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The spring garden is right on the verge of bursting into an astonishing riot of cherry blossoms, dogwood flowers, tulips, and azaleas. I can see the buds thickening and getting ready to burst into floral splendor!

However, before we get to that stage, let’s enjoy the first flowers of spring, the hellebores and jonquils/daffodils.

I planted 3 hellebores, (AKA lenten roses) the first autumn I moved to my current location, and they have putting down roots for more than ten years. It will surprise nobody that I bought the cheapest possible hellebores–a mysterious “grab bag” selection of whatever was left over at the seed company, and so it has been exciting to find out what color they are! One plant with lovely natural pink single blossoms (top) has grown into a superb specimen plant (it has flowered before and I have written about it in the past). The second plant (which is seen in the next two photos) is finally starting to bloom. It turns out that is has incredible double flowers which are a lovely caput mortuum purple color. Hellebores have beautiful subtle colors of pink, purple, cream, brown, and green in matte tones. Somehow they simultaneously look like the brown fallen leaves of the forest floor yet also like beautiful haunted wildflowers. The two I have make me think of an emperor’s blood when seen in the twilight or an underworld wedding or something. The third hellebore has still not bloomed…but is still alive so perhaps it is another exquisite earthen hue…only time will tell. Oh and also it seems like there are some hellebore seedlings soming along. I wonder about them too.

In addition to the hellebores, a jonquil/daffodil of subtle primrose yellow popped up this year. This was a real surprise since I planted such flowers five years ago and then gave up on them when nothing appeared. I wonder if there will be more next year. These flowers are a reminder of why gardening is so frustrating (because it requires ridiculous patience), but they are also a reminder of what makes gardening such a thrill (patience actually can be rewarded in the most beautiful ways). I wonder if there were other things I did ten years ago which will unexpectedly pay off or if some lovely disturbing poison flowers are all I can hope for.

Caput Mortuum Violet

One of the most useful colors in an artist’s palette is one of the last colors anyone else would think.  Only its spooky name would incline your attention towards it.  Caput mortuum, which means dead head or death head, is made of haematite–iron oxide (in fact there are several extremely similar colors made of the same pigment but with slightly different hues and names–particularly mars violet and Indian red—but we will stick to talking about caput mortuum because that’s the variation I use). This unpromising rust color possesses a protean mutability–it could be red, brown, orange, or violet depending on the context.  Although it can stand on its own as a focus of attention, caput mortuum is very easy to paint into a network of subtle shadows:  many painters use it for shadowed flesh or as land cast in darkness (after all a person’s flesh and the red clay of a landscape both take their ruddiness from iron).

Wife of a Donator (Petrus Christus, 1450, oil on panel)

Wife of a Donator (Petrus Christus, 1450)

Though not a flashy color, caput mortuum has a dignity and a beauty to it.  In the middle ages and Renaissance, painters used it to paint the robes and clothing of eminent monastic religious figures and of patrons & donors (ie the people actually paying for the painting).  Oftentimes when looking at a religious painting, a viewer will notice that Jesus, Mary, and Saint Peter–resplendent in gold, white, blue, and red—are joined by an unknown pair of merchants wearing caput mortuum.  These two often have the most realistic and beautifully painted faces in the painting–it is difficult to say what Jesus really looked like but even the most money grubbing burgher knows his own face!

Portrait of a Female Donor (Jan Provost, 1505)

Although there is something somber about the deep color of caput mortuum, its name does not come from an obvious association with blood and corpses.  In addition to meaning “dead head” the Latin phrase also means “worthless remains” and it was used by alchemists to describe the inert residue left over from a chemical reaction.  Apparently this by-product was often a rusty violet color.  Alchemists used a (very) stylized skull to denote the oxidized left-overs.

Caput Mortuum Alchemy Symbol

However it’s more evocative to imagine the pigment being named after a death’s head.  The concept lends art a much needed touch of operatic dark magic.

Vanitas Still Life with a Tulip, Skull and Hour-Glass (Phillip de Champaigne, c. 1671)

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