Lapis Lazuli: In Pursuit of a Celestial Stone.
Reviewed by Jennifer M. Scarce

Lapis Lazuli: In Pursuit of a Celestial Stone, by Sarah Searight. London, East and West Publishing Ltd, 2010. 272 pp, 168 colour illustrations, ISBN 978 1 907318 030. £18.95.

Your upper part is lapis lazuli … Your eyebrows are the two sisterly serpents, and Horus has inlaid them with lapis lazuli … Your eyelashes are firm everyday, being coloured with real lapis lazuli …

This arresting quotation is not from the working notes of a professional make-up artist commissioned to create a range of looks to accompany the idiosyncratic garments of a contemporary fashion show, but from the far more serious Book of the Dead (chapter 172), which guided the ancient Egyptians through the underworld. An additional precaution was the profusion of amulets and scarabs, preferably of lapis lazuli, enfolded within the mummy wrappings of upper class Egyptians. This luminous blue stone, mined principally in the Badakshan region of Afghanistan and the Altai mountains of Siberia, has been valued for both protective and ornamental qualities and traded worldwide from the 4th millennium BC to the present day.

Sarah Searight traces lapis lazuli in an ambitious survey that has taken her through Central Asia, India, the Middle East, and eastern and western Europe on a journey of many years of resourceful travel, research, encounters and interviews with miners, traders, dealers, craftsmen, archaeologists and museum curators. Her narrative is picaresque and very personal, with definite opinions and preferences, underwritten by an unflagging enthusiasm for lapis lazuli and a willingness to tackle a wide range of supporting literature listed in an extensive bibliography.  As the text, while broadly following a chronological treatment, interweaves anecdote with hard, informed fact, the most rewarding approach is to treat it as a quarry for the exploration of lapis lazuli—carved as stone into figures, amulets and jewellery, or ground and worked into pigment. Browse freely or choose an object from the excellent colour photographs and track it through the index and text. Here are a few suggested points of entry.

1. Initial from the Dover Bible, Christ Church, Canterbury, mid-12th century. Plate XXII, 114. Here two craftsmen are at work, one grinding lapis pigment, the other painting it on to a wall of intense blue. The techniques of extraction and preparation of lapis are dangerous and laborious, as the stone is still hacked in great jagged boulders from the mines in the mountains of Badakshan before journeying through bazaars and workshops to world markets to be carved into objects or transformed into the brilliant ultramarine pigment of manuscript illustration and painting following the principles of the tried and tested recipe developed by the Italian Cennino Cennini during the 14th/15th century.

2. Portrait bust of a Sassanian figure, Iran, 3rd– 6th century AD. Plate X, 58.The ancient Middle East, especially Iran of the Achaemenids (6th–4th centuries BC) and the Sassanids (3rd–7th centuries AD), treasured lapis lazuli as a medium for portrait sculpture, jewellery and interior decoration. The spectacular reliefs depicting the procession of tribute bearers at the Achaemenids’ spring palace of Persepolis include Sogdians bearing lapis lazuli from Bactria. Later, the portrait of a Sassanian ruler carved in lapis records his regalia in meticulously carved detail.

3. The Doge Loredano by Giovanni Bellini, 1501. Plate XXVII, 136. By the 15th century, Venice—centre of international trade with the East—had become the most important market for lapis lazuli, readily available as raw stone and pigment from apothecaries, who were dealers in drugs, spices and artists’ supplies. Lapis blue—ultramarine— became the dominant colour in Venetian painting, e.g. as a rich background to the Doge’s portrait, for the robes of the Madonna, and for the varied hues of sky. Artists such as Bellini and Leonardo included lapis in their experiments with the new medium of oil paint to create a varied range of blues.

4. Medallion showing the Piazza della Signoria with Cosimo dei Medici on a lapis plinth, 1599– 1600. Plate XXVIII, 147. The Italian mastery of lapis lazuli techniques continued with pietra dura, practised in Rome and especially Florence under Medici patronage at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, which still flourishes today. Here, finely cut sections of lapis are integrated with other stones into delicate foliate patterns and complex pictorial designs. Pietra dura’s reputation travelled as far as Mughal India, where Italian craftsmen worked on the sumptuous buildings of Shahjahan’s palace at Delhi.

There are many alternative themes to be explored through lapis lazuli—its role in alchemy, its presence in Tutankhamun’s treasure, its flamboyance in Tsarist Russia. Enjoy them all.

Jennifer M. Scarce