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The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii

Since prehistory, cinnabar (mercury sulfide) has been sought after for its brilliant red-orange hue. Crushed into a pigment, this mineral becomes vermilion, and it is one of history’s great colors.  The bright red-orange of vermilion is unmistakable and takes pride of place in many—maybe most–of the great paintings created prior to the introduction of modern cadmium paints. The villa of the mysteries in Pompeii was painted with vermilion. Medieval illuminators made extensive use of vermillion to color the bibles, codexes, and prayer books of the times.

Michael Battling Demons (from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves)

In the 8th century, Chinese chemists discovered how to artificially synthesize cinnabar.  The alchemists of medieval Europe mastered this trick later in the 12th century (after which both painting and chemistry made great strides forward).  The brightest reds in the great masterpieces of Renaissance art are vermillion as are the brightest reds in the masterpieces of Baroque, Rococo, and Romantic painting.

Portrait of Cardinal Pietro Bembo (Titian, ca. 1540, oil on canvas)

Because of its high mercury content cinnabar is very toxic to humans. People affected by mercury poisoning develop tremors, violent mood swings, and tunnel vision.  They lose first their hearing, then their eyesight, and ultimately their sanity and lives. The Romans knew these problems were associated with cinnabar mining and so they sent criminals and war slaves to man the mines of Spain and Slovenia.  Such wretches had an average life span of only three years.

Powdered Cinnabar

Because of its magnificent red color, and because it could be refined to yield liquid mercury (which was regarded as a magical regent of life) cinnabar was thought to be one of the keys to the fabled elixir of life.  Taoist charlatans and magicians made extensive use of raw cinnabar for allegedly rejuvenating cups, trinkets, and potions. Contrasting this paragraph with the one prior to it yields an obvious irony: the magical life giving elixirs quaffed by Taoist mystics were toxic.  Many Chinese emperors, aristocrats, and elites probably greatly shortened their life by becoming too enamored with the deadly beauty of vermilion

Carved cinnabar lacquer gourd-shaped ewer with floral design Mid Ming Dynasty (c. late 15th-early 16th Century)

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