Today we explore what was once the world’s most expensive colour.

In the year 1500 the Italian Renaissance artist, Michelangelo, was commissioned to paint a panel for a Roman church, which was never completed. Scholars have speculated that the unfinished figure in the bottom-right corner was intended to depict The Virgin Mary, which would require the most expensive blue pigment, ultramarine.

This brilliant blue pigment was originally made by grinding a metaphoric rock called lapis lazuli into a fine powder. For centuries, the lone source of this semi-precious stone was in a strip of mountains in Northern Afghanistan. European painters depended on wealthy patrons to fund the acquisition of this rare colour because extracting the stone, hand-grinding it, and then transporting it across long distances of land and sea were extremely costly. For these reasons, it was considered even more valuable than gold.

Painters often reserved this colour for the robes of the Virgin Mary. Hence, it came to symbolize holiness. Similarly in other cultures, the colour was also associated with divinity; this pigment has been identified in Chinese paintings and Indian Buddhist murals that occurred centuries before the Renaissance; Eastern spiritualists have regarded lapis lazuli, among other blue stones, with the sixth chakra; the Egyptian Book of the Dead recognizes the stone, carved in the shape of an eye and set in gold, as an amulet of power. And in common depictions, Cleopatra also wore the mineral powder as an eye shadow.

Ultramarine remained an extremely expensive pigment until a synthetic version was invented in 1826 by a French chemist. Due to its affordability, French Ultramarine quickly became more prevalent than the original and is now considered an essential colour in an artist’s palette.