Reinvention of Biblical Blue and Roman Murex Purple
I will not fear to carry this huge information lot from Mrs. Inge Boesken Kanold's site to here. Its all about rediscovery of production of 3600 years old Murex Shellfish Dye Production Methods which lost since 1453 where We The Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople , Istanbul.
Murex Shellfish Purple is first used at Ege Sea , Santorini Island Wall paintings and hidden under the volcanic ash for 3600 years. This color was used at Egypt , Alexandrian times and Roman ,Byzantine times by the Emperors. Its is the most expensive dye ever seen and times more expensive than gold.
Biblical Blue is a stop at the process where murex dye transform from green to purple. It is used for dyeing parchements with gold decoration and here are two samples for these new invented processes.
More info at below posts.
Mustafa Umut Sarac
Last edited by Mustafa Umut Sarac; 07-23-2012 at 10:30 PM. Click to view previous post history.
Working with Murex in Modern Art
Inge Boesken Kanold - Chemin du Château 84480 LACOSTE France
Looking at Balinese paintings in the 1970s, there seemed to be more harmony and beauty in the early works of profane Balinese art decades before. What was the reason?
Acrylic paints had been brought along by tourists from Australia in these years and the Balinese artists had been keen to use them. But the blue, yellow and red, white and black of the old paintings in the Ubud Museum had other sources. Searching their origins, they naturally reminded one of the recipe book by Cennino Cennini, the 15th c. Italian craftsman on art.
This was the beginning of a fascinating return to colour’s history, driven by the idea of finding hidden treasures in art by using the material as subject matter.
Some countries have another relationship to colour due to the fact that nature provides them. Indonesia and India were historically involved in indigo production. Nowadays Lebanon is famous for the ancient purple dye-works.
How were these colours made, what was their origin? Would it be possible to reproduce them, perhaps even store them on a shelf ready for the artist’s use?
When circumstances were favourable, the author began to investigate. In Beirut she heard of scientists who had tried to dye with shellfish purple from the shores of Lebanon. It was in 1979 when her first attempt of making dry purple pigment for her own artistic use failed. Many years later, in Provence, France, the opportunity to continue the quest occurred when she discovered Murex snails on local markets.
Experiments following hints in the literature concerning Royal Purple and the Biblical Blue led her to rediscover these two colours for her art work. As they were basically dyestuffs, she used them as such, staining paper and century old, worn linen sheets. Even coffee filters were a good medium to ‘catch’ the colour and show what purple looks like. Further research into the subject motivated her to try out all possibilities of the snail’s secretion. What could a painter do with a colour that wouldn’t become a pigment?
In order to find out, it was necessary to look more closely at the ancient dyeing process. It helped to understand the practical use of Murex snails and inevitably led to more explorations.
How could dyers of the antiquity practice their art in remote places far away from any shores?
How was purple parchment made?
What process could be used to repeat the purple drawings or photos of Henri Lacaze-Duthiers?
Were there any other artists working with shellfish purple?
Finally, where are the limits for an artist using a colour of a unique history, a complicated chemistry and no “body” other than its own secretion?
In August 1923 the German born Walter Spies (1895 – 1942) went to Indonesia, a move which was ultimately to transform the course of Balinese art. (Rhodius 1964). He was a musician and a painter of a naïve style, who had trained himself during a long stay in the Ural region of Russia. He had fled Europe to find his proper paradise far away from what he considered a decadent civilisation. He arrived on Java first and got himself introduced to the court of the sultan of Jogjakarta. He soon worked with the local musicians and managed to use two pianos, which he had adapted for the Gamelan orchestra. A few years later he settled on the island of Bali. He seemed to have arrived where he wanted to be and felt extremely close to the local artists. They started working together under his auspices and being good copyists by nature, they soon took over his naïve style of painting landscapes. As the first tourists began to discover Bali, the young artists set up their paintings in the local hotel lounge to sell their weekly work.
