Ultramarine: The source of the ultimate blue

Art 19 Apr 2021 Nilanjan Hajra
Photo : Dreamstime

What’s common between the following milestones of European art: Giovanni Batista Sassoferrato’s Virgin in Prayer, Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring, or Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne? Anyone with a discerning eye will quickly reply. The use of a stunning blue. In painting parlance, this stunning blue is known as the Ultramarine.

Painters considered it to be the most expensive shade of blue during the great artistic days of the Renaissance. And as the story goes, even Michelangelo couldn’t complete his painting Entombment, because he could not afford Ultramarine. This, on the one hand, indicates, how sought-after the pigment was in Europe in the middle ages, and on the other, it also indicates that the shade is irreplaceable. Either it’s Ultramarine or nothing, decided one of the greatest painters in history. Very few people, however, still know that there is a deep Islamic connection to the production and distribution of this colour.

The source of the colour Ultramarine 

The name of this colour comes from the Latin word ‘Ultramarinus’, literally meaning ‘beyond the sea’. The name itself indicates that the colour pigment came to Europe from across the seas, it wasn’t locally available. In brief, this colour was prepared using the Lapis Lazuli stone. And the only major source of the stone was the Sar-i-Sang valley in Afghanistan. Of course, Egyptians knew the use of Ultramarine as early as the 16th century-BCE. So also to the Mycenean Greece in the 13th-century-BCE. Several centuries later Ultramarine was also used in Central Asia. But all these were very far off in history. And the examples were rare, in comparison to the use of Ultramarine during the Renaissance and later years.

And that is why Italian craftsman Cennino Cennini created a revolution of sorts by detailing the production procedure of Ultramarine. He did this in his book The Craftsman’s Handbook C 1390. This certainly was a revolution of sorts in Europe. But it would be historically wrong to call him the modern inventor of the Ultramarine pigment. That’s because the Arab Islamic world knew how to produce Ultramarine artificially.

The colour and the Islamic World

The ‘father of chemistry’ Jabir ibn Hayyan described the process for the production of Ultramarine way back in the ninth century CE. Again, in the 13th century, Berber polymath Ahmad al-Tifashi also described the production of Ultramarine in his book Best on the Best of Stones. In the chapter on lapis, Tifashi recommended that powdered lapis be mixed with resins into a dough, and manipulating the batch in water ‘until its essence will come out’.

Around the same time, the great Anatolian scientist Hobays bin Ebrahim bin Mohammad Teflisi wrote a famous treatise Bayan al-Sena’at. This was a work on alchemy, jewelry, colouring crystals, and glass. Here described a method of how to obtain Ultramarine from lapis.

In brief, therefore, Islamic knowledge had a major role to play behind the creation of this marvelous colour, Ultramarine, and numerous stunning paintings using it.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)