Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mummy Black and Caput Mortuum

I've told a bit before about the history of artist pigments, and today wish to discuss the history of a particularly interesting pigment known as Mummy Black.

Egyptian mummies have a dark color to them when unwrapped (leading some folks to incorrectly believe the Egyptians were black as in negroid race, which is not quite correct -- though the discussion of that would be at least another post if not an entire book's worth of info.) It was believed in ancient times, by foreigners and maybe even by uneducated Egyptians, that this black color, and much of the whole preservation, were achieved by using large amounts of mineral pitch in the mummification process. In fact the hue is merely a side effect of the drying (think on how a piece of beef jerky winds up looking once the moisture is gone.) Nevertheless, this led to some odd beliefs and practices in both folk and formal medicines.

Mineral pitch was used for an assortment of traditional folk remedies, and the belief came to be that mineral pitch taken from a mummy would be even more powerful. Typical mummification really seems to have used very little if any mineral pitch, but that didn't stop anyone; they would steal and grind up whole mummies and sell the powder for all kinds of uses. It was used in love potions and curse removal, and was said to cure just about everything from bruises to epilepsy. Eventually the demand for mummia was greater than the supply, and recipes for mummia falsa, constructed from other types of dead bodies, survive.

The apothecary's shop was once not just the place for the quack physician, but also for the artist, who generally needed to prepare his own paints (or sometimes have them prepared by the apothecary.) Mummia was valued here as well -- it offered a nice black/brown shade that looked well in paintings, and some reportedly believed that the preservation process the mummy had undergone would also help to preserve the painting and the brightness of the pigment. So there goes Cleopatra, furnishing her own portrait. And if you think mummy black went out with the Renaissance, think again; I've heard reports of the stuff being used as late as the 1915, and some art stores still sell paint under the name (though no more made from real corpses.)

Another related paint called Caput Mortuum was also available. It was sometimes synonymous with Mummy Black, but other reports suggest it was made from the wrappings instead of the actual corpses.

Next time you're visiting an art museum, look out for any paintings featuring brown/black areas that seem to be cracking more than the surrounding paint -- this is said to be characteristic of Mummy Black.

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