The alchemy of red mercury sulphide: The production of vermilion for medieval art

Miguel, C., J. V. Pinto, M. Clarke, and M. J. Melo, "The alchemy of red mercury sulphide: The production of vermilion for medieval art", Dyes and Pigments, vol. 102, pp. 210-217, 2014.


Vermilion red, mercury sulphide (α-HgS), was one of the most important reds in art and its use as a pigment dates back to Antiquity. In medieval Europe, it could be mined as cinnabar, or produced as vermilion by heating mercury with sulphur. This work aims to study the production of synthetic vermilion as a medieval pigment and to confirm which was the source (mineral or artificial) of the reds used in Portuguese medieval illuminations. The production of synthetic vermilion was based on the process described in the Judaeo-Portuguese medieval treatise “The book on how to make colours”, using materials and technologies as close as possible to the medieval ones. The reaction mechanism was studied by following the heating process by X-ray diffraction, and it was possible to conclude that the transformation from black cubic β-HgS into red hexagonal α-HgS is a solid-state phase transition, occurring at 235 °C. This result is contrary to what published in technical art literature, in which this process is described as a sublimation. Moreover, Scanning Electron Microscopy evidenced a sinterization effect on the artificial vermilion, not found in medieval original samples nor in paints prepared with mineral cinnabar from Almadén (Spain). Red mercury sulphide, natural and synthetic, was then prepared as a parchment-glue paint and compared to proteinaceous red paints from 12th–13th century miniatures produced in important medieval monasteries, previously fully characterized by a multi-analytical approach (μ-Energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence, μ-Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, Raman microscopy). A comparative Electron probe microanalysis of the red paints point to a mineral provenance for medieval vermilion found in Portuguese illuminations.



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