Sacre Bleu and the Mother of God

Sacre Bleu and the Mother of God January 1, 2013

We are pleased to present a second guest post by Leanne Ogasawara, who writes from Japan, where she is a freelance translator and writer.

Wilton Diptych

When the German explorer Albert von Le Coq was at Kizil as part of his grand travels to “borrow” ancient artifacts in Central Asia (carving  frescos right off the walls in some cases!), he was stunned to come upon cave temples in what was by that time the middle of nowhere with murals of such beauty that he described them to be “the finest in all of Turkestan.”

These murals were of astounding beauty. And most surprising of all was the blue pigment used in the paintings decorating the cave walls. He would write, …the extravagant use of a brilliant blue – the well-known ultramarine which, in the time of Benvenuto Cellini was frequently employed by the Italian painters, and was bought at double its weight in gold.”

A color likened to the brilliant blue of the heavens above; as Le Coq explains, this ultramarine pigment was the same blue pigment so beloved by the Renaissance painters. How is it possible, he wondered, that the most expensive blue in the Renaissance painter’s palate was also to be found in this remote spot in Central Asia?

Made from ground up lapis lazuli, Victoria Finlay, in her book, Color: A Natural History of the Palette, begins her chapter on blue with these words: “One day many years ago somebody told me that all the true ultramarine paint in the world came from one mine in the heart of Asia.”

It’s true, it seems that all the ultramarine paint in the world was painstakingly derived from the lapis luzuli rocks mined from one place in northeast Afghanistan. Located not far from Bamiyan; from the Sar-e-sang mine in Afghanistan, donkeys transported the expensive pigment in rough sacks over an ocean of mountain ranges– East to Central Asia and beyond, and West to Venice and beyond.

In Europe, the precious pigment was so expensive that it was worth more than gold, and the legendary painters of the Renaissance were forced to wait till their patrons provided them the pigment before they could apply the heavenly blue to Mary’s robes (for by this time the color was symbolic of Mary).

Finlay says in today’s money, a pound would cost about $3,000.

The color is truly heavenly– just look at the Wilton Diptych— shown above. That is all lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. It is the same color blue that was used at Kizil in what is now Western China and the same color blue that was used in painting the great Buddhist statues that stood over the Bamiyan valley for 1400 years.

The Queen of Heaven

In Medieval Byzantium dark blue was the color reserved for an empress. It was also–along with gold–the costliest material of all and so was used in paintings of the Virgin Mary as an expression of devotion.The color became, therefore, a symbol of Mary, and this is where the term, la sacre bleu comes from too…

Cennino Cennini, in Il Libro dell’Arte, wrote that Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful and most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would still not surpass.”

Even the great Michaelangelo was famously unable to finish his painting The Entombment because his promised shipment of ultramarine fell through.

In the East too, lapis luzuli was treasured. Called vairya in Sanskrit, lapis luzuli was one of the Seven Buddhist treasures (七宝)–along with gold, silver, pearls, agate, crystal, and coral. In Japanese, it is written 瑠璃. Ruri is also used as a girl’s name, signifying the beautiful gem-like quality of the color. In fact, one of the most beautiful women I ever met in my life had that heavenly name.

My own favorite blue is Huizong’s blue —that shimmering lavendar blue he longed to re-create in his imperial ceramic glazes–like “the the color of the sky, in early morning after a rainshower…”  That blue was the blue that would become a kind of longing in people –existing more in people’s imaginations and hearts than anywhere else. But Cellini’s blue–that lapis luzuli blue from Bamiyan– is perhaps the most treasured blue of all times. It was, after all, a color to designate a celestial Queen.

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  • Absolutely wonderful information. Thank you.

  • Reblogged this on 1catholicsalmon and commented:
    A precious pigment reserved for the Queen alone. Fascinating facts!

