Ultramarine: A Truly Expensive Blue Gold

The richest colour you'll ever find. The notoriously expensive pigment has called more expensive than gold. Blue Gold.

This is the most expensive pigment ever created. It is one of the only naturally occurring blues that exist in nature. It is a stone that has been mined in Afghanistan since the 7th century B.C. It was carried overland by donkeys and through Venice by gondolas from the valleys of Kokcha, Afghanistan to Europe.

The stone lapis lazuli which is a complex sodium calcium aluminum silicate sulphate with some iron pyrite (the gold looking flecks), calcite, wollastonite, augite and mica comes from lazurite a mineral sodalite. The lapis lazuli name translates to blue stone from Persian. This colour was very expensive, was only used by established artists and used on a singular objects like a cloth or the sky.

The name ultramarine is Latin for “beyond the seas.” It is known for being the most vivid and deepest of blues that existed. There are no traces of reds, greens or brown tones in the pigment. It’s purely blue. The semiprecious stone was used for various decorations of ancient times like on coffins, murals, jewelry and death masks. It was used in 14th and 15th century illuminated manuscripts and Italian panels. The blue on the tomb of King Tutankhamen death mask was ultramarine mixed in with Egyptian Blue.

Hex Code for Ultramarine #120A8F
Hex Code for Ultramarine #120A8F
Image of a page from Dover Bible  c. 1150. A man is sitting in blue robes on a chair in an illustrated block.
Image of a page from Dover Bible c. 1150.

The extraction process to create the deep blue pigment took time and effort for this discovery in 12th century Europe by the Benedictine monk Theophilus. The updated method by the 14th century Italian painter Cennino Cennini is the method used today. The mixture of minerals that create the blue would grin into a fine powder in a bronze mortar then had wax, pine resin and gum mastic knead together in a glass bowl and strained with a linen cloth. They would knead the doughy concoction for about 72 hours straight. Then lye would rinse the dye while squeezing the dye dough. The step of lye and squeezing the dough would be repeated until the dough had no more colour to be strained out. The glass bowl would sit in the sun evaporating the water until a blue powder is left over. The outcome would be the grade portion of the leftover residue that was the rich blue pigment. If the process continued the vivid colour would diminish from a rich, pure, vibrant true blue to an ash ultramarine which is grey but can be used on paintings, manuscripts and glazing.

Hex Code for Ultramarine Ash #5c6ab3
Hex Code for Ultramarine Ash #5c6ab3

Because of the scarcity and method of the process made ultramarine the most expensive pigment available. Most people would substitute ultramarine with cobalt, smalt, indigo or azurite. Some crooks would try to sell the substitute pigments has ultramarine for a profit by selling the fraudulent blue pigment as the full price ultramarine and keeping the dividends for themselves.

The cost of ultramarine is known to be more expensive than gold. Like saffron, there was a value culturally and in manufacturing the pigment. By some painters who pay for the pigment called it blue gold. In France, around the 1830s the cost of an ounce would be 8 guineas (gold coins) aka at least $298.37 USD an ounce. The cost of manufacturing the pigment increased in production cost between the 16th – 17th centuries when the cost substitute azurite was at a supply low. Ultramarine might have the reputation of being costly if patrons would have to pay for the pigment ultramarine and gold which were usually used as a luxurious pair in paintings, murals, frescoes and ceramics. Also, grinding the stone into a fine powder took some labour to produce. Pure ultramarine remains costly to this day.

There were many variations of blue pigments like ultramarine that existed like azurite. It was a colour made similarly like ultramarine but didn’t have the same pure vivid shade of blue it was a greenish-blue. This was sometimes used as a base coat for ultramarine to bring out the vividness.

Sassoferrato, The Virgin in Prayer, c. 1640-1650
Sassoferrato, The Virgin in Prayer, c. 1640-1650
Painting of Raphael, An Allegory Vision Of A Knight, c. 1504
Painting of Raphael, An Allegory Vision Of A Knight, c. 1504
Painting by Duccio, Virgin and Child in Majesty, Central Panel from the Maestà Altarpiece, c. 1308-1311
Painting by Duccio, Virgin and Child in Majesty, Central Panel from the Maestà Altarpiece, c. 1308-1311

This colour is so widely respected as a religious colour reserved for the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ cloaks. Before people started to wear white for wedding ceremonies, most people wore blue due to their associations with purity. When ultramarine is associated with the Virgin Mary it is called Marian blue. It was a colour tone preserved for celestial beings since the 5th century. The colour tone used mostly ultramarine and sometimes indigo and cobalt to convey the colour of the heavens and the sky representing peace and tranquillity. She wasn’t always blue. Before the rise of Christian painters in the Byzantine empire, the Virgin Mary was in red. She started to be in blue because of the rise of Mariology and the cult of the Virgin.

