Exploring Ruzbihan’s palette: Ultramarine

This is the first of a number of posts which will explore the palette of the Ruzbihan Qur’an, the spectacular 16th century Persian manuscript currently at the centre of our exhibition Lapis and Gold: The story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an.

In late 2013 and early 2014, two rounds of non-invasive scientific analysis helped to identify the pigments used by calligrapher Ruzbihan Muhammad al-Tab‘i al-Shirazi and his team of artists. The pigment analysis was part of a larger research project to increase our knowledge of mid-16th century Shirazi artists’ materials and techniques, contributing to a fuller understanding of the working methodologies of Islamic book artists at this time.


Examining folios from the Ruzbihan Qur’an (CBL Is 1558) with scientists from MOLAB® (left) and curator Dr Elaine Wright (right) in the conservation lab.

The European Commission funded MOLAB® Transnational Access Service, sponsored two teams of dedicated scientists, who travelled to Dublin from Italy and France. Working with our curator and conservators, using analytical techniques such as X-ray fluorescence, FT-IR reflectance and Raman spectroscopy, the expert teams were able to scientifically identify the pigments used on this manuscript.

As expected, this confirmed that the colours used in the Ruzbihan Qur’an are made from both organic and inorganic materials. Gold is used liberally throughout the manuscript, but in spite of its lavish use the predominant colour of the Ruzbihan Qur’an’s palette is Ultramarine, the precious blue pigment derived from the naturally occurring mineral Lapis lazuli.


Lapis lazuli and the pigment Ultramarine (left); the location of the Lapis lazuli mines (right).

The semi-precious stone, Lapis lazuli, has been mined at Sar-e-sang in northern Afghanistan since antiquity. Its rarity and lustrous colour meant it was particularly valued for jewellery and sculpture, but the deep blue pigment yielded by the stone was also a highly sought-after product. Ultramarine, the blue pigment obtained from Lapis lazuli, was difficult both to extract from the stone, and to paint with. It was an extremely expensive product, frequently costing the medieval artist considerably more than its weight in gold.


A wealth of blues, all painted with Ultramarine, are used throughout the Ruzbihan Qur’an.

Part of this high cost was due to the fact that when Lapis lazuli is crushed and ground down, it can yield an uninspiring grey-blue powder due to the presence of numerous impurities such as calcite and iron pyrites. The ground stone must be carefully processed in order to extract the precious colouring material, lazurite (a sulphur containing aluminosilicate mineral). The precise method of production remains shrouded in mystery, and added to the desirability of this pigment known in Europe only as ‘from across the sea.’


An amazing array of tones used by the artists of the Ruzbihan Qur’an.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the high cost of natural Ultramarine, it has not been saved and used sparingly across the pages of the Ruzbihan Qur’an. Instead, it can be seen on every page, in every tone, and in every possible combination. This is in keeping with other spectroscopic studies, which clearly demonstrate that Ultramarine was the most commonly used blue pigment in Islamic illuminations, but its abundance and beauty in the Ruzbihan Qur’an is truly unique.

Kristine Rose Beers, Senior Conservator

Lapis and Gold: The story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an is on display until the 28th August at the Chester Beatty Library. We do hope you can come and explore Ruzbihan’s palette for yourself.

5 thoughts on “Exploring Ruzbihan’s palette: Ultramarine

  1. Thanks for this interesting write up about the examination of the Ruzbihan Qur’an. Yet I must address your statement that “The precise method of production remains shrouded in mystery…”

    The information is out there; although, admittedly not always immediately available in English, hence the supposed “mystery”. In fact, several Persian accounts consistently describe preparing the pigment using a levigation process. While certain individuals present themselves as modern-day alchemists preparing supposedly “superior” quality pigment using patented “secrets”, their process is still essentially a form of levigation, and extremely similar to what is described in at least one Persian account. The main factor is that if you have a good quality mineral sample with a lot of lazurite in it, you can extract a good quality, refined pigment from it by this process; the “mystery” and “secrets” are little more than marketing hype.

    My library is currently in a shipping container crossing the Atlantic, so unfortunately I cannot give you exact references at the moment, but I know that Najib Mayil Haravi published several of them in his massive book Kitāb- Ārayī dar Tammadūn-i Islāmī. Vladimir Minorsky also translated one text (see pp. 196-97), appended to a later redaction of the Gulistān-i Hunar (Rose Garden of Art) of Qazi Ahmad Qummi. Yves Porter has also summarised several accounts in his Painters, Paintings and Books (pp. 84-85). Note that the last account Porter summarised, the Majm‘a-yi Ṣanāyi‘ (Compilation of Crafts) is actually derived from the Kashf al-Ṣināʿat va Makhzan al Biẕāʿat (The Discovery of Craft-Production and Treasury of Products) and subtitles Muntakhabāt al-Muḥammadi (Selections of Muḥammad) was first published by the Bombay printer and publisher, “Malik al-Kuttāb” Mīrzā Muḥammad al-Shīrāzī in 1888.

    In general, the process involved grinding the Lapis stones into powder, dilution in water to which a strong alkaline soap is added and frothed up (Minorsky, 197), pouring off the refined pigment off the top, then repeating the process several times with increasingly refined particles, and then allowing it to dry. Years ago, Yasmeen (forgetting her last name), manager at the Kremer Pigmente store in New York City then on Elizabeth St., described to me essentially the same exact technique used by contemporary Afghans who prepared their natural Ultramarine from lapis, although they used the so-called “pastille” process in which the ground pigment is kneaded in gum under water (reminiscent of the process described by Cennino Cennini), which allowed the pigment to separate from impurities, then dried in a tall glass jar, and then the refined pigment was scraped off of the surface of the glass and collected. Yasmeen described this as a traditional process used for some time; although, confirming this would prove tough.

    Finally, I would like to note that today, lapis not only comes from Afghanistan, but also a considerable amount is mined in neighbouring Tajikistan, as both countries encompass the region that was historically known as Badakhshan, within which sar-i sang is located; although admittedly, the lazurite content within the mined minerals can vary considerably.


  2. Thank you all for your comments! Jake, your comment is particularly interesting and in-depth- thank you. I hope you will be interested in the full essay which will follow later, where we will explore the sources, and techniques for processing Lapis lazuli in more detail.


  3. Pingback: Exploring Ruzbihan’s palette: Gold | Chester Beatty Conservation

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