Surely they must have had some imported material, but a good deal of the paints derived from close sources. The temple and palace art of Bali has always shown a range of colours locally available: black, white, red, yellow, and the ochre colours. Ships from other islands used to throw their ballast of ochre stones overboard. Once a year a painter’s procession brought all the necessary ochre from a nearby shore. Black was found in fire residues. White was made from pig jaws carbonised overnight in a coconut shell. The next day, all grey parts were scraped off, the remaining white layer was crushed and ground on a slab. This is recalled in the craftsman’s handbook of Cennino d’Andrea Cennini: “You must know what bone is good. Take bone from the second joints and wings of fowls, or of a capon; the older they are the better. Just as you find them under the dining-table, put them into the fire; and when you see that they have turned whiter than ashes, draw them out, and grind them well on the porphyry; and use it as I say above.” (Thompson 1960).
Although Indigo was produced on the nearby island of Java, paintings in the ‘Klungkung Palace’ built about 1650 A.D. did not employ it. The bright red seems to be cinnabar, which was imported from China until the 1970s. The yellow is orpiment called atal locally.
As the Klungkung paintings testify, these colours together with the ochre nuances create a harmonious composition and entity. During the time of ‘Flower Power’ many ‘hippies’ came as tourists to the ‘Island of the Gods’. They brought along their lifestyle and their materials, and foreign artists started to live and work on the island. It was the time when acrylic paint had been invented. The colour tubes were so much easier to transport, store and handle. It must have been a very thrilling and tempting moment for Balinese artists to try out modern materials and the colour range got somewhat out of hand. Everywhere paintings bordered the shops, houses and streets in the villages. They all looked brand-new, had lost their subtleness and harmony. This plentiful creation was overwhelmed with colours; many of the paintings became decorative and rather banal.
The museum in Ubud though owned a few rooms with early profane paintings of Bali. They seemed more concentrated, more harmonious, and very interestingly, had only a few colours. Just like the paintings of the Kerta Gosa in the town of Klunkung there were hardly more than five. From the 17th century on the open building has served as the court of justice. The ceiling is painted with episodes from the ‘place of devils’ and describes in detail the punishment of every sin possible.
In the past, religious representations respected traditional recipes and materials. Artists worked with locally available, often inexpensive paints and brushes, which were homemade if they had no access to the trade routes. In previous centuries this was true for the pictorial creations in most countries. Along the silk route in Central Asia artists employed local colours together with pigments imported from foreign markets. (Riederer 1977). Ochre is found almost everywhere, but royal purple -due to its complex nature- was not a traded pigment. Cinnabar and lapis lazuli made their way to the west, but remained cheaper and more accessible in the east. Every region had their recipe for producing greens, derived either from residues in copper mines or made from mixtures of two prime colours.
How much was colour linked to meaning and expression?
In an Indian handbook on the creation of images for holy purposes, a chapter on painting with colours evokes the relation between the material and its spirituality. The varieties of colours are named after the natural objects in which they are found and which are the ingredients used for preparing the paints. Colours are classified into four varieties, white, yellow, red and black. (Gopala Iyengar 1973).
“The whiteness of Muktā (pearl) that of Pāsāna or white arsenic stone, that of Sankha (conch-shell) and that of Sita sarkarā (white pebble or sand) are the four shades of white colour.
The hue of Haritāla (yellow orpiment) that of Kankusta (a medical earth of yellow colour) that of Drsatsāra (yellow ochre) and that of Vibhitaka (yellow myrobalan) are the four different shades of yellow colour.
The colour of Guggulu (red variety of Indian bdellium), of Agaru (red variety of Aloe wood) of Lāksā (extract of lac) and of Drsatsāra (red ochre) are the four different shades of red colour.
The colours of Syāma (a dark-blue stone), Pāsāna (Krsna pāsāna, a black compound of arsenic) Dhuma (smoke or soot) and powdered Rājāvarta ( a precious stone called Lapiz lazuli) are the four different shades of black colour.
These varieties of colours are found in nature and a large number of colours can be got by mixing them (in prescribed proportions).
Kāsyapa Silpa Sāstra gives different names for the several shades of each one of the four colours, with examples for each from objects of nature. The substance of the Slokas there is given below:
White colour is of four shades called Sveta, Sukla, Dhavala and Avadāta. The colour of pearl and that of the Moon are two different kinds of Sveta. The colour of conch is called Sukla. The colour of silver and that of cow’s milk are the two kinds of Dhavala. The colour of the stars is called Avadāta.
