Liberal Arts Blog — Lapis Lazuli — From King Tut to “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” (Vermeer)
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Today’s Topic: Lapis Lazuli — From King Tut to “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” (Vermeer)
Do you have a favorite stone? The other day I asked a new friend who was a geology major in college what her favorite stone is. She replied: lapus lazuli. So I decided to do a little research. I was not disappointed. It turns out it was used for millennia in art from the Indus Valley civilization (as early as the 8th millenium BCE) to Ancient Egypt (King Tut) to the Renaissance (the robes of the Virgin Mary) and beyond (Vermeer). Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.
KING TUTANKHAMUN (“KING TUT”) 1341–1323 BCE (reign from age 8 to 18)
1. The King Tut Paradox: “The pharaoh who in life was one of the least esteemed of Egypt’s Pharaohs has become in death the most renowned”
2. This happened because of the discovery in 1925 of his intact tomb which included 5000 artifacts of which the most famous is his gold mask. The discovery was made in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter as part of an expedition funded by Lord Carnavaron.
3. King Tut’s fame grew exponentially in the 1960s when his mask began a series of global tours. First to the Louvre in Paris. Then to Japan. Then to the United States and beyond in the 1970s.
NB: Speculation on the cause of King Tut’s death has ranged from a malarial infection to a chariot accident, to sickle cell anemia.
THE VIRGIN MARY — Massacio (1401–1428), Perugino (1450–1523), Sassoferrato (1609–1685)
1. Ultramarine (“beyond the sea”) is the deep blue pigment made by grinding lapis lazuli and in Renaissance painting it symbolized Mary’s humility and holiness.
2. It was more expensive than gold and remained so until a synthetic substitute was manufactured in 1826.
3. “Ultramarine blue is a glorious, lovely and absolutely perfect pigment beyond all the pigments. It would not be possible to say anything about or do anything to it which would not make it more so.” (Cennino Cennini, “The Book of Art,” circa 1500)
THE GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING — Vermeer,
1. “It’s surprising how much high quality ultramarine Vermeer used in the girl’s headscarf. This blue pigment was more valuable than gold in the 17th century.” (Abbie Vandevere, curator, Mauruithuis Museum, the Hague.)
2. “The stone may have first been heated at a high temperature, which made it easier to grind and produced a more intense blue color.”
3. The identity of the girl has never been determined, but does it matter? The painting has been called a “tronie” rather than a “portrait.” The former was a painting not designed to capture an individual’s special features but to illustrate a certain “type” or “character.” (See 13th link below)
FOOTNOTE — Location of mines, etymology, geology
1. Northeast Afghanistan, Andes in Chile, west of Lake Baikal in Russia.
2. “Smaller quantities are mined in Pakistan, Italy, Mongolia, the United States, and Canada”
3. Etymology: “heaven” or “sky” stone
NB: “The most important mineral component of lapis lazuli is lazurite (25% to 40%), a blue feldspathoid silicate minteralwith the formula (Na,Ca)8(AlSiO4)6(S,SO4,Cl)1–2.Most lapis lazuli also contains calcite (white), sodalite (blue), and pyrite (metallic yellow).”
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