It is difficult to imagine that the Renaissance-era painting by Leonardo da Vinci that was recently auctioned in New York for $450 million has any kind of relationship with Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world. On the same day that the jaw-dropping Christie’s sale of Salvator Mundi (Italian for Savior of the World) shattered world records — and went for more than seven million times as much as it sold for in 1958 ($60!) — it was reported that Afghanistan’s opium production, unfortunately, also hit a record high of its own, rising 87 percent from last year.
However, it is not in the statistics, but in the aesthetics where an incredibly intimate connection can be made.
The predominant color in the mesmerizing Salvator Mundi — the celestial, vivid blue that clothes Jesus Christ himself — hails from the rich and forbidding caves of the Sar-e-Sang valley in Afghanistan’s mountainous Badakhshan province. The source of this blue is the country’s lapis lazuli, a semiprecious gemstone that was once more expensive per ounce than gold.
In his famous Book of the Arts, written around 1400, the Italian painter Cennino Cennini says of the lapis lazuli pigment: “A noble color, beautiful, the most perfect of all colors.”
Lapis is the Latin word for “stone,” and lazuli is derived from “lajaward,” which is the rock’s name in Farsi. The word for “blue” in several languages was derived from lazuli: azure in English; azur in French; azzurro in Italian and azul in Spanish.
Once ground and turned into a powder, or pigment, this azure stone, then mixed with liquefying substances, became known as ultramarine, which literally means “over the sea,” a romantic reference to its passage from Afghanistan to Venice.
The first known use of ultramarine as a pigment actually goes back to the fifth and sixth centuries in Buddhist cave temples in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, according to Hamid Naweed, a leading Afghan art historian and author of Art Through The Ages in Afghanistan.
“This makes them the earliest oil paintings in the world, hundreds of years before oil paintings emerged in Europe,” he says. “Giant gilded and lapis-decorated Buddha statues were carved into the cliffside, and were surrounded by colorful frescoes depicting the heavens.”
The lapis lazuli pigment emerged in Europe around the 14th century. During the Renaissance, ultramarine was the ultimate color used in frescoes and oil paintings, most notably because of its inability to fade or change color and, of course, for its captivating qualities, making it one of the most important pigments in Western fine art history.
Ravi Mangla writes in The Paris Review:
Even the finest natural ultramarine, ground assiduously by hand, is riddled with odd minerals: calcite, pyrite, augite, mica. These deposits cause the light to be refracted and transmitted in subtly different ways. No two strokes of paint are the same in their fundamental composition. Stand at the right angle and you might catch a quiet glimmer of white or gold, like a prick of light from some distant province of the cosmos.
Michelangelo couldn’t afford ultramarine. His painting The Entombment, the story goes, was left unfinished as the result of his failure to procure the prized pigment. Rafael reserved ultramarine for his final coat, preferring for his base layers a common azurite; Vermeer was less parsimonious in his application and proceeded to mire his family in debt. Ultramarine: the quality of the shade is embodied in its name. This is the superlative blue, the end-all blue, the blue to which all other hues quietly aspire.
Because ultramarine was the costliest color in the world then — considering its beauty, durability, the distance it had to travel, and the difficulty in mining it — a painting in which it was used almost always required the patronage of a wealthy nobleman or the Catholic Church who wanted the color reserved for the robes of its most revered figures: Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or angels.
In the case of da Vinci’s spiritually opulent Salvator Mundi, it was commissioned by France’s King Louis XII around the year 1500. A big clue to the masterpiece's recent authentication (which took four years) was the "extraordinarily high quality" of Afghan lapis used throughout Christ's clothing, indicating that it would only be available to “someone of a master and stature as Leonardo."
And if Michelangelo couldn’t afford lapis lazuli for his painting of The Entombment, he did use its powder to achieve the rich blue hues in his frescoes for the Sistine Chapel, which had been commissioned by the Pope.
Beyond its paintings, the Italian Renaissance’s value of the blue stone extended to a wide array of artwork. The Medici family had gathered an incredible collection of stunning lapis objects, which were the centerpiece of a 2015 exhibition in Florence, titled “Lapis Lazuli: The Magic Blue.”
