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Book: The Alchemy of Paint

Chapter: Vermilion: The Sublime, Crystallised

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.45925


This chapter returns to vermilion to look at something that artists knew about but did not mention. They wanted to write about vermilion but were circumspect. They knew vermilion could poison the body but they also knew it could nourish the soul. Like alchemists, they read the Book of Nature and they recognised that – like a word in a scripture or traditional verse – vermilion simultaneously possessed both ‘the letter that killeth’ and ‘the spirit that liveth’.

Vermilion’s transformation of base metals into golden colours was an outward clue to its inner power. This inner power was such that artists who contemplated its Philosophers’ Stone-like properties could themselves be transformed. For those – like Dante – who had the eyes to see a colour’s smile, vermilion was a spiritual teacher.

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