it is at rest because, as we still say, ‘it is in its element’. The power of these elemental tendencies can be judged from volcanoes, which are caused by subtle fire escaping from being trapped in a sphere that is predominantly dense earth.
If a thing is above the sphere of its predominant element then it exhibits gravity. But if it is below that sphere, it exhibits levity. In other words, these properties are
inherent in each individual thing, which will display gravity or levity depending upon its position in space. As Aristotle said, things have ‘a natural tendency to move towards their own special places or rest in them when there.’
This is an important point. In the traditional sciences, things are not moved by external forces – they are moved by their own desires, almost like elemental ‘emotions’.

This is in stark contrast with the modern view, which, following Newton’s experience in the orchard, thinks that apples are pulled-off trees by the earth’s gravitational force. Newton’s impersonal external forces were a radical break from the traditional view that – when the time is ripe – the apple simply wants to go home. The attraction of the apple (a solid object) to the earth (the home of solid objects) becomes greater than the apple’s attraction to its branch. After growing-up on the tree in the sphere of air, the elemental theory goes, the apple eventually must return to its true home, the only place where its seeds can germinate...