Yellow colour is of four shades, Suvarna, the colour of gold, Pisanga, the colour of lightning, Harita, the colour of turmeric and Pita, the colour of yellow orpiment.
The four shades of red colour are – Aruna, the colour of the blood of the hare, Rakta, the colour of the China Rose, Sona, the colour of the flower of Kimsuka (Butea frondosa) and Pātala, the colour of lac-dye.
Black colour is also of four shades. The colour of the cloud is called Nila, that of the wild crow is called Kāla, that of the neck of the peacock is called Syāma and that of the wing of the black bee is called Krsna.
Thus there are (4x4) sixteen varieties of colours found in nature.
The artist, who is an expert in the compounding of colours must produce by mixture such shades as are absolutely natural and life-like, by mixing several colours like those of white mortar prepared from conch-shells, yellow paint of yellow orpiment, black paint of antimony and red paints of vermillion or lac dye.
The objects, mostly in the form of soft mineral ores mentioned in the Slokas are not merely referred to as examples of the shades of colours but they are the very materials which are to be used as the ingredients of the required paint.”
Just like in the Indian manual the colours of purple are of several shades: red-violet, black-violet, violet-blue, blue-violet and indigo blue. They also stand beautiful comparison: purple is like the colour of the dark rose, the colour of dried blood, the colour of the flower violet, of a gem called amethyst, of the deep sea and the sky blue. If all these nuances are mixed together, there will be one single shade left, and this is violet called purple, the symbol of high value and, in religious context, for spirituality.
In antiquity the Phoenicians were famous for their purple production; traces of dye-works and trading-stations have been widely described and commented. The sites of the dye-factories seemed restricted to coastal areas all over the Mediterranean Sea and to the west coast of Africa. Just like other colours of complex origin, purple is reserved for high-ranking people or holy purposes. Early in history it gained a special status, but this declined over the course of the centuries as things began to change drastically. The loss of the practical knowledge of its production, which coincided with the fall of Byzantium in 1453, is one of the reasons why the general interest was lost. However, in the following centuries a number of scholars maintained an interest in this noble matter until, in the second half of the 20th century, the topic purple aroused attention again.
The author, who had worked with ancient Asian colours in art before, came across ‘the purple occasion’ during a long stay in Lebanon at the end of the 1970s. As she moved countries frequently, she was looking to acquire a dry purple pigment, easy to carry along and use when necessary. But here began the problem. Even being in Beirut, so close to the sought-after material, she could find no help. References to purple in the modern literature added to the confusion rather than helping to find such a difficult colour. There was only one possibility to obtain it: do it yourself!
A diver provided the sea-snails, they were mostly Murex trunculus, a few Murex brandaris and one Thaïs haemastoma. Two scientists from the American University of Beirut, who had dealt with the subject a few years ago, were willing to experiment. The shell was broken, the hypobranchial glands cut out with scissors and the secretion was extracted by dipping them into water. After a short while, a purple-coloured juice was obtained, but no method was found to turn this into a pigment. Therefore this juice served as a liquid watercolour applied to paper in a free movement. This was the first purple drawing, done in May 1979. The rest of the purple liquid was centrifuged in a test-tube and has still not changed its reddish colour after more than twenty-seven years.
After working a few years with other colours and especially with plant indigo, the purple topic was revived at the beginning of the 1990s. By this time, the author was living in Provence, France and discovered that Murex trunculus was sold as ‘escargot de mer ’at local markets. So the work with purple continued.
A pigment usually has the function of filling in spaces, of colouring a shape between outlines. The colourless secretion of a Murex snail however defies the use of a normal pigment.
Yet what can a painter do when the ‘colour from the sea’ refuses to become a dry powder? The obvious answer is: use it in its natural state!
Synthetic purple pigment, if one can afford it, appears ‘sterile’ compared to the colour produced from fresh Murex. The snail contains in its body a secretion of a most complex nature, carrying the precursor of a colour. This colour needs to be created, i.e. made visible, by the help of a person, a dyer, an artist, someone who knows the method. And this, for an artist, is exactly the moment or the chance to discover a different approach, the possibility of a new expression, to explore the unknown.
