Cinnabar is a volcanic mercury sulphide ore and the primary source of elementary mercury. It occurs in most volcanic regions across the globe, and was one of the few ores autonomously utilised by many different cultures well before they were able to exchange ideas and information. This is probably because, regardless of where they were, humans noticed and were naturally drawn to the ore's striking red colour.
The red ore was subsequently called 'cinnabar'. There are a couple of explanations around the origins of the name. One is that it comes from an Eastern Indian phrase meaning 'dragon's blood'. Another is that it originates from an Ancient Greek word 'kinnabari'. Either way, the name caught on and the ore is still called 'cinnabar' today.
The Long History Of Cinnabar
We've been using elemental mercury for a long time but it turns out the red ore has an even earlier history of use in its mercury sulphide state.
During the twilight years of the Stone Age, well before cinnabar was mined for its elemental mercury content, we discovered that grinding this ore produces a fine red powder that can be used as a pigment. The first known examples of ground cinnabar use date to just before 7,000 BC when it was used to create red paint in ancient Neolithic cave and rock paintings at Catalhoyuk1, a large Neolithic village in Turkey. The site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The rich orange red powder has been popular with artists from many diverse cultures ever since. We called it 'cinnabar' after the ore it comes from, and the name stuck for many thousands of years. Unfortunately the pigment does darken with age, as can be seen in many of the paintings in which it was used.
Should It Be Cinnabar Or Vermilion?
Cinnabar and vermilion are often used interchangeably when talking about colours but technically 'cinnabar' refers specifically to mercury sulphide powder whilst 'vermilion' is a name for the pigment itself. 'Vermilion', in all its various language forms, has in fact been used as a name for 'red' pigments in general throughout recent history. It only came into use in association with cinnabar powder during the 15th century. Prior to that, both the powder and its pigment were more commonly called 'cinnabar'. 'Vermilion' and 'cinnabar' were often used interchangeably between the 15th and 17th centuries before 'vermilion' became the more common name for the pigment.
Vermilion - What's In A Name
Quite a lot as it turns out, particularly when that name happens to be 'vermilion'.
The Kermes genus of insects is a group of scale insects native to the Mediterranean region. They live on the sap of the evergreen Kermes Oak (Quercus coccifera). The females of several species of Kermes insects produce an Anthraquinone
compound called carminic acid, which is bright red in colour.
Carminic acid has been extracted from these insects and used as a textile and cosmetic pigment since ancient times – it was reportedly used to dye the red robes of Roman senators. A Latin name for the dye was 'vermiculum', which could have come directly from Kermes vermilio, the species of Kermes most commonly used to make it, or from 'vermiculus', a diminutive of 'vermis' meaning 'grub' or 'worm'. Either way, we end up in the same place – the dye was made from grubs!
The French subsequently used 'vermeil', a derivative of 'vermiculum' or 'vermiculus', for red dyes in general. According to some sources, this morphed into 'vermeilon'2. In 1289, 'vermilion', an English version of either 'vermeil' / 'vermeilon' or the Latin 'vermiculus' / 'vermiculum' depending on your information source, first appeared on record as a name for the colour red in that country.
As mentioned earlier, the 'v' words tended to be associated with red pigments in general up until the 15th century. It wasn't until 2 centuries later that the name 'vermilion' became the more common name for the red pigment produced from mercury sulphide. Today it is almost exclusively associated with this pigment.
In the 8th century AD, a chemical process for making cinnabar powder 'in a lab' came into widespread use. It's possible the process, which involved combining mercury and sulphur to create synthetic mercury sulphide, was invented much earlier in China, perhaps as early as 400 BC. However, it wasn't' commonly used until the procedure was published and distributed in a recipe book for colours sometime towards the end of the 700's AD.
From Cave Art To Other Items
From its initial use in prehistoric paints, cinnabar powder quickly found its way into a range of other products – cosmetics, lacquers, dyes, funeral paints, jewellery and indeed anything that needed to be bright red3. The Romans used cinnabar pigments extensively for decorative and artistic purposes across ancient Rome, even though it was expensive. Some of the buildings uncovered in Pompeii for instance were decorated with red paint made from cinnabar powder. Important participants in Roman triumph rites and ceremonies, held to commemorate military victories, had their faces painted with a rouge powder made from crushed cinnabar.
The illuminated manuscripts produced during the Middle Ages contain red inks and paints made from cinnabar. Likewise, the bright red wax used to seal formal documents throughout this period was made by mixing cinnabar into melted wax. Red cinnabar tinted paints were popular with artists of the Renaissance period. Indeed, we can find plenty of places where cinnabar / vermilion pigmented paints have been used throughout history – from exotic canvases to brilliant architectural and interior designs.
The red powder was a common ingredient in red-pigmented cosmetic products. Sindoor is a red cosmetic powder sometimes made from crushed cinnabar, but more commonly and safely from red spices. It was widely used by women in the Hindu culture who wore it in their hair as a symbol of marriage.
In China, cinnabar powder was used from around 5,000 to 4,000 BC to create the rich red paints and lacquers used in their art and famous lacquerware. They also used it in rituals and to paint buildings – entire floors and walls have been found painted in it.
Referred to as Chinese red, the colour was, and still is, hugely popular in Chinese culture where it represents life and eternity – somewhat ironic given the toxic nature of the cinnabar powder used to produce it! Today this particular shade of vermilion is still called 'Chinese red' although some sources alternatively define 'Chinese red' as vermilion that originated in China.
Speaking of 'originating' in China – most of the world's modern vermilion is now made in China, who is also the largest mercury producer, accounting for over 90% of total global supply. Vermilion does have a limited market courtesy of its toxicity and has largely been replaced by cadmium red, a synthetic and much safer pigment. Purists however, particularly in the art world, still seek out the 'real deal' because it produces a colour and hue they say can't be produced with anything else4.
- The village existed from 7,100 BC until 5,700 BC, and is one of the most significant examples of Neolithic culture and civilisation.
- The Story of Cinnabar and Vermilion (HgS) at The Met
- What Is The Best Replacment For Vermilion