    • Thank you so much for reading!!! There is a wonderful book called Blue:History of a Color, by Michel Pastoureau (link below). It details the rise and fall of the color blue. Its summit was in the Renaissance when it became the color of the Queen of Heaven and Mother of God. And its fall came with blue jeans when it became a color of the masses… I hope I am remembering correctly as it has been years since I read the book.
      Robert Harrison also did the best radio program on the Virgin Mary on his show Entitled Opinions. The guest on the show was Bissera V. Pentcheva, who is an expert on Byzantium and Eastern Orthodox traditions… I highly recommend it to you. My blog post was a part 2 to this posting I did at 3QuarksDaily about ultramarine at the destroyed statues at Bamiyan Happy New Year

  • Jordan

    Thank you very much Leanne for this excellent article. It’s fascinating how you have traced the trade in ultramarine or lapis luzuli through the world and through religious cultures.

    Is there a relationship between depictions of the bodhisattva of mercy Guanyin (Kannon in Japan) and lapis luzuli? The Kakure (“hidden”) Japanese Christians of the 16th and 17th centuries often carved statues of the Virgin Mary which resemble Kannon. These “Maria Kannon” were created in order to perpetuate the Marian cult and evade prosecution.

    I have long been fascinated by the plight of Christians under the Tokugawa shogunate. I would not be surprised if at some point carvings of Mary/Kannon were colored by lapis luzuli, perhaps because the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries had seen ultramarine-colored paintings of the Virgin Mary in Europe. Perhaps none of these lapis luzuli Maria Kannon statues survive, but this is an interesting question nevertheless.

    • Hi Jordan, I loved your comment! I am also interested in the history of Christians in Japan.Did you ever read Shusaku Endo’s book Silence? It is absolutely fabulous. If you haven’t already read that one, I really recommend it. It goes into great detail about fumi-e. (How the secret Christians were forced to step on images of Christ or Mary or face Crucifixion or other forms of torture and capital punishment. I believe those “images” were often bronze or iron stamped tablets made for stepping on…)

      To my knowledge, I don’t think there were Lapis luzuli statues of Maria made,, and I really doubt they used ultramarine in Japan–it was just too far removed and too faraway–much too precious to be exported. In 20 years in Japan, But who knows? In Japan, Kyoto and Nara are considered the terminus of the Silk Road as so much of the goods that traveled down the Silk Road ended up preserved and treasured there so anything is possible! I’ve never laid eyes on a Maria Kannon–but I have heard of them. I think the were often made of porcelain or Chinese celedon.

      Have you ever heard of the Maria statue that survived the nuclear blast at Nagasaki?

      Happy New Year and thank you so much for your comment!

      • Silence was a harrowing read, brilliantly written, but I also think it’s an easy book to misread, as so many analyses saying “what Rodrigues did was Right, Proper, and Justified” attest to.

  • Beautifully said, and a fascinating blog as well.

    The shades of the blue robes in the Diptych are beyond masterful, and I’m not sure I can praise it higher than that.

    • Thanks PJ!! I agree, it is so beautiful it takes my breath away…

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    See, a religion that can produce something so beautiful has got to be special in one way or the other! So beautiful! I love the Nat. Gallery London! London has that zenith, and then the Tate Modern nadir. Who can explain it? Just meditate on a lapis angel wing instead! Angels bring out the best in artists!

    • And don’t forget golden halos… it’s too true, angels and saints bring out the best in artists!! Happy New Year to you.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    Indeed, the halos are a fabulous artistic opportunity. And that brings up one of my favorite art -history details. So much of what we recognize as the very golden aesthetic for halos and other aspects of religious personages, in an artist say like Ghirlandaio, came about because of the discovery of Nero’s Domu Aurea, and the de facto artistic license for use of gold that that famous archaeological discovery occasioned. See, angels can even turn Nero, into a moment of salvation. God uses bad for good! Don’t forget that lesson from Sr. Ann’s class. And boy does art history prove it. Think of some Renaissance Popes.

    • I had never heard this story about angels and Nero! Thank you for the nice historical tidbit!!

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Erratum: Domus Aurea

  • Kerberos

    Some very ancient lapis lazuli here – the lyre of which this bearded bull is part, is over 4,000 years old.

    A larger picture:

    On the subject of halos: does anyone know how they came into Christian art, and how Roman art came by them ? TY

    • Hi. Thank you! I am also really interested in the iconography of halos. I want to learn more about it too. A friend gave me a Japanese book about apsaras and they have golden halos very much like the halos of saints and angels. I am guessing it was Greek or Persian originally and incorporated in art East and West… exquisite and heavenly golden Light.