In order to bring to life the so-called ‘royal purple’ the snail has to die. The hypobranchial gland, which contains the precursor of the colour, is found diagonally opposite the shell’s natural opening . When the shell is broken and the gland exposed to air and light, the originally transparent mucus enters a metamorphosis from pus-like yellow, to green, to indigo blue, and finally to one of the many violet nuances. Only the artist or artisan at work is witness of this astounding transformation.
If each animal is treated separately, the different purple nuances become clearly visible. This observation inspired a technique for working with Murex in pictorial art. A snail was opened by help of a small hammer and then placed on a support. Old bed linen from past centuries with their worn, soft fibres were extremely suitable to catch the seawater-drenched mucus. The juice soaked the surface in a spectacular way: large patches with a strong blue or violet in the centre where the gland touched, appeared on the textile. Similar to the batik technique, melted wax was applied beforehand to control the running of the watery substance. This provided a means for keeping all purple stains together as wanted for the composition. At one occasion hundreds of cracked-open Murex were placed along both sides of the seam of a particularly worn, heavy linen. All of the watercolour tended to strive for the outer edges away from the central seam, thus forming an oval symmetrical pattern.
The artist is the ‘chef d’orchestre’, directing the snails, supervising the time they need to leave their mark on cloth or paper. Even coffee filter paper proved a good means of catching every single coloured molecule and, once opened, reminded of a beautiful fan.
Later those paintings were called ‘sea-water-colours’ or ‘aquarelles d’eau de mer’, a
title they earned well. As they are drenched with the ‘colour from the sea’, they will keep the ocean’s smell once they have dried.
Besides linen, paper turned out to be another interesting support. It made it possible to follow the colour’s coming into being. With a pencil the time and shade was marked next to the snail’s body from the moment the pale mucus touched the surface. Then, when yellow appeared, the second annotation was written down. And so forth, until all the colour performances were through. With Murex trunculus the purple evidence came after half an hour; with Murex brandaris however it could take two days if there was no sunshine.
The fascination with purple is certainly linked with the mystery of its past. With its provident transformation entirely dependent on air and sunlight, purple finally manifests itself in many nuances, among which a people chose a single one: tekhelet, the blue purple, in order to represent the highest abstraction man has been able to invent. It is the Biblical Blue mentioned in Numbers 15, 37-39 (King James Version) when Moses ordered his people to wear a blue thread (tzitzit) in their tassels to remember and obey the commandments of Yahwe.
Why was tekhelet to be chosen of all colours?
“Because tekhelet is like the sea, the sea is like the firmament, the firmament is like the sapphire, the sapphire is like the throne of glory.” (Rabbi Meir)
Four threads in the four corners of the tallit, the fringed prayer shawl, were dyed blue up to the 6th century. After 760 A.D., the process for the dye was definitely lost and the fringes have been plain white ever since because, according to religious law, tekhelet could not be substituted.
A Jewish mystic, Gershom Scholem, indicates that tekhelet, the blue purple within the thread of the tassels symbolizes the presence of God including the dark power of the ‘Schechina’.(Scholem 1980).
Again the remarkable fact that colours were so close to religion, to believes, to spirituality altogether is apparent. This one in particular had nothing in common with an ordinary pigment. To identify tekhelet, the sea and the sky –colours of no own substance- were used in comparison.
“As each individual has his own garment, his shawl or tallit, each time he wears it, his personal relationship with God is reaffirmed through the presence of a colour that recalls the law.”(Cixoux, Derrida 1998). It seemed the most spiritual colour of all. Again, like in the Indian colour manual, spirituality was the driving force. From the bare material, a snail’s secretion, the quest for the highest abstraction was launched. “How could a colour lead you from the perceptible to the realm of the invisible?” This question of Tekhelet is treated by Bernard Dov Hercenberg “as a colour of the crossing through the appearances, the memory and the divine. It is as if nature is offering, from the sea to the blue of the sky, a directional continuity and a perspective towards the ultimate.” (Hercenberg 1998).
Inspired by the newly published doctorate thesis by Isaac Herzog (Spanier 1987), the author embarked on its exploration. Here again, work had to be done with the organic matter, the sea-snail. Was it possible to stop the colour’s evolution at the blue stage? Experiments in this direction were all negative.
