Lapis lazuli is a semi-precious stone prized since antiquity for its intense blue colour. For over 6,000 years it has been mined in Afghanistan, from where the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians obtained it. There are also deposits near Lake Baikal in Siberia and, in a lighter blue form, around Ovalle in Chile.
Lapis is the Latin for “stone” and lazuli the genitive form of the Medieval Latin lazulum, which is ultimately from the Persian لاژورد (lāzhward), the name of a place where lapis was mined. The English word azure, the French azur, the Italian azzurro, the Spanish and Portuguese azul, are directly related. But, lapis lazuli simply means “stone of Lāzhward”.
Lapis is composed of the mineral lazurite. The best is an intense dark blue, with small patches of white calcite and yellow pyrite. It is still mined from crystalline limestone deposits at Sar-e-Sang in the Kokcha River valley of Badakhshan province in north-eastern Afghanistan.
For millennia the Egyptians used lapis lazuli as a gemstone in scarabs, pendants, and beadwork. The famous mask of Tutankhamun is inlaid with lapis lazuli. Powdered lapis was also used as a cosmetic (the first eye-shadow), as a pigment, and as a medicine to treat eye problems. In Sumeria, the tomb of Queen Puabi (2500 BC), discovered and excavated in the late 1920s, contained numerous pieces of gold and silver jewellery adorned with lapis. The treasures were divided between the British Museum, London, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, and the National Museum in Baghdad.
Lapis was ground and processed to make up “natural ultramarine” used in tempera painting. It can be seen in the Wilton Diptych, (c. 1395–99), which depicts King Richard II of England kneeling before the Virgin and Child. It hangs in the National Gallery, London. The Dutch painter Vermeer had a preference for ground lapis (e.g. Woman in Blue Reading a Letter), but its use as a pigment came to an end in the early 19th century, when a synthetic variety became available.
Lapis also has spiritual associations. It is believed to protect the wearer from the evil eye, possibly because its blue colour flecked with gold pyrite resembled the night sky, the dwelling place of God. It is reputed to bring mental clarity and emotional healing, truth and friendship. To the Buddhists of antiquity, lapis signified peace of mind and equanimity, dispelling malign thoughts.
There is a strange poem by W. B. Yeats called “Lapis Lazuli”, but a better one by Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon. Published in his collection Harbour Lights in 2005, it begins:
“A whole night-sky that serves as a paperweight,
this azure block blown in from the universe
sits on my desk here, a still shimmering piece
of planet rock speckled with gold and white,
coarse-grained and knobbly as a meteorite
though recognized as a ‘gem’ in its own right.
The willow-pattern wisdom is still unknown,
the twinkling sages and the branchy house;
for this is the real thing in its natural state,
the raw material from which art is born.”