Block of the Week: Lapis Lazuli

Chip away at the secrets of this true blue block!

A glimmer of blue in the dark wall of a cave - could it be DIAMOND? Ah, no. Instead you've stumbled on a seam of lapis lazuli ore. It can be fashioned into a fancy blue block (which can only otherwise to be found in the centre of Illager statues in Woodland Mansions), or into the dyes beloved of aesthetes who want to splash a bit of colour about. But it doesn't make for hardy armour, and for that reason, survival specialists may be disappointed to discover it.

In the real world, this blue rock is highly prized, and, for a long time, no less highly priced. For several thousand years, the only source of blue in the world was a single mine in north-eastern Afghanistan. It’s the source of the blue in the eyebrows of Tutankhamun’s funeral mask and a headdress in the Sumerian tomb of Queen Puabi.

Even today, this remote mine, which is called Sar-i Sang and has been worked for 6000 years, is one of the world’s only sources of pure lapis lazuli. So it might be pretty hard to find in Minecraft, but lapis lazuli is even rarer in the real world.

But in both places this mineral is a source of brilliant blue pigment for artists and sculptors. In the ancient world it was used to form bowls, jewellery and carvings from Egypt to Pakistan, but when lapis lazuli reached Europe in the late Middle Ages as a result of the Crusades, painters went barmy for it.

They crushed it into a powder, mixed it with wax resins and oils and purified it in lye, and called the result ultramarine. Being a cultured individual, you might know ultramarine as the name of a storied legion of Space Marines, but others know it as the basis for the blues found in many great works of Western painting.

“A noble colour, beautiful, the most perfect of all colours,” wrote Italian painter Cennino Cennini in his 1400 Book of the Arts. They especially liked to use it to depict the Virgin Mary’s blue robes.

Works featuring lapis lazuli blues: Tutankhamun’s funeral mask (1323 BC) - photo by Carsten Frenzl

Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520–23). Currently displayed in the National Gallery, London.

Michangelo’s The Last Judgement (1536-41), on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Vermeer’s Girl With the Pearl Earring (1665). Displayed at Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands.

The thing with lapis, though, was that it was expensive. It costed, weight for weight, the same as gold. That meant that only the most successful painters and the richest patrons could use it, making lapis lazuli a real mark of status. If you could afford to use blue, you were a real mover and shaker.

So the bright blue sky of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel is down to lapis, because he was painting for the Pope. Later, Johannes Vermeer, painter of the Girl with the Pearl Earring, used lapis lazuli more than other Dutch painters of his time, showing that he was the cream of the bunch.

Today, lapis lazuli is still used as a pigment, despite the invention in 1826 of a synthetic form. The fake stuff lowered prices, but it couldn’t quite produce as rich a blue as real lapis lazuli. So that mine in Afghanistan is still working, and there’s good reason for you to mine for it, too. Go on, splash a bit of lapis about.