Then, in 1993, the author received an article printed in Bayer Berichte (47/1982) in which Hans Wagner, director of the laboratory of colorants in Leverkusen published the result of a series of tests. They concerned the ‘Fabric of the Three Kings’ (Dreikoenigsstoff) from the shrine in the cathedral of Cologne, and were meant to determine whether or not it contained true purple. Chemical tests proved the presence of dibromoindigo and Wagner was able to date the precious textile. The article included a series of photographs explaining the procedure. The last picture clearly showed a blue thread. How was this done?
When contacted, Wagner was very helpful, advising the reduction method of Driessen-Hengelo which he used. (Driessen-Hengelo 1944). Despite the technical difficulties for an artist who is not a chemist, a trick was found which worked: the violet traces left on soft paper, were cut out and put into a glass jar to which water, ammoniac and some hydrosulfite was added. With the lid closed, the jar went into a double boiler and was heated. Soon the liquid turned yellow, the purple stains too. Shortly afterwards, the paper parts were extracted from the liquid, then placed on a thick sheet and exposed to sunlight: what had been violet and reduced to yellow, now turned into green and then blue - indigo blue! At that moment they needed to be rinsed with water, which added to the composition as the paper pieces floated about and had formed their own pattern when the water hose stopped. There it was, the first work on paper with very distinct traces of so called ‘tekhelet’.
Who could decide whether this was ‘tekhelet’ or at least whether the name could be used in an exhibition? A letter was addressed to Otto Elsner in Israel whose research on the Biblical Blue is widely known. (Elsner 1991). He replied (June 2, 1993) referring to the comparison of tekhelet to the sky: “Since the sky is blue, there is no question – at least for me, that tekhelet describes what is today called ‘sky blue’. The sky blue varies, for ex. in Europe it is paler, in Israel it is darker resembling more indigo. There are also times that red is mixed in, creating more reddish blue or violet. All this belongs to tekhelet. Consequently I don’t see any reason against using the biblical term tekhelet to describe these colours and the artistic creations.” In September 1993, the first artistic work using tekhelet was shown during a personal exhibition in Provence, France.
How far could the experience with royal purple be extended? To find an answer, it was impossible to avoid the ancient dyeing process.
In 2001, the author succeeded in reconstructing a fermentation vat using fresh Murex trunculus instead of the purple powder mentioned in John Edmonds’ book. (Edmonds 2000). Glands were cut out and soaked in water where they quickly turned into violet colouring the water as well. A glass jar with this mixture was placed into a double-boiler, some potash added to achieve an alkalinity between 8-9 pH and then –with the lid on - heated constantly for a week at about 45° C. Three days later, the liquid had turned blue-green. Under correct circumstances, the fleshy parts of the glands provoke a fermentation, which leads to a healthy dye-bath at the end of a week. Wool or silk dipped into the vat and left for a few hours, will come out green and - if the entire procedure is kept in the dark- will oxidize into a violet purple. If the dyeing is carried out during daylight, the result will be a blue purple colour. ( Boesken Kanold, 2005)
When the indigo master dyer is testing the maturity of his dye-bath, he listens to its sound, he smells the vat, he watches its surface, feels the water and tastes the liquid. The preparation of the purple colour too calls on all senses:
the pounding sound of the shells being cracked open must have been a familiar noise at the imperial factories
a purple production site was marked by the unforgettable odour of garlic and asa-foetida emanating
from the pits
only those who open the shell and extract the glands can watch the exciting metamorphosis from a transparent slimy secretion, to a yellow, green, blue, blue-violet and finally violet-red colour
the precursor-bearing gland contains a toxic substance, a piece dropped onto the skin leaves a
burn-mark similar to a cigarette bud (personal observation)
according to Rolf Haubrichs the glandular liquid tastes like acid and burns your mouth.(personal comment)
All of this can be experimented while working with fresh Murex for a dye-bath or in art. The synthetic pigment –if available- cannot compete with these emotions. The door is closed to any invention stimulated by the substance itself, by its complex subject matter.
Other fields were to be explored to understand more of the practical use of murex snails and the problems. There was still the strive for the dry pigment.
The mucus-like secretion, once exposed by breaking the shell, is not at all fluid. There are no drops dripping from the gland which then can be dried and pulverized. Thus this did not advance the question of the dry pigment, but it lead to another discovery.
