Secret lives of colour – Ultramarine blue

Increasingly I shop online. I never particularly enjoy shopping – especially for things like clothes. Amazon is very convenient – especially for things like electronics. But, while I like the convenience of Amazon, I don’t like its growing dominance and the more ‘soulless’ nature of this form of shopping. There are not many shops I feel an attachment to. The one exception is bookshops, which are somehow important for towns. I went to one town in South Yorkshire and it was all second-hand clothes shops, gambling shops and Pound shops – it was very dispiriting!


Where possible, I like to visit bookshops and buy something that takes my interest. I was browsing in this bookshop in Ilkley, where I saw a book called “Secret Lives of Colour” – it turned out to be a good book – something I would never have bought by an online search.

It had easy to read chapters on colour-dyes used by painters. It was really fascinating to learn the trouble artists had to go to – in order to get different colours. For example, there was one colour which came from a secret source in India. It was apparently made from cow urine, in which the poor cows had been fed only mango leaves!

Natural ultramarine pigment

One of the most interesting colours was ultramarine. This was a beautiful deep blue – which was so rare it was for a long time more expensive than gold. During the Middle Ages and The Renaissance, the blue really stood out from a colour palate which was much more limited than our own.

Ultramarine blue came from lapis lazuli stone – which was ground down into a fine powder before being mixed with oils. The colour was so rare and expensive it is said Michaelangelo couldn’t afford to use it. It is said, his painting The Entombment, was left unpainted because he couldn’t get the colour.

Because the colour was so rare, artists would reserve for final coats and was increasingly reserved for painting the Virgin Mary, and this is partly how the Virgin Mary became associated with the colour blue.


Full title: The Virgin in Prayer
Artist: Sassoferrato
Date made: 1640-50. The National Gallery, London

Blue has long had a link to spirituality. Sri Chinmoy explains the significance of the colour blue.

“Blue is the colour of spirituality. Blue represents infinity, and blue represents creativity in its crystal form. It is the colour blue that constantly grows in the human nature as well as in the divine nature. When it grows in our human nature, it tries to expand our limited human nature. When it grows in our divine nature, it tries to spread the Truth, to manifest the Truth that it already embodies. In human nature it tries to expand, in divine nature it tries to manifest its own Light..” [1]

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes