Though lapis lazuli is now mainly used as a gemstone in jewelry, ornaments, and for other decorative purposes, it had another main use in ancient times – paint! In the East, in Egypt, and later in the Roman empire, lapis lazuli was turned into paint and used in famous works of art.
The four most important blue pigments used throughout history are Egyptian blue, azurite, smalt, and lapis lazuli. Before increased trading between the East and West, Egyptian blue remained the most commonly used pigment in Egypt and the Western world. However, after the early medieval period, lapis lazuli became the most essential material, despite the fact that its price was equal to gold. At this time, lapis came almost exclusively from the mountains in Afghanistan as deposits in South America and Northern Asia had yet to be discovered. The use of lapis lazuli spread with the expansion of Islam in the middle of the seventh century. It rapidly became a staple of artistic creation during the time period.
Preparation of the pigment is incredibly complex and required specialized technology, also contributing to its late rise to fame. The pigment can only be properly extracted from the very highest-quality lapis lazuli stones. First, manufacturers must cut the raw stone, trying to eliminate as much of the visible calcite and pyrite as possible in order to keep only the pure blue lazurite. Then tools are used to crush the remaining stone into a rough sand. Lapis lazuli is a relatively hard material and requires powerful tools to reduce it to powder. The blue sand is then washed, and a magnet can be used to remove iron particles. Pyrite is not magnetic and cannot be removed this way, so there will often be remaining traces of pyrite in the finished product, giving the paint a slightly shimmering quality. The sand is then milled several times over to make the particles as fine as possible. The crystals are pulverized the perfect amount. If the grains are too big the substance will be more of a powder than a pigment, but if they are too small then the finished paint will end up more of a light greenish blue rather than a deep blue.
Once the particles have been milled and washed they are mixed with other substances. This could be beeswax, gum mastic, water, oils, and other additives. The mixture is kneaded by hand and the pigment is eventually extracted from this. Lots of experience and expertise is needed in order to mix the exact proportions of lapis crystals and natural additives as well as the correct amount of kneading.
Despite its high cost and complicated preparation process, paint made from lapis lazuli retained its popularity due to its stunning beauty. The pigment made from pure lapis was dubbed “ultramarine” because of its concentrated azure color. It was used extensively in the Middle Ages in both the West and Islamic world in paintings and other artworks. The oldest paintings with lapis lazuli were found in Chinese Turkestan and date between the fifth and eighth centuries along with wall paintings from the sixth and seventh centuries in the cave temple of Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
Johannes Vermeer, a famous Dutch painter from the early 1600s, was well-known for his extensive use of ultramarine in his works. Vermeer’s adoration of the regal color made it a focus of many of his paintings, and the brilliant use of the pigment can still be admired today.
Sadly, genuine ultramarine is no longer produced. Today ultramarine blue coloring is manufactured artificially. However, the beauty of the coloring can still be admired in famous works of art that have stood the test of time.