It comes from across the seas, this best-known of semi-precious stones, the lapis lazuli (lapis: Latin, stone; lazuli from lazulum, medieval: Arabic origin meaning blue).
Deposits of this valuable rock are to be found on every continent except Australia, but the most famous mines are situated at Sar-é Sang in the Kokscha Valley in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan. Its distinctive shade of blue is known as ultramarine, from the early perception that it originated simply from beyond the sea (ultra – marine), in this case the Mediterranean. It is believed that lapis lazuli was mined as long as 7000 years ago, and used both to make jewellery and to produce ultramarine and royal blue pigment.
My first lapis lazuli was a rough specimen, purchased when I was still a child from the mineral dealers Siber & Siber. It was only a small reject stone, all I could afford with my pocket money, but still I was fascinated by this blue, which held me mysteriously in its spell. On a fine day, depending on the time, it is precisely this colour valence which fills the firmament. Of course we know that this sensory impression is due to light refraction in the earth’s atmosphere; after all, apart from the odd fleck of light, outer space is pitch black. In spite of this knowledge, a cloudless sky looks azure blue to us, and provokes specific emotions which certainly differ from those we would feel on an overcast, grey day. Every colour has a frequency, and that of the lapis lazuli ultramarine is found at the shortwave end of the visible colour spectrum. Frequencies always trigger something in us and evoke emotions, which in the case of intense blue, appear to have a transcendental quality. Why is this such a fascinating colour? It is certainly the case that royal blue, especially in earlier times, was used very sparingly, not only because it was a luxurious colour, but also because its intensity was intended to express something particularly special. In his Book of Hours, the Duke of Berry used ultramarine blue – made from lapis lazuli – for the Virgin’s robe in “The Visitation”.
Some years ago I ordered several kilos of this exquisite stone to be sent from a mineral dealer in Hong Kong. I had great plans. I had been wondering for a long time how a rockery exclusively of lapis lazuli would look. Bizarre and extravagant for sure! Most of the test viewers were oddly affected, somehow perplexed, and real enthusiasm remained elusive. Naturally some asked whether the stone was even real. I had to conclude, that it posed a real challenge to create anything with this stone on a large scale. Our habits of perception can accept this shade of blue occasionally in the skies above our heads, or in liquid form on our Summer holidays looking out to sea, but in the garden it’s somehow trickier.
Let us return to the ancient world, to Egypt. The finest of the treasures to be buried with the young king Tutankhamun in 1323 BC was a death mask. It was discovered along with other artefacts in the Valley of the Kings in somewhat mysterious circumstances by Howard Carter in 1922. A work of unsurpassed perfection, this mask contains, alongside gold, various semiprecious stones, amongst which lapis lazuli has a special role. Genuine, pure stone was used only to outline the eyes, where black Kohl was normally applied. For the blue stripes which alternate with gold around the face, ultramarine-coloured glass served to imitate lapis lazuli. This gold/ blue colour combination is also to be found within the stone itself. An authentic, high-quality specimen is distinguished by its pure, deep blue, preferably without quartz inclusions, but most particularly by the presence of fine pyrite veins, which further enhance the beauty of this gemstone.
For a long time, my business partner and I let rest the idea of using lapis lazuli in the garden. We had almost given up for good, when two years ago, the possibility finally arose to put this stone to use. The assignment was a mosaic garden patio, in which a drawing by the customer’s young daughter should be immortalised in stone. As the butterfly in question was rendered in royal blue and turquoise, it seemed obvious for us to enthuse the client for our favourite stone. For the turquoise colour we suggested not the mineral of the same name, but rather the semi-precious chrysocolla. These two colours complement one another ideally, and stand out clearly from the background of contrasting Carrara marble. In retrospect I realise that the intensity and radiance of this ultramarine hardly permits it to be used alone in large quantities without seeming overdone. Like almost no other colour it unleashes emotions that may reveal our true selves, and that show us that life as a whole will always remain a mystery.
Lapis lazuli veins in an Afghan mine.
Photograph courtesy of Sarah Searight.
Eagle with lion’s head, 3000BC, Syria.
12th century fresco in the Boyana church, Bulgaria.
“The Visitation” from the Duke of Berry’s Book of Hours.
My first tentative experiments with lapis lazuli, together with
sempervivum, thyme, and various moss and grass varieties.
The death mask of Pharaoh Tutanchamun from the 18th dynasty.
Rough specimen with pyrite inclusions.
Mosaic patio with lapis lazuli and chrysocolla