What colour robe does the Virgin Mary wear?
Top marks. But why?
Perhaps the most watertight explanation is one I learnt today at the Making Colour exhibition at London’s National Gallery. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the pigment ultramarine – from the Latin ‘beyond the sea’ – was extracted from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, which was mined in what is now Afghanistan and imported into Europe. It was more expensive than gold. In times when most art was emphatically religious, the sheer luxuriance of it demonstrated the artist’s personal devotion.
The Virgin in Prayer by Giovanni Sassoferrato, 1640-50. © The National Gallery, London.
In order to extract the pure blue pigment, the mineral would be ground into a fine powder, mixed with wax, pine resin and gum arabic, kneaded and finally diluted in an alkaline bath. Then all of this would be repeated several times.
Even during the Renaissance, there were cheaper ways to capture blue – but you’d get what you pay for. Azurite, a deep-blue copper carbonate mineral was one option and the main source of blue pigment in Northern Europe, but it wasn’t the same rich blue, it had a greenish tint. Cobalt glass – or smalt – again was less expensive, but was also unstable when combined with oils.
It wasn’t until 1828 that the French chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet created the first synthetic ultramarine pigment comparable to lapis lazuli in colour and permanence. But even today the ‘real thing’ is held in huge regard by artists, and it still doesn’t come cheap, either.
In 2008, the British artist Roger Hiorns found another way to create an arresting blue, harnessing the power of crystallisation to create his installation ‘Seizure’. He pumped an abandoned council flat with over 75,000 litres of liquid copper sulphate, and left it to become overgrown with glowing, piercing blue crystals. There’s a lump of it in the National Gallery now and it’s almost hypnotising.
That’s just a bit about blue. The exhibition covers the entire rainbow in depth, and being the National Gallery, it illustrates the use of colours with the assistance of originals from many historical masters of art.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
There’s also a very interesting video and experiment, which tests your perception of colour and leaves you wondering what colour really is. The last question was something like this: has this exhibition changed the way you look at colour? I pressed yes. For those interested in where art and science meet – and the crossovers are almost endless – this is a must-see exhibition. It’s running until 7 September.
Here’s what they have to say about purple.
By Simon Frost