If you ever walk through the European Art wing of a museum, you might notice that the Virgin Mary almost always wears a blue cloak. This color symbolism can be attributed to a myriad of explanations, the simplest one being this: blue was the most expensive pigment throughout much of history. Ultramarine, meaning “beyond the seas,” was known to come from a land so far away that no European had actually been there, not even Alexander the Great. Ultramarine paint is made from the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli (meaning “blue stone”). It is found only in Chile, Zambia, a few small mines in Siberia, and – most importantly- in Afghanistan. With few exceptions, all of the real ultramarine in both Eastern and Western art came from mines in Afghanistan. By the time it made its way down mountain passes, across ancient trade routes and into Europe in the 13th century, it had already been assigned a high value. By standardizing liturgical color codes in the 16th century, reserving blue for the Virgin Mary, Pope Pius V bestowed even more prestige upon the color. Ultramarine retained its high status until a synthetic version of the color was discovered in France in 1828. However, almost all of the masterpieces of the European Renaissance owe some of their charm to the beautiful blue paint that originated in the mines of Afghanistan.
Pietro Perugino’s “Virgin with Child and Angels”