The Beauty of Colour: Vermilion

I credit Richard II for my most recent research project.  If he hadn’t been wearing a cloak painted with Vermilion kneeling before the Lapis Lazuli enrobed Madonna, in the famous Wilton diptych, I would never have started my exploration.  I have always been fascinated with art; the ability to create an inspirational piece through one’s imagination is magic in itself. When you combine this with the historic challenges of finding, mixing and ensuring the resilience of the paints used, it is amazing that so many artistic pieces survive the centuries to share their stories.

Vermilion, I was to discover, has a long and very interesting history.

The colour Vermilion is made from the mineral cinnabar. This ore also contains mercury which is a toxin to the human body. If ingested or inhaled it can kill or corrupt the victim, if held in the palm of a hand the heat could release the mercury- a dangerous beauty indeed. Vermillion is a derivation of Latin vermiculus, or worm (most will correctly connect vermin or vermicelli with the Latin word), wrongly connected with another dye that could be made from an insect  Kermes vermilio.   Kermes, or as we know it today as Crimson.  Our crimson is synthetically produced, no worms were harmed in the making of it.

There are very few mines for cinnabar, but the luck of the global community, it was spread out fairly.  Each continent received their own supply. Vermilion can be found in many of the world’s most established civilizations: Chinese, Indian, European, and Mayan.

Red is universally seen as a symbol of longevity and nobility; the colour of blood- life itself.  The power of the upper class is based on their ability to pay for this hard to find- dangerous to handle resource.

Possibly used in human art since 25, 000, Vermilion has an exciting history.

The Romans got their supply of cinnabar possibly from the Almaden mine in Spain, which even today has the largest supply of mercury in the world. Spain has mined cinnabar from around 5300 BCE. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History mentions, vermilion or minium- even today there is a confusion with led.

While Pliny does not know the origin of the ritual, he believes it to be religious in nature; the head of the statue of Jupiter on the Capitolinus Hill in Greece was covered with Vermilion, a symbol of honour for a military leader.  The Roman people would follow this tradition to honour every general who brought their country victory through battle, by adorning their head in vermilion; symbolizing blood of their enemies or miraculous life in the face of death.

Toxic to inhale, the workers in the mines were poor or enemies of the Empire.  Life would be short after one began working in the mines. Pliny explains that workers in the mines wore a loose bladder skin over their heads to minimize the toxins they inhale.

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it covered the city of Pompeii in Volcanic pumice and ash. Pliny the Elder was one among the thousands who lost their lives in the natural disaster. Uncovered from the sixteenth century to the present day, are the three dimensional lives of the people.  The rich residents had their dining halls adorned in cinnabar.  One example is the Villa of the Mysteries in which the dining hall is covered with what looks to be a woman going through a religious rite- possibly marriage.

Cinnabar was used in the Mayan culture; famous for their blood lust, and the connection to life and death. Lord Pacal, the longest living ruler of Mesoamerican history, died in 683 CE. He was regally buried in the Temple of Inscriptions, in Palenque, with jade adornments and Cinnabar sprinkled throughout his tomb and painted on his sarcophagus. Dating from the same time is the ‘Red Queen;’ a noble woman, richly adorned for the afterlife, and covered in cinnabar.  Some sources say she might be his Queen.  Cinnabar was also used for incense; the transmutability of the mineral turning into mercury would highlight the change from life to death and the mystery of the world.

According to some scholars, the use of vermilion was introduced to the 11th and 12th centuries, but the tradition of Sindoor Dana has been honoured for over 5000 years.  Sindoor Dana is still practised by Hindu’s in India and around the world; the groom places a line of vermilion (and turmeric and lime) down the front parting of his bride’s hairline.  A woman who wears this is ensures her husbands protection by the Goddess Parvati. The wearing of Sindoor is found in the Mahabharata. This communicates the life of a couple’s new union, and ensures the husband’s health. It is believed it stimulates the chakras on the forehead and the crown. The bride will apply this every day for the rest of her marriage.  It is taken off by an older woman when the woman becomes a widow. It is believed the Sindoor will calm the bride, give her clear thought and ensure sexual energy; this is why it is forbidden for widows.

