The Colour Red
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.
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.
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.
I had hoped to go to one of your workshops when I visited the UK in 2013 – but the times didn’t work out. You are coming to Australia later on this year – to the Summer School in Winter in Melbourne and I have booked into your three day course.
I am so looking forward to doing your class and meeting you at last. I was given an amount of gold dust some years ago by a friend and have done some experiments, but think that you will have lots to teach me. I was just looking at this article on Red and it is beautiful! I did a piece of work years ago about red and used all the names that I could find for it……
Cheers Ruth Venner Artist/Calligrapher
Hi Ruth, I am really looking forward to that! I have great memories of Melbourne from the last time I visited, and I cant wait to be there again!