Blue of immesureable depth, the pure tone of skys, pools, deep oceans, long voyages, and dyeing the dresses of Mary. Oltremare, ultramarine, across the ocean. The azure treasure of Badakhshan mined for thousands of years to bring blues from the depths to the surface world of eyes and color. ‘The most perfect of blues’ according to Cennini.
The deepest, purest, most revered of the blues made first into a pigment by the Arabian alchemists, Ultramarine blue was treated like gold and vermillion in its preciousness. A conferrer of wealth and virtue to any painting that contained it. It covers dead Egyptian kings, and paintings throughout Asia. In European painting it’s expense ensured it was reserved for the most special and sacred of subjects.
Which of course explains why Mary and her son seem to have endless wardrobes of blue throughout the middle ages and renaissance. The spiritual depth of blue, much proclaimed and argued for, certainly has its resonance and reality, but wealth and social status of the procured pigment from an exotic land are the pillars of its presence in western art.
And of course it is the entire heavy sky in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne
Vermeer too seemed to use it everywhere and anywhere. Those deep resounding blues of his, little seas in his paintings.
And most famously, it gets the blame for Michelangelo’s unfinished Entombment. Without blue, the story goes, the show cannot go on, the work must stop as there are no energies left to propel it.
In more contemporary times, synthetic ultramarine is one of the great successes of chemistry. Discovered in the early 1800s in the leftovers of sodium bicarbonate manufacturing, it is, the chemists assure us, mostly indistinguishable from its natural form. Pb29, as it is now classified, tends more to be a color for the water-colorers, as its use in oils and acrylics tends to require quite a bit of dreaded manufacturing filler to get a decent consistency.
Still, it is nice to know the history of ocean trips, Afghan mines, alchemists, and the madonna all hang with you when you smear that blue butter onto the work at hand.
And when I think of blue, I always have my soundtrack in mind. ‘Blue is Beautiful’ by the Make Up.