The glands were cut out and laid on rough salt. Within half an hour, they had humidified and coloured all of the salt. The wet mass was dried with a fan or over moderate heat stirring off and on to avoid sticking to each other or the bottom of the container.
These dried salt-glands do not provide a paint pigment, but they have proved very useful and efficient to set up a purple fermentation vat for dyeing. This could explain why dye-factories inland, far from the coast, are possible. Wolfgang Born comments on such factories, but did not mention the procedure discovered for transporting the dye-stuffs: “In the 6th century a process was discovered, which made it possible to preserve the shell-fish months after killing them. This discovery made it practicable to transport the animals to places far from the coast, and there to extract the dye. This may explain the report, according to which in the 7th century there was a private dye-works at This in Upper Egypt.”(Born 1937). Salted glands could be transported with great facility, well stored under dry conditions and used when needed. Recent experiments in the author’s atelier in collaboration with Christine Macheboeuf have proved that glands preserved in honey – an idea already expressed by Vitruvius in his treatise ‘On Architecture’ (VII, 13, 3) - for more than six months were still capable of producing a correct dye-bath.
These experiences did not create special art work, but helped to understand the difficulties of the ‘purpurarii’, the manufacturers of purple products, and naturally led to further explorations on related subjects such as purple parchment.
Parchment had replaced papyrus in the 4th century A.D. as the main support material for manuscript writing and illumination. It was used for royal documents and scribes in monasteries copied the Bible on to it. Parchment was prepared with great care and often the most precious colours were used to dye or decorate them. Purple-coloured parchment with writing executed in silver or gold can be seen on the most prestigious documents. (Wattenbach 1896).
Was the purple of these manuscripts of animal origin? Were they dyed or painted with purple and how was this done?
The technique of applying real purple seems to have been lost since the manufacturing of this colour came to an end after the fall of Byzantium in 1453. According to modern science, the so-called purple manuscripts even from earlier periods were often falsified with other, cheaper red and violet dye-stuffs or pigments. A German scholar, Heinz Roosen-Runge, carried out various experiments to colour parchment with shellfish purple in order to identify real purple in old manuscripts. He was left with doubts on his techniques and came to the conclusion that very few samples exist which can be called purple parchment. (Roosen-Runge 1967).
After weeks of trial and error, the author was finally successful in colouring parchment using shellfish purple. Different methods were invented, but basically the glands were cut out, collected in a dark bottle to which water was added and a piece of previously prepared parchment submerged. More glands could be added to intensify the result. In some experiments a small quantity of honey was added and the bottle exposed to sunshine, which gave sometimes a rather red colour. Also the timing influenced on the outcome; after two hours of marinating, the parchment had an overall light pinkish purple tint with dark spots where the gland had touched the skin. If the glass container was transparent, the colour became often blue with red-violet marks. Of course, the result seemed accidental, but could be influenced by the artist’s ‘tour de main’, turning the bottle over, adding more glands to the folds of the parchment or twisting it or prolonging the ‘cooking’ time. Even a tie-dye technique brought interesting results once the coloured piece reappeared from the container. Using a bottle proved worthwhile to keep glands, juice and parchment very close together. Naturally, after well rinsing the piece, it needed careful stretching during the drying period.
Every single work turned out different; the more sophisticated the recipe, the more fascinating the result. All possible hues of purple occurred and the shapes of the glands where they touched marked a delicate design: the fine trace of the slightly curbed organ was visible. One time the entire skin of a lamb was treated with Murex brandaris leaving behind red purple crescents. When the recipe was repeated on the same skin with Murex trunculus, blue signs appeared wherever a gland had contacted the parchment.
Colouring parchment can also be done by applying the purple liquid directly. The sheet needs to soak in water for a while; adding a drop of detergent helps the colour to adhere better. It is then stretched on to a small canvas and ready to receive the first layer of the ink-like juice. This is collected from the cut-out glands laid in a small amount of water. After a few hours they have rendered most of their colour, and are then sieved off. The remaining purple liquid may serve for writing using a fine hairbrush. If it is thickened by a small addition of talcum, which slightly modifies the hue, it has covering qualities and can be easily brushed on parchment, paper and canvas.