Having just touched the surface of the life history of this amazing colour, I hope to learn more in the future.

Works Cited:,0978,001:36

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Chapter VII (Grandfather’s Journal continued 1916- age 16)

Col Bedell 001It was not half term but I secured the permission to go home for a week-end and Dick accepted my invitation to come along. Dad was now at Witley Camp and mother and Mrs. Wilkinson had a cottage in Milford, near the camp. Dick  and I started off after school Friday and got into Milford about 6:30 Mother had sent a taxi to meet us and soon we were sitting down to supper at Meadow Cottage. Suddenly smoke began  to drift in the door. Dick and I dashed through and found it was coming from upstairs. We hurried up and found that the smoke was coming from an oil-stove that had caught on fire in the oil.  We picked the thing up and hurried it out to the lawn.  When we came in, everyone began to laugh at us and on examining ourselves in the mirror we saw we were covered in black smoke. Very wicked looking men indeed!  Dick’s sweater was ruined but we decided it might have been a lot worse and treated it all as a joke.

Next morning Dick and I were up before sunrise and walked out to the camp to see the rising sun from a small hill nearby.  “The darkest hour is just before the dawn!” Nothing was to be seen except the top branches of a big elm-tree, outlined against the sky.  Slowly the darkness gave way reluctant to leave, but not daring to face the sun that would soon be here.  Already the clouds are tinged with a faint, delicate pink, and at the sight of this herald of the rising sun, the darkness gives way completely.

The mist lies softly, level and white in the valley, so opaque that only the tops of the trees can be seen and yet so thin and frail, that in a few moments more it will melt away in the splendour of the morning.

The clouds turn a pure rose colour and suddenly the eastern sky becomes one molten mass; the pure, intense blue of the upper sky forming a perfect background for the riot of golden, crimson, purple and scarlet colour.  The mist is disappearing already, eddying among the trees, swaying, dipping, in a perfect poetry of motion. Now we got a glimpse of the little lake, a perfect gem in a setting of majestic pines.

All the colouring of the sunrise is there in the water but the tints are mingled and the colours more delicate.  The opalescent fires of that unlucky gem are there, the flash of the diamond and the blue of the turquoise.  Fading into the distance the purple hills of Surrey form the background of the scene (perhaps one day I will see it as he writes it…100 years later xx) Such a perfect picture cannot last; the sun rises higher and higher,the colouring fades away, and a new day has been born.

After breakfast we went for another walk, ending up at noon, at the Officer’s Mess, Witley Camp, where Dad had invited us for dinner.  The time passed all to quickly and soon another day was gone.

We had to go back to Barnet on Sunday evening.  The train was a fast one and we pulled into Waterloo in good time.  The underground railway soon deposited us at Golder’s Green and we found ourselves waiting in the pouring rain for a bus.

The bus was crowded and I gazed around and wondered what they were all thinking about.  Where were they going? How did they live? Where they thinking of their sons in France?

An old man, stooped and crushed by sorrow, was sitting across the aisle.  Beside him was a woman, probably his wife.  She was smiling, but there were tears in her eyes.  What an effort that smile has cost!

A young girl, with a long letter in her hand, was sitting beside me.  She looked very sad and lonely but was tightly clinging to the treasured letter.  Was it from her lover in France?  Again I wondered.

In the corner I noticed a little mite of a girl.  Her eyes were red with weeping and I felt sure her father had been one of the many killed in our last drive against the Germans, fighting bravely for home and country.  An uncomfortable lump rose in my throat and I turned to the farther corner.  Once more I was reminded of the war. A soldier- boy in blue was sitting there.  He had one arm in a sling.and one leg missing, but nevertheless he was the merriest face  I had seen for many a day.  Beneath his merriment however, determination showed.  It could be seen on all their faces.  No matter what it cost, they would go through to the bitter end.

