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Mummies, Mucus and Other Pigments Past

Friday, July 5, 2013

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The stuff of cattle urine, snail mucus, and mummies, it’s not hard to see why some paint pigments of the past fell by the wayside.

While some of these brilliant colors were made from pretty disgusting ingredients and are mostly extinct, they remain intriguing, reports in a fascinating new rundown.

Expensive and Dangerous

One paint color is said to have possibly played a role in Napoleon's death. Scheele's Green, which adorned the emperor's living room, contained the very toxic cupric hydrogen arsenite, Hyperallergic reports. Traces of arsenic, possibly from the paint's vapors, were found in his hair.

lapiz lazuli
The National Gallery, London

Blue-hued Lapis Lazuli was the most expensive pigment ever created. It can still be found at a store in New York City, but five grams will set you back $360.

Lapis Lazuli is said to be the most expensive pigment ever created, according to

Made from ground-up precious Lapis Lazuli stones, the pigment dates to the sixth century in Afghanistan. The rich blue became popular with the wealthy during the Renaissance. This pigment can still be purchased at the Kremer Pigmente store in Manhattan for $360 for five grams.

Nature and Fables

A predatory snail found off the shore of Phoenicia's Tyre gave pigment to the color Tyrian Purple, the article reports. Said to become even more beautiful with sun exposure, the color nevertheless eventually disappeared because it took too many snails to make.

ancient paint colors

A burial shroud of Charlemagne from the early ninth century was made from Byzantine silk and colored with Tyrian Purple, made from snail mucus.

Then there was Dragon's Blood, spun as a mix of dragon's blood and elephant's blood. The pigment was actually made from a Southeast Asian tree, but its fabled background about an epic battle between an elephant and a fire-breathing monster was irresistible to buyers.

Maya Blue is commonly found in artifacts of the Maya and Aztec. Known to be a mix of dye from the indigo plant and natural clay, its durability remained a mystery until recently, when chemists discovered that careful variations in the preparation temperatures held the secret to the color's long life.

Just Plain Gross

Pre-Raphaelites were said to be fond of a pigment called Mummy Brown. The ingredient? Real mummies! The color was made with cat and human Egyptian mummies that were ground up and mixed with white pitch and myrrh. Alas, however, once the mummies ran out, so did the paint.

Today, the color can be recreated with a mixture of kaolin, quartz, geothite and hematite.

Mummy Brown
The Louvre

Real, ground-up mummies were used to create the brownish pigment of Mummy Brown.

And what mummies couldn't pull off, cattle pee did. Cattle in the Bihar province of India were said to be fed only mango leaves and water; their urine was then used to produce the vivid Indian Yellow.


Tagged categories: Architectural history; Color; Color trends; Pigments

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