Even without talcum the purple juice is an interesting medium used as a watercolour on any support. It is applied layer by layer. Each layer needs to dry before the next one is added. After about fifteen for parchment, twenty applications for paper or even more for canvas, the material is saturated. A strong purple violet, evenly spread, with the typical ocean smell once it has dried completely, is the beautiful result. Gold or silver writing on such purple parchment would simply look marvellous.
At this stage a purple powder was obtained which recalls the famous purpurissum in Pliny’s writings.(Pliny). As the creta argentaria was not at hand, talcum turned out a valid substitute; it was added to the purple liquid and then dried in a Petri dish giving a light violet coloured powder which could be darkened by repetition. Was this the pigment?
A third possibility for colouring parchment is treating the skin in a dye-bath similar to textile dyeing. The wetted sheet is dipped into a cold purple fermentation vat for a few hours. In most cases the result is a mainly blue colour, rarely a violet one, as it is difficult to avoid light entering the vat. In all of the above-mentioned techniques the soaked parchment needs careful stretching during the drying process.
It is important to say that these experiments were carried out with Murex trunculus. As this snail is fast in developing good quantities of the purple hue, working that is painting or writing with it can start immediately. Murex brandaris, on the other hand, has tendency to react very slowly, sometimes not at all. According to season they even will not exude their secretion or in such minimal quantities that they become useless.
Despite the progress and insights, pure dry pigment was still not in sight. Only further examples for ‘wet painting’ in the South American history of non-structural textiles emerged. The Pacific sea-snails (i.e. Purpura patula, Conchelepas conchelepas) seem most attractive for this technique. They need not die, they can be ‘milked’ and the juice is plentiful. Besides using this purple for staining cotton strands or dyeing textiles, the colour seems to have been employed for painting. Quoting Zelia Nuttall (1909) as witness:
“In the ancient Mexican codex which belongs to Lord Zanchu, ( now called Codex Nuttall ), a beautiful purple paint is profusely used. It contains pictures of no fewer than thirteen women of rank wearing purple skirts, and five with capes and jackets of the same colour. In addition, forty-six chieftains are figured with short, fringed, rounded purple waist-cloths, and there are also three examples of the use of a close-fitting purple cap. Moreover, the codex also contains representations of thirteen personages whose bodies and faces are painted purple, and five whose bodies only are purple, their faces being painted with other colours. In one case it is a prisoner who is thus depicted. In another a wholly purple person is offering a young ocelot to a conqueror, an interesting fact, considering that ocelot-skins were usually sent to the Azetec capital as tribute by the Pacific coast tribes of southern Mexico.
The shade of the purple paint used is identical with that of the purpura dye, and until it is demonstrated to us that the native artists obtain this colour from some now unknown mineral or vegetal dye, it may be assumed that they also used the purpura dye in preparing their paint in depicting personages with body paint and garments dyed by means of the same shell-fish.”
Zelia Nuttall concluded that the purple of the old Mexican manuscripts was authentic.
With such relatively abundant purple material at hand it is not surprising that pre-Columbian textiles exist with painted-on motives and hand-prints.
A robe’s fragment from a woman’s grave of the 4th century B.C., found in an ancient Greek colony in the South of Russia, shows that purple has been led on with a brush.(Born 1937). As a watery liquid, even without any binder, fresh purple secretion is quite suitable as artist’s paint, depending on the techniques employed.
A very special technique was discovered by the French zoologist Henri Lacaze-Duthiers in the 19th century. During a stay in Mahon on the Balearic Islands he observed a fisherman drawing on his white shirt with a little stick dipped into the mucus of a Purpura haemastoma. This was the beginning of a new passion for the scientist, which led him to use the photosensitive power of the secretion. He literally created photographs with purple. Besides several auto-portraits, he used various motifs drawn from history or art. How did he achieve this?
He explains the procedure in his “Mémoire sur la Pourpre”(Lacaze-Duthiers 1859): a little piece of silk or other textile is drenched with the secretion from the hypobranchial gland of several molluscs, spreading it as evenly as possible by help of a small brush. The wet cloth is stretched over the plate carrying the negative, avoiding air bubbles and keeping it moist by adding more layers of humid cloth. Another glass plate covers the whole lot, which is then exposed to bright sunshine for a certain period of time. After that, the impregnated textile is submerged in water where the positive image of the motive appears.
