From Afghanistan to the Virgin Mary’s cloak

On SuSASSOFERRATO - Virgen rezando (National Gallery, Londres, 1640-50)nday I went to the National Gallery‘s Making Colour exhibition. It was fascinating. One of the first paintings you see is Sassoferrato‘s Virgin Mary – shown to the left. It was painted over 350 years ago, but the blue cloak is still stunning. The exhibition was basically on how artists achieved beautiful colours like that of the cloak.

Blue was particularly tricky colour at the time. Nowadays, we have the brilliantly coloured synthetic pigments and dyes galore, but although we take them for granted we have only really had those synthetic dyes since the 19th century. The best blue they had in the Renaissance was called ultramarine and was made by grinding up a intensely blue semi-precious mineral called lapis lazuli.

At the time this was only mined in what is now Afghanistan, indeed I think the main source of lapis lapzuli is still Afghanistan – so I guess it is tricky to get hold of then and now. It is a bit mind altering to stand in London looking at a cloak painted in Italy made with an ingredient brought all the way from Afghanistan to Italy in the 17th century.

The exhibition also looked at how artists dealt with gold and silver in paintings. These are tricky, because they are shiny. Shiny means that light bounces off them such that the angle the light reflecting off the silver or gold is the same as the angle the light arrived at. Things that reflect light like that look shiny.

If you think about, which I hadn’t till the exhibition pointed it out, this poses an artist a problem. If an artist uses real gold leaf to represent gold in their painting then the light in the room will reflect off the gold. This is a bit of a disaster for an artist as they are trying to create the illusion that you are looking at gold in a scene in another place, lit by whatever lighting the artist has decided should be lighting that scene. The reflections from the room lighting will be completely different from those of that are right for the scene.

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo - Mary Magdalene - Google Art Project

So artists have to paint the reflections off gold and silver that would occur if the gold or silver was lit by the lighting of the scene, which is what Savaldo did in the painting of Mary Magdalene to the right.

Her silvery cloak is painted just with grey and white pigments – no silver at all. The artist has used white to highlight all the reflections that would occur from a silver cloak lit, and so creates the illusion of a cloak in the scene. Impressive. The artist could not use real silver as the reflections would be wrong.


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