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PART V: Ultramarine

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A richly decorated Book of Hours, a Christian handbook used to pray to the canonical hours in medieval times.  (1440-1450). The Virgin Mary’s blue cloak, along with other ornamental blue details, is pigmented with a powdered form of lapis lazuli, known as Ultramarine. Housed at Dartmouth College Rauner Rare Manuscript Library

Along with being a highly prized object in and of itself, lapis was also prized for the blue pigment resulting from its powdered form. Based on what we have learned from earlier in the exhibition, it is perhaps of no great surprise that the blue of lapis, infused with these Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and European ideas of purity, liminality, birth and the divine, became—in powdered pigment form—the source for the signature color of the Virgin Mary, imbued as she was with the divine, immaculate conception. Based on what we learned in Parts 1-4, what is lapis, if not a mystical element existing at the brink of creation?


It is perhaps then curious to consider how this difficult-to-source in nature blue color, then, may have played into later descriptions of the natural world. Darwin, for example, used powdered ultramarine to describe these awesome spaces that would leave one otherwise without words: the depths of the ocean; the limits of the sky. How, then, might the rarity and veneration of lapis have, then, colored our impressions of the natural world? Is it, perhaps, that we think of the ocean and atmosphere as endless, mysterious, and immutable because it is the color that is so representative of these values? 


The idea of nature’s limitlessness, of its creation being in the servitude of man, for man from God, and of God, are ideas that we have seen permeate so much religious tradition, from ancient Mesopotamian to modern Christian thinkers. That, in a sense, is what drove our conception of the divine qualities of the stones, for they were seen to be made by god for the use of man. But in the late 20th century, as we have begun to see that the sky and ocean are, in fact, able to be tarnished by man; so too have these elements of the earth been tarnished by war, religious extremism and colonization. The terms “blood lapis” or “conflict mineral” are now used to describe the illegal extraction of lapis occurring in Afghanistan right now. 


One could argue that completely wrestling and exhausting resources from the earth has a perilousness of its own. Many scholars believe that it is only in acknowledging the power of the earth, its strange pull and force; its embeddedness in a deep matrix of peoples, places, and things, of currents and tectonic movement, may we ever be able to achieve some sort of harmonic cooperation with the earth and its resources. In a time in which things seem so bleak, more turn to astrology and stone or crystal healing for comfort. One can see why humans searching for meaning and comfort might be drawn to lapis. It is, after all, due to metamorphism— tectonic forces of heat and pressure, when continents crash into each other and form mountains in the most violent and chaotic ways— that this beautiful, sensational, sublime stone is rendered, one that brings to mind nothing but the peace of the sky at the brink of dawn, or a placid, sparkling ocean. And what is that if not a kind of magic of its own?


Selected Works Cited

Nijhuis, Michelle. “The Book That Colored Charles Darwin's World.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 27 Jan. 2018,

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