Without access to Murex brandaris, experiments were repeated with M. trunculus but did not yield convincing results. No photographic glass-plate of the early century was able to help resolve the problem. Before reaching any sunshine in the garden the precursor had developed all the purple there was, with no image in sight. Thinking that the negative was not dark enough to avoid light entering it, a stencil was cut out from x-ray celluloid and the procedure repeated under a large black sheet to keep any light away. The only difference was a somewhat sharper contour trace of the cut out motif.
The author came to the conclusion that Murex trunculus, due to its development without the influence of light, was not the right medium and bought M. brandaris snails from remote areas which confirmed the experiments of Henri Lacaze-Duthiers. The delicate nuances between the exposed and non-exposed parts of the image were clearly visible and stayed on without altering for months to come. The mystery, though, remained intact as to why the covered part of the image did not continue to develop once exposed to bright light.
Other artists, too, were trying to deal with this complex subject and medium in their work. In 1986 Sigmar Polke, a well-known contemporary artist, was in charge of the German art pavilion in Venice. His contribution to the XLII. Biennale of Venice carried the name of Athanor. He used colours and materials that seemed to derive from the alchemist’s kitchen, submitted to the laws of transformation as soon as they were ‘born’. They reacted to temperature and humidity, they were paintings with silver compounds such as halogens, nitrates or oxides, with varnish reflecting the onlooker, with long forgotten pigments and of course with shellfish purple from the markets in Venice. The secretion of Murex trunculus, Murex brandaris and Thaïs haemastoma was pressed unto a silk cloth of 90 x 400cm and exhibited. But he did not develop the purple idea any further.*
In Switzerland, Bernhard Heinrichs, a painter and musician, also works with traditional colours and materials. Besides lapis lazuli, saffron, even green tea, he has used shellfish purple according to the Neue Zuericher Zeitung. (9./10.11.2002).
Why are there so few artists using this particular colorant? One reason is certainly the difficult access to purple producing mollusks. Another important consideration is the death of the animals. Life and death is thoroughly connected with the splendors of purple. Nowadays, dyeing the sails of Cleopatra’s ship, as was done in antiquity would be unthinkable, and our perception of ethics is closer to the American Indian principle that killing animals is acceptable if ‘only as much as necessary’ and for your own needs. Therefore painting with life snails is limited to very small sizes, just big enough to enjoy the unique event of recognizing a 5000-year old tradition by creating a colour from the sea. The small paintings of Paul Klee come to mind; they contain the power of a jewel and need not be bigger.
Perhaps this is the conclusion after working for so many years with a colour that will not be a simple pigment: to accept the multitude of nature while attempting to exhaust a maximum of variations. As Plotinus said to his pupil, Porphyry of Tyre: ”To any vision must be brought an eye adapted to what is to be seen.” (Plotinus).
In October 2005, 26 years after the first attempt, the author finally achieved the purple pigment she was looking for. Many experiments were carried out before the right ‘body’ or ‘charge’ was found to catch the colorant of the fresh glands. After cleaning the mixture from undesired proteins and debris, after repeated washing and filtering, the wet mass was dried and powdered.
Now the purple colour can join the range of normal pigments, can be stored in a glass on the shelf, maybe mixed with any binder to produce a high quality artist colour. “La boucle est bouclée” as the French would say…
But is it thinkable that a colour of such origins, with a history of many thousand years, becomes a simple medium to fill out the space between two outlines
With all the confusion around the right hue of true purple, there is finally one useful comparison that might convince the one who doubts. The ‘modern’ purpurissum’s colour corresponds exactly to the violet found in the petals of the saffron crocus. Those have become the centre of interest on wall paintings found at the Akrotiri site on the Isle of Santorini in Greece, destroyed by earthquake and volcanic eruption around 1600 BC. It is now certain (Sotiropoulou 2005) that the pigment employed to colour the crocci petals and other items in the paintings is of shellfish purple origins. We can conclude that up to now these wall paintings are the world’s oldest art pieces with traces of the famous ancient purple.
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