But the use of this blue treasure did not begin or end in lavishments of the European Renaissance. The finest lapis in the world had been mined in the Badakhshan region, and traded in both the Bamiyan valley and down through the ancient road to Kandahar, for several millennia, making it the source of the world’s oldest known commercial gemstones.
Carvings, jewelries, ornamentations, seals and amulets made of lapis were treasured by the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece and Rome. Manuscripts of the Persian Shahnameh had embellishments made from lapis, and an ancient Persian legend said that the heavens owed their blue colors to a massive slab of lapis lazuli upon which the earth rested.
Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. There they saw the God of Israel. Under His feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself.
Fara Braid writes in International Gem Society’s publication:
Lapis lazuli legends are among the oldest in the world. The myth of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, and her descent and return from the underworld may date from as early as 4000 BCE. Inanna entered the underworld bearing the insignias of her rank, including a lapis lazuli necklace and rod.
The blue stone is repeatedly referenced in the Epic of Gilgamesh, arguably the oldest known work of literature. Within it, the Bull of Heaven's horns were composed of lapis. Lapis pendants mined in northeastern Afghanistan once embellished the necklaces of the princesses of Ur in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), one of the first cities in history.
Ancient Egyptians ascribed metaphysical powers to the blue gemstone, even adorning Tutankhamun’s funeral mask (particularly the eyebrows and around the eyes), as well as his outer coffins, with lapis from Afghanistan, then known as Aryana. Decorative pieces of the precious blue stone were inscribed with hieroglyphics, and according to myth, the hair of the gods was made of it.
“The Egyptian Book of the Dead recognizes lapis lazuli, carved in the shape of an eye and set in gold, as an amulet of inestimable power,” writes Mangla, perhaps making them history’s first evil-eye talismans. “Cleopatra, in common lore, wore powdered lapis lazuli as eye shadow.”
Throughout the centuries, caravans traveling along what would be called the Silk Road transported their precious blue cargo West to northern Africa and Europe and East to China. Marco Polo referred to the region’s lapis mines in 1271. In the Muslim era, prayer beads were made from the azure gemstones and exquisitely designed Qur’ans were garnished with its dark blue paint.
“This was a history of myth, legend and relics of our world cultures revealed clearly. Many languages spoke of lapis lazuli,” writes Lailee McNair Bakhtiar in Afghanistan’s Blue Treasure: Lapis Lazuli. “A consistent desire to create for the sacred churches, temples and memories of aspiration and adoration of God and the earth, was at the heart of the artistic expression as it came to be for this decorative gemstone of Afghanistan.”
In the 19th century, even as ultramarine was replaced by a synthetic paint called “French ultramarine,” the original lapis lazuli stone still captivated European writers. William Butler Yeats wrote a poem titled Lapis Lazuli, after being gifted an intricately carved Chinese artwork that was made from the azure rock. Robert Browning penned a poem about a fictional bishop who, on his deathbed, instructs his heirs that a lump of hidden lapis should be used to beautify his memorial: “All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope my villas!”
Within Afghanistan, intricate lapis jewelry and artwork have adorned the bodies and homes of everyone from tribal villagers to royal families, and all of those in between, for centuries. They continue to be sold online, as well as in markets within the country and worldwide.
Despite lapis lazuli mines having been discovered in other parts of the world, none has been able to compare to the quality, beauty and abundance of the blue treasure densely packed within the Afghan mountains.
Unfortunately, given the country’s tragic history of the past few decades, the lapis lazuli within the mines of Badakhshan province have become conflict gemstones.
In 2016, Justin Rowlatt writes for the BBC:
A two-year-long investigation by the campaigning NGO Global Witness shows that instead of going to the people, the profits from the trade in this extraordinarily beautiful semi-precious stone are being funnelled into the pockets of senior politicians and top officials, and have also become a major source of income for the Taliban and other insurgent militias. … The United Nations has estimated that the income from minerals including lapis is now the Taliban's second largest source of income after opium.
It may be all the more fitting that such a mythic and tragic natural resource adorns the robe of da Vinci’s Jesus Christ.
With a difficult future ahead, not only for its celestial lapis treasures, but more importantly for its treasured people, Afghanistan may very well need its own Salvator Mundi. If he comes, I imagine that a lapis lazuli legend will attach itself to him.
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