As Majestic As A Sea-Snail: History of the Color Purple

The secret to the ancient recipe for power, wealth and seduction was all found in a small, smelly sea-snail. According to legend, the Greek hero Hercules was walking along the Levantine coast when he noticed that his dog’s snout had turned a majestic shade of purple from munching on murex shells. Inspired, Hercules created a robe dyed with the color for the local King. [1] So taken by the rich hue, the King declared the land was to be called Phoenicia meaning “the land of purple” and its rulers should wear this color purple as a mark of royalty… and so it is said that one of the most precious commodities in the history of the ancient world was created.

A single gram of Tyrian Purple would cost the modern equivalent of $5000, consume over 8500 murex snails to make, and would be only enough to color a single trim of a garment.

Musée Bonnat - La découverte de la pourpre - Peter Paul Rubens (
Peter Paul Rubens, “Hercules’ Dog Discovers Purple Dye,” 1636. Oil painting. Courtesy of Musée Bonnat.

Ancient History of Tyrian Purple

Known as Tyrian Purple, Imperial Purple or Purpura, the earliest archeological evidence for the origins of this pigment points to the city of Tyre around 1900 BC. A single gram of Tyrian Purple would cost the modern equivalent of $5000, consume over 8500 murex snails to make, and would be only enough to color a single trim of a garment. Scholars believe that the color was a crimson-purple hue, both rich and dark at first look but almost luminescence when examined under direct light. In Naturalis Historia (79 AD), Pliny the Elder described Tyrian Purple as resembling that of clotted blood, “though it seems to be dark, it gains a peculiar beauty from the sun, and is infused with the brilliancy of the sun’s warmth.”[2]

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Painting of a Roman Woman from AD 130-140 wearing a Tyrian Purple garment, signifying her wealth and status. Image: “Mummy Portrait of a Woman with Earrings,” c. AD 130-140. Roman Period Painting. Courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums. 1923.60. Copyright of the President and Fellows of Harvard.

It is said that a purpura dyed garment during Roman times would cost at least three times its weight in gold. Due to its expense and the delicate process of its creation, nobles and kings throughout the ancient Mediterranean world were seduced by the color. In the late 14th century BC, King Tushratta of Mitannii sent his brother-in law, Pharoah Amenhotep III, sheepskin shoes dyed with Tyrian purple. According to the Bible, King Solomon commissioned artisans from Tyre to decorate the Temple of Jerusalem with precious fabrics of Purpura in 950 BC. Cleopatra and Julius Cesar both had furniture covered in fabrics dyed Imperial Purple. In Homer’s Odyssey, he refers to the color on numerous occasions including in describing how the tail of the Trojan Horse was woven with leather dyed of Tyrian Purple to further impress the people of Troy. In Rome, the color was a symbol of the power of the Emperors. Caligua is said to have assassinated the king of Mauritania for dressing in a purple robe more striking than his own; Nero condemned to death anyone daring to wear the Imperial Purple other than himself; and, both Diocletian and Constantine used the color for their burial shrouds. The color dye was so durable that it is said that when Alexander the Great conquered the city of Tyre in 332 BC, he discovered hidden store rooms with Purpura dyed fabrics over 200 years old that still held their original radiance. Excavations of ancient sites in Greece have revealed dye vats that still bear purpura traces to this day and murals of fabric being dyed this color were discovered in excavations of Pompeii.

Manufacturing of Tyrian Purple

Tyrian Murex Shell
The pigment Tyrian Purple is created by removing the mucus gland from two specific varieties of marine mollusks in the Murex family, a sample of which is featured in the Harvard Art Museums’ historic pigment collection. Photo: R. Leopoldina Torres. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums. Copyright President and Fellows of Harvard.