Mariology is the theological study of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mariology methodically relates teachings about her to other parts of the faith, such as teachings about Jesus, redemption and grace. Christian Mariology aims to connect scripture, tradition and the teachings of the Catholic Church on Mary. In the context of social history, Mariology may be broadly defined as the study of devotion to and thinking about Mary throughout the history of Christianity.

The definition of Marilogy from Wikipedia

When the church in the year 431 declared that Virgin Mary was official church dogma at the First Council of Ephesus. Her ranking newly became Queen of Heaven, the Spiritual Mother, and Intercessor after which having deity status. There were icons, paintings and murals made under the rule of Constantinople standardizing the appearance of the Virgin Mary in a deep rich blue cloth in front of a gold leaf backdrop holding the baby Jesus with a serene expression.

Many painters throughout the centuries like Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo have used ultramarine in their paintings. Michelangelo’s painting The Entombment (1500-1501) had rumours since the 16th century about why the painting remains unfinished to this day because the blue paint was too expensive and was in short supply at the time to finish it on time. The cloak on the Virgin Mary and the person on the right still remains unfinished. He was originally commissioned to paint the panel for the church of Sant’Agostino in Rome but gave back the sum received.

Painting of The Entombment (1500 - 1501) by Michelangelo
Painting of The Entombment, by Michelangelo, c. 1500 – 1501
Painting of  Girl with a Red Hat by  Johannes Vermeer, 1665-1666. Woman in a large brim hat looking at the viewer wearing a deep blue jacket.
Painting of Girl with a Red Hat by Johannes Vermeer, 1665-1666.

Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer used ultramarine so much he had to take out loans to cover the costs. His family was heavily in debt for him to produce some of the very blue paintings in his collection. When he painted with ultramarine, it complimented the warm tones from the oranges and browns of the painting. He painted most of the time with ultramarine.

Painting of The Umbrellas by Pierre-Auguste Renoir 1881-1886
Painting of The Umbrellas by Pierre-Auguste Renoir 1881-1886

Another painter that had once used ultramarine was Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He painted The Umbrellas between 1881-1886. The painting has a woman dressed in deep blue carrying a blue umbrella on a rainy day in the 1880s in a crowd of people carrying blue umbrellas. A woman looking at the viewer is in a brownish-blue dress carrying an empty basket. And a little girl in a deep blue dress jacket is also looking at the viewer. The dresses are in the style of the time mixed with ultramarine paint.

French Ultramarine

There was an effort to find a synthetic pigment after a competition was stated to win 6000 francs in the Societé d’Encouragement pour L’Industrie Nationale. The competition was about creating an artificial version of ultramarine for an industrial organization. In 1828, four years after the competition was announced inventor Jean-Baptiste Guimet of Toulouse, France was awarded the winner. He invented a synthetic version to ultramarine by analyzing the pigment and combining synthetics, china clay, soda, charcoal, quartz and sulphur heated together. The mixture would be a greenish glass mixture pulverized, washed and reheated to create the rich blue powder. It was just like ultramarine but non-toxic and cheaper. At the time, French ultramarine would cost between 1 to 25 shillings per pound which is roughly 0.54¢ to $13.68 USD per pound. It was capable to be used in watercolour or in oil paintings. This version of ultramarine continues to be used today and is the go-to blue for ultramarine.

French ultramarine was cheaper and easier to use than ultramarine. But it tended to discolour in home use painting when mixed with distemper. Impressionist painters including Renoir and Monet used this synthetic ultramarine heavily.


The Paris Review – Marian Blue, the Color of Angels, Virgins, and Other Untouchable Things

The Mystical Humanity of Christ Publishing – Mary and the Importance of the Color Blue

Nammu – Lapis Lazuli Color: Ultramarine Blue

Convertion of currencys – Historical currency converter

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