The Colour Red

cinnabar vessel containing mercury

My Name is Red is a novel by the celebrated Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. It is a memorable read – a beautifully constructed ‘whodunnit’ set in the visionary world of the miniature painters in 16th century Turkey.  There are several reds, both mineral and organic, that were used in manuscript painting – the red referred to in Orhan Pamuk’s novel is I think Kermes, an organic lake derived from the insect of that name. But of all the reds, the undisputed king is Cinnabar. It is a natural mineral containing mercury and sulphur, and has been used since ancient times; archeological excavations of burials in early civilisations in Ur and Peru have revealed bodies adorned with jewellery and covered with powdered cinnabar – see this article,  Mystery Mummy by A.R. Williams  in the National Geographic website: “Her body was daubed with cinnabar—a red mineral associated with the life force of blood—wrapped in layers of cotton cloth, and entombed in thick courses of adobe.”

China’s first Emperor Qin Shihuangdi (of the famous terracotta army) is said to be buried surrounded by artificial subterranean rivers of mercury. The emperor was a follower of  Taoist alchemy, and cinnabar was an important ingredient of the arcane practices of its philosophers. The mineral was purified – separated into its component elements of mercury and sulphur, then  re-combined by sublimation to create a pure, artificial synthesis of the mineral. Sublimated cinnabar was an important ingredient in the preparation of precious elixirs for extending life and promoting great power, and it is interesting that similar practices existed in Ayurvedic traditions in India. The elements mercury and sulphur are symbolic of the male and female principles in Hinduism – Shiva and Parvati – and the process of sublimation is a philosophical representation of their union.

Sublimated Cinnabar – The Philosopher’s Stone

The beautiful, powerful red colour of sublimated cinnabar, as well as its integral philosophical significance, means that it has been used for art across every culture and every era, over millenia.  Chinese cinnabar ornaments are made of layers of the powdered pigment built up with lacquer and then carved. My illustration above of a cinnabar bowl containing liquid mercury is inspired by Chinese originals (it is in fact pure virtual fabrication, created in Photoshop).    Treatises on materials for artists, both in Asia and in Europe, from the Middle ages onward, abound with recipes for sublimating cinnabar and preparing the pigment. In the entire history of art one will rarely be looking at a painting without resting ones eyes on extensive areas of rich cinnabar red. The colour goes by many names – in Europe it is called Vermilion.

Grinding and mulling cinnabar to make Vermilion

Please feel free to add comments and ideas about vermilion and its history in art and alchemy – it is a vast subject and there is still much to learn and discuss about it.

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