Whether or not you believe the legends about the origins of Purpura, the farming of murex and creation of the pigment was a true Herculean effort. Large hills of crushed seashells have been found throughout the Mediterranean region, the most famous “Murex Hill” located in the city of Sidon (located in present day Lebanon), measuring 100 meters in height and 50 meters in diameter. As the pigment is created by removing the mucus gland from two specific varieties of marine mollusks in the Murex family, the secretion from the glands were extracted and over a period of about 10 days, was mixed with salt and heated with vats until the pigment was separated. Anne Varichon states in Colors: What They Mean and How We Make Them, “Precisely controlling the duration of the fluid’s exposure to the light was critical to obtaining the desired color… [when exposed to light] a fascinating phenomenon occurred: …the juice turned from a whitish color at first to a yellowish green, then to green, violet, and finally a deeper and deeper red hue.”[3]

“The use of Tyrian purple is extremely rare in easel paintings. I have been working in this field for over twenty years and the only time I have found the use of the pigment was while examining the altarpiece Madonna and Child.” – Narayan Khandekar, Conservation Scientist at the Harvard Art Museums.

Discoveries of Tyrian Purple in Art

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Narayan Khandekar, Director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, discusses the curious backstories of a selection of pigments in the Harvard Art Museums collections. Image by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer via the Harvard Gazette.

Currently, a sample of this rare pigment canbe found in the historic Forbes Pigment Collection at the Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. In a recent Harvard Gazette article about the pigment collection, Senior Conservation Scientist, Narayan Khandekar, explains the aquatic origins of Tyrian purple. Listen here:

 

Khandekar reports that over his career he has only once discovered the use of the Tyrian purple pigment while examining a work by the Master of Saint Cecilia for the Getty Museum. Khandekar states:

The use of Tyrian purple is extremely rare in easel paintings. I have been working in this field for over twenty years and the only time I have found the use of the pigment was while examining the altarpiece Madonna and Child . While performing a technique called x-ray fluorescence, I detected bromine—which is very unusual to find in any paint. The only pigment of the right age that we know of that contains bromine is Tyrian purple, which consists of dibromoindigo. I tested the paint using two different spectrometers and confirmed that it wasn’t an accident or an artifact of any spectrometer. It was very exciting.

Scholars believe that the mysterious Florentine artist known as the Master of Saint Cecilia also worked as a manuscript illuminator during 1290-1320. As Tyrian purple was more commonly used in manuscripts during this time, Khandekar’s discovery of bromine in the upper scrolls of the Madonna and Child supports this theory.

Madonna & Child
While examining this altarpiece for the Getty Museum, scientist Narayan Khandekar discovered the rare use of Tyrian Purple in the paint used to create the scrolls on this painting. Image: Close-up of Madonna and Child, Master of St. Cecilia, c. 1290-1295. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. Courtesy of the Getty Museum. 2000.35

Tyrian Purple in Modernity

By the end of the Byzantine Empire, the species of Murex Brandaris and Murex Trunculus sea-snails had been farmed to near extinction. Purpura fell out of high fashion being replaced by the rare pigment ultramarine by the 14th and 15th centuries. The color purple continued to be used by the wealthy and influential until the synthesized pigment for Mauve was discovered in 1856, by chemist William Perkin while carrying out experiments aiming to make quinine, a cure for malaria. Within five years, Mauve became the most fashionable color in Victorian Britain and the discovery revolutionized the dyeing industry forever.   As time passed, the secret to creating the Purpura dyes was lost and forgotten. Although Paul Friedlander discovered the exact chemical structure of Tyrian purple in 1909, it is only in the past decade that scholars, tradesmen, and scientist have been able to successfully recreate Tyrian Purple using a mixture of modern technology and ancient recipes. A current synthetically created organic version of the pigment is available by the Swiss company Kremer Pigmente for €2,439.50 /gram making it still one of the most expensive colors found today.

Footnotes:
[1] Julius Pollux, Onomasticon I, 45–49.
[2]  Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, eds. John BostockHenry Thomas Riley (London, England: Taylor and Francis, 1855), Book IX. The Natural History of FishesChapter 62. Pliny discusses Tyrian purple in Chapters 60–65 of his Natural History.
[3] Anne Varichon, Colors: What They Mean and How To Make Them, (New York, Abrams, 2007): 135.

 

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2 Comments

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  1. What a fascinating subject. I always look forward to your posts.

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  2. I would love to know what the pigment they sell in Essaouria, Morocco named ‘Murex’ consist of. The sellers say it is from the famous purple snail the city is famous for. It costs next to nothing. Essaouria s famous for the pigments they sell which they all swear are natural. ‘Murex’ is a wonderful deep purple/red.

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