Suddenly I noticed that we were passing our destination and , rousing Dick, I made a frantic grab for the cord, but only succeeded in hitting the hat of a very dignified old lady sitting beside me.  The hat went sidewise and her dignity followed.  A moment later and we were walking through Barnet church passage in the rain; ten minutes later and I was sound asleep in bed.

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Looking at this last entry, I realize how long I have been away from this site.  It really has never been far from my thoughts. Each entry is an act of discovery; a new connection with the past and my family.  I am grateful for the space to discover it in. Life moves on:  life changes, and life challenges.   We learn, we grow.

My desire is to return: to write , to learn, to share.  I have heard before that we learn about ourselves as we write. There are so many wonderful people in history (heck, so many wonderful people who write about history) I have yet to meet, so much I have yet to learn about my own eclectic history-loving family.

On the eve of Victory in Europe Day,  I say …..bring on the stories!  Bring on the research!  Bring on the history!


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Grandfather’s Journal 1916

Shortly after I had arrived at Barnet the weather became colder and one clear frosty, Sunday morning Dick came and informed us all that there was ice on Totteridge Long Pond. Mrs. Lattimer readily gave me permission to spend the afternoon with him and immediately after dinner, Mr. Creswick, Dick and I started out for the pond.  It was a short walk, as the cold made exertion a pleasure and we were soon skating over the glassy ice.  I was immediately appraised as a good skater although I had never succeeded in convincing any of my Canadian friends of that fact.  Mr. Creswick got on very poorly and it was indeed laughable to watch his attempts to stand upright.  Suddenly he fell with his arm twisted under him and we heard a sharp crack.  Nothing to laugh at this time; his wrist was broken.  We made a sling out of our handkerchiefs and started for the nearest doctor. The three miles back into Barnet seemed far longer this time and Mr. Creswick looked very white although he said the wrist was not paining very badly.  We left him at doctor Stewards and went on to  tell Mrs. Creswick what had happened. Soon Mr. Creswick  arrived in Dr. Steward’s car and we all sat down to tea.  A bright, cozy fire was burning in the grate and by the light of its cheerful blaze we all did our best to prove that margarine can really taste like butter and war time bread and treacle like pre war cake.  Our hunger satisfied we arranged ourselves  in a circle about the fire, Mr Creswick lying on the couch , Dick started the ball rolling by telling a funny story he had read and quickly everybody in turn had an even funnier one to tell.  The time passed quickly and soon I had to leave for school but with many invitations to come again and often.

When I told Miss. Sims there was skating she decided to ask Mrs. Lattimer if we could go skating by moonlight on the Brewery Pond on Monday night. Mrs.  Lattimer consented and Monday passed very  slowly indeed. Prep was finished in shorter time than usual and soon we were ‘en route’ for the pond. Miss Sims was the life of the party, which consisted of Mrs. Lattimer, the headmaster’s wife, Miss Sims , who was one of the teachers of First Form, Dorothy, Old Bill’s daughter (Old Bill being short for Mr. Lattimer), Kennedy, Moulton, myself and Hugh (Old Bill’s son). “Snap the whip” being an unknown game, I proceeded to enlighten them as to how it was done.  As Kennedy and I were the best skaters and the heaviest; I took one end and Kennedy formed the tai.  Faster and faster we went until I stopped and around they came.  Suddenly Hugh let go and Hugh, Dorothy and Kennedy went dashing toward the bank.  Hugh bumped his head but nothing serious happened and all were eager to try again.  Soon we were all panting and went and sat down on an old log in order to regain our breath .  We skated a short while longer and then Mrs. Lattimer made herself more unpopular than ever by telling us it was time to leave.  When we got back to the school we all had a cup of cocoa, said good-night to Miss Sims and hurries off to bed, or rather were hurried off to bed.

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American Soldier in World War II

American soldier 001

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