The Rare Blue the Mayans Invented

August 18, 2018

In 17th Century Europe, when Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens painted their famous masterworks, ultramarine blue pigment made from the semi-precious lapis lazuli stone was mined far away in Afghanistan and cost more than its weight in gold.

Only the most illustrious painters were allowed to use the costly material, while lesser artists were forced to use duller colours that faded under the sun. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution in the 19th Century that a synthetic alternative was invented, and true ultramarine blue finally became widely available.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, colonial Baroque works created by artists like José Juárez, Baltasar de Echave Ibia and Cristóbal de Villalpando in early 17th Century Mexico – New Spain – were full of this beautiful blue. How could this be? Lapis lazuli was even rarer in the New World. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th Century that archaeologists discovered the Maya had invented a resilient and brilliant blue, centuries before their land was colonised and their resources exploited.  

The ultramarine blue procured from lapis lazuli in Europe was not only incredibly expensive, but also extremely laborious to make. In Europe, blue was reserved for the most important subject matter. Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi – the version that hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid and which he worked on for over 20 years – is an example.

The colour was primarily used to paint the robes of the Virgin Mary, and later extended to include other royalty and holy figures. In Mexico, on the other hand, blue was used to paint altogether less holy and everyday subjects.

The 1,600-year-old murals at the Mayan temple at Chichén Itzá still have vibrant colours, including blue, which usually fades (Credit: Getty Images)

Archaeologists studying pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican ruins were surprised by the discovery of blue murals in the Maya Riviera, modern day Mexico and Guatemala, from as early as 300 AD, perhaps the most famous being the murals at the temple of Chichén Itzá (created around 450 AD).

The colour had a special ceremonial significance for the Maya. They covered sacrificial victims and the altars on which they were offered in a brilliant blue paint, writes Diego de Landa Calderón, a bishop in colonial Mexico during the 16th Century, in his first-hand account.

This Baltasar de Echave Ibia work is practically soaked in blue – a luxury European painters of the 1600s couldn’t have afforded (Credit: Museo Nacional de Arte de Mexico)

Archaeologists were puzzled by the resilience of the blue in the murals. The añil plant, part of the indigo family, was widely available in the region but was mostly used for dyes rather than paint. Indigo was quick to fade in the sunlight and natural elements, so experts mused that the Maya couldn’t have used the same widely available dye to paint the murals. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the source of Maya blue’s resilience through the centuries was discovered: a rare clay called attapulgite, which was mixed with the dye from the añil plant.

During colonisation native materials like Maya blue and cochineal were exploited along with every other resource of the land and its people in the New World. These colours, which supposedly represented the wealth of the Mayan empire, would stand as a symbol of all that would be plundered.

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