Akhenaten in blue

Egyptian blue, also known as calcium copper silicate (CaCuSi4O10 or CaOCuO(SiO2)4 (calcium copper tetrasilicate)) or cuprorivaite, is a pigment that was used in Ancient Egypt for thousands of years. It is considered to be the first synthetic pigment. It was known to the Romans by the name caeruleum. After the Roman era, Egyptian blue fell from use and, thereafter, the manner of its creation was forgotten. In modern times, scientists have been able to analyze its chemistry and reconstruct how to make it. The ancient Egyptian word wꜣḏ signifies blue, blue-green, and green.

The first recorded use of “Egyptian blue” as a colour name in English was in 1809.

Face of king Akhenaten made from Lapis Lazuli. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Inv. 9964
Blue Face of king Akhenaten made from Lapis Lazuli
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Inv. 9964
Measurements: Height 5.4 cm, Width 3.9 cm, Depth 2.5 cm

Lapis is the Latin word for “stone” and lazulī is the genitive form of the Medieval Latin lazulum, which is taken from the Arabic لازورد lāzaward, itself from the Persian لاژورد lāžavard/lāževard and/or لاجورد lājevard. It means “sky” or “heaven”; so this is a “stone (of/from) the sky” or “stone (of/from) heaven”.

Historically, it was mined in the Badakhshan region of upper Afghanistan. Lazulum is etymologically related to the colour blue, and used as a root for the word for blue in several languages, including Spanish and Portuguese azul as well as English azure.

Lapis lazuli or lapis for short, is a deep-blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense colour. Originating from the Persian word lazhuward meaning ‘blue’, lapis lazuli is a rock composed primarily of the minerals’ lazurite, pyrite and calcite. As early as the 7th millennium BC, lapis lazuli was mined in the Sar-i Sang mines, in Shortugai, and in other mines in Badakhshan province in modern northeast Afghanistan. Lapis lazuli artefacts, dated to 7570 BC, have been found at Bhirrana, which is the oldest site of Indus Valley civilisation.Lapis was highly valued by the Indus Valley Civilisation (7570–1900 BC). Lapis beads have been found at Neolithic burials in Mehrgarh, the Caucasus, and as far away as Mauritania. It was used in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun (1341–1323 BC).

By the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli began to be exported to Europe, where it was ground into powder and made into the pigment, ultramarine. Ultramarine was used by some of the most important artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, including Masaccio, Perugino, Titian and Vermeer, and was often reserved for the clothing of the central figures of their paintings, especially the Virgin Mary. Ultramarine has also been found in dental tartar of medieval nuns and scribes, perhaps as a result of licking their painting brushes while producing medieval texts and manuscripts.

Blue Face of Akhenaten made from turquoise glass.
Blue Face of Akhenaten made from turquoise glass.
Measures at 4.3 cm.
From the Groppi Collection, Switzerland; acquired in the 1920s-1940s.
Sold for £205,250, at Christie’s in 2012.

Egyptian faïence is a sintered-quartz ceramic material from Ancient Egypt. The sintering process “covered [the material] with a true vitreous coating” as the quartz underwent vitrification, creating a bright lustre of various colours “usually in a transparent blue or green isotropic glass”. Its name in the Ancient Egyptian language was tjehenet, and modern archaeological terms for it include sintered quartz, glazed frit, and glazed composition. Tjehenet is distinct from the crystalline pigment Egyptian blue, for which it has sometimes incorrectly been used as a synonym.

It is not faïence in the usual sense of tin-glazed pottery, and is different from the enormous range of clay-based Ancient Egyptian pottery, from which utilitarian vessels were made. It is similar to later Islamic stone paste (or “fritware”) from the Middle East, although that generally includes more clay.

Egyptian faïence is considerably more porous than glass proper. It can be cast in moulds to create small vessels, jewellery and decorative objects. Although it contains the major constituents of glass (silica, lime) and no clay until late periods, Egyptian faïence is frequently discussed in surveys of ancient pottery, as in stylistic and art-historical terms, objects made of it are closer to pottery styles than ancient Egyptian glass.

Blue Face of Akhenaten or Nefertiti made from turquoise glass.
Measures at 4.3 cm.
From the Groppi Collection, Switzerland; acquired in the 1920s-1940s.
Sold for £277,250, at Christie’s in 2012.

From the inception of faïence in the archaeological record of Ancient Egypt, the elected colours of the glazes varied within an array of blue-green hues. Glazed in these colours, faïence was perceived as a substitute for blue-green materials such as turquoise, found in the Sinai Peninsula, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. According to the archaeologist David Frederick Grose, the quest to imitate precious stones “explains why most of all early glasses are opaque and brilliantly coloured” and that the deepest blue colour imitating lapis lazuli was likely the most sought-after. As early as the Predynastic graves at Naqada, Badar, el-Amrah, Matmar, Harageh, Avadiyedh and El-Gerzeh, glazed steatite and faïence beads are found associated with these semi-precious stones. The association of faïence with turquoise and lapis lazuli becomes even more conspicuous in Quennou’s funerary papyrus, giving his title as the director of overseer of faïence-making, using the word which strictly means lapis lazuli, which by the New Kingdom had also come to refer to the ‘substitute’, faïence. The symbolism embedded in blue glazing could recall both the Nile, the waters of heaven and the home of the gods, whereas green could possibly evoke images of regeneration, rebirth and vegetation.

Opaque blue glass inlay of Akhenaten
Opaque blue glass inlay of Akhenaten
Sold for €124,996 at Pierre Bergé & associés.