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Lapis Lazuli: The Stone of Heaven

April 12, 2016 3 min read 1 Comment

Lion and cub carved from lapis lazuli. China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911). (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The color blue. It fills the sky and sea, but in the rest of the natural world, you’d be hard pressed to encounter it. In the realm of foods, you can count blue ones on one hand: blue corn, blueberries (more purple, really), blue potatoes (also purple), a species of lobster or two.

In gemstones, true blue is just as rare. Even on their best days, sapphire, topaz, and aquamarine give a watery, timid blue. But for a solid chunk of opaque firmament, there’s nothing like the blue of lapis lazuli.

The best grade of lapis comes from Afghanistan and this has been the case since at least 4600 BC, the earliest date of lapis trade recorded in the Near East. The Arabic word for lapis lazuli means “stone of heaven.”

Lapis gets its blue from the mineral lazurite, and is often flecked with bits of brass-colored pyrite that shimmer like the stars emerging from a dusk sky.

A miniature mountain carved from lapis and inscribed with a poem. This stone contains streaks of calcite. (National Palace Museum)

Just like Buddhism came to China from the West, so did lapis and its connotations of the great beyond. It is said that the steps in Buddha Amitahba’s paradise are said to be paved with gold, silver, and lapis, and that the buddha’s body itself would appear as blue as lapis.

In the mortal world, the use of this rare, imported stone was restricted to the Son of Heaven—the emperor—and the royal court. He wore it as plaques on the belt used for worship ceremonies. 

In China, the use of lapis lazuli was mentioned in writings of the sixth and eighth centuries BC. Being relatively soft, lapis was a favored stone of carvers.

Today, there are fewer than 100 pieces of lapis in the Forbidden City, the treasure trove of art within Mainland China.

Ancient writings tell of non-ornamental uses for lapis. In the book of Exodus, lapis lazuli was said to prevent miscarriages, epilepsy, and dementia. According to the Chinese text “Yongchang Governing Records,” drinking out of cups carved of lapis lazuli can ease obstructed labor.

A cup with gold mountings, from Florence, circa 1600. (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

More recently, at the Renaissance court of the Medici in Florence, Italy, lapis lazuli underwent a great revival. Not only vases, bowls and jugs were fashioned from this precious stone, but also inlaid furniture, table tops, and other objects. The opulence cannot be overstated - the price of lapis was on a par with gold, and only the wealthiest patrons could afford such magnificent works of art.

Lapis lazuli was also used in Europe for painting, after the stone was ground to make the pigment called ultramarine. In his “Book of the Arts”, written around 1400, Cennino Cennini said of ultramarine: “A noble color, beautiful, the most perfect of all colors”.

Today, significant amounts are excavated in Russia and Chile, but the best kind, which comes in a deeply saturated purple-blue, remains extremely hard to come by. The market is filled with natural stones heat-treated or dyed to enhance color, and synthetic or reconstructed stones. However, if you’ve seen a genuine high quality lapis lazuli once, you won’t be fooled by fakes.

This article is part of the Divine Land Gemstone Compendium, a weekly series by Yun Boutique exploring the gemstones of ancient China and their significance to Chinese culture. See the full series here. Subscribe to the email newsletter to receive future installments.

Produced and edited by Christine Lin. Researched by Ariel Tian.

1 Response

Eddie Airken
Eddie Airken

May 26, 2016

It can also be added that it was used to fashion ornaments for collectors around the Renaissance period in Florence Italy a skill that has died out as the most well crafted prices come from that period.

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