If the ancient gods had a favourite gemstone, it’s likely to have been lapis lazuli.  Few precious stones have a history that goes back so far, with so many exquisite carvings and artefacts to show for it.

Lapis 1Lapis lazuli takes its name from ‘lapis’ (in Latin, ‘stone’) and the Old French ‘azur’ which is derived from ‘Lajward’, a place in Turkestan where the stone was mined.   It was so prized by ancient peoples of the Middle East that it was known as ‘blue gold’.  The city of Ur in Mesopotamia is said to have traded in lapis, and excavations of nearby royal tombs revealed thousands of statuettes of animals, all carved from beautiful blue lapis.

The Egyptians loved lapis lazuli because it was the colour of the heavens, and they believed that it offered protection from evil.  They imported it from Syria and Palestine, and carved it into vases, jewellery and ornaments.  The gold burial mask of King Tutankhamun contains striped inlays of deep blue lapis;  on a more domestic level, Cleopatra is said to have ground the stone into powder to make eyeshadow.  Now we know where Elizabeth Taylor got the idea!

Egyptian hawk carving, from 1450 and 1185 BC. From Walters Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

Egyptian hawk carving, from between 1450 and 1185 BC. Now in the Walters Art Museum.

Ancient carvings and jewellery using lapis

Ancient carvings and decorations using lapis

Lapis lazuli is a metamorphic rock, formed from limestone that has been subjected to intense pressure and heat.  The result is a type of marble, made up of lazurite, calcite and pyrite.  It is lazurite that gives lapis its intense blue colour;  calcite provides a pure white contrast, and the stone is speckled throughout with sparkling pyrite (fool’s gold).  The whole effect is reminiscent of the night sky, and Pliny the Elder described lapis as ‘a fragment of the starry firmament’.  It’s easy to see why the ancients were beguiled.

Showing inclusions of iron pyrites

Showing inclusions of iron pyrites

Today, the finest quality lapis lazuli comes from the head of the River Oxus, which flows through the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan.  There are other sources in Siberia, Canada, India, California, Colorado and Chile.  Collectors tend to prefer deep blue specimens with little or no calcite in them, but I think the mix of blue and white is beautiful – to me, it looks like the Earth as seen from space.

Prized by the Masters

Until the nineteenth century, lapis was the source of an artist’s pigment known as ultramarine.  The stone was ground into a powder and mixed with resins and oils to create pigments in both oil and watercolour;  the refinement process consisted of at least 50 different stages.  As you can imagine, it was very expensive, but at the time there was no other way of producing such a rich, intense blue.  Lapis can be seen in early Chinese paintings, Indian murals from the 11th century, and in Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts from around 1100.

Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’

Titian used ultramarine in his painting Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) and it was also favoured by the 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, who even blended it with greys, oranges and browns to intensify the effect of daylight.  In many religious paintings, lapis lazuli was reserved for painting the robes of the Virgin Mary, while any other blues were supplied by the lower quality azurite.

'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer;  her turban is painted using ultramarine (lapis).  photo via Wikimedia Commons

‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ by Johannes Vermeer; her turban is painted using ultramarine.

As a healing stone, lapis balances the throat and brow chakra, encouraging harmony and clarity of expression.  It is considered to promote friendship and truth.  Lapis boosts the immune system, and alleviates headaches, depression and insomnia, bringing a deep sense of peace.

Lapis necklace

Lapis necklace with soapstone


Photos copyright © Jo Woolf;   images of paintings, ornaments and carvings via Wikimedia Commons

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