Orpiment, the word derived from the Latin Auripigmentum, and also known as king’s yellow, has been known since Roman times, and was a treasured pigment used in mediæval manuscripts. Its particular value was because it was yellow and could not only replace gold when it was unavailable or too expensive, but because orpiment was similar to gold and that was the colour that was considered to be near-divine and, like God, indestructible.
Cennino Cennini in in his Libro dell’ Arte of the 15th century, describes orpiment as ‘a handsome yellow more closely resembling gold than any other colour’. It was used in books like the Book of Kells (see above) which has no gold. The Lindisfarne Gospels does have a few areas of gold, but orpiment was the colour used for yellow as in this incipit to Matthew (right).
Other yellows available at the time were not nearly as lasting as orpiment; saffron, urine and fish bile – all forms of yellow – were all far more fugitive. Orpiment could not be ground too finely, though, or it lost its egg yolk golden colour, but the advantage of this was that by being still a little crystalline, it actually glistened and reflected the light.
It is, though, one of those colours where it is very wise not to lick brushes. Orpiment is arsenic trisulphide, and Cennini said ‘beware of soiling your mouth with it, lest you suffer personal injury’! Wise words.
It wasn’t a colour that mixed well, though. Sulphur in the pigment reacted with copper in verdigris, and the lead in ceruse, or white lead. In the 17th century, Cornelius Jansen wrote: ‘Orpiment will ly faire on any culler, except verdigres, but no culler can ly faire on him, he kills them all’.