Rare Arthurian-era Paint Color Recreated by Researchers

vivid purple-blue pigment mixed for first time since 19th century

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Researchers have successfully recreated a unique purple-blue paint, CNN reported. The color, called folium, is composed of a very specific formula of dyes to achieve its pigment. It was first used 1,000 years ago in Arthurian times.

Blue-purple pigments on cloths
A research team of chemists, conservation scientists, and a biologist recreated a 1,000-year-old unique paint in their effort to preserve medieval illuminated manuscripts. Photo by Paula Nabais / NOVA University

According to CNN, the antiquated pigment that was recently recreated often appeared in medieval manuscripts. “It took a diverse team of researchers, old recipes, and a journey to a medieval walled village in Portugal to determine the source of the elusive color,” the article said. “The color is called folium, and it was used as early as a thousand years ago. It fell out of favor by the 19th century, and scientists tried recreating it and discovered its source in the century that followed.”

The article went on to say that understanding and recreating folium is vital to preserving manuscripts from the time. Arthurian artwork dominated its time period, especially in privately commissioned pieces.

The Nine Worthies

The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table has inspired people since its inception, and artwork based on the legend spread around Europe like wildfire. Much of what survives today is in stone, but like the manuscripts of folium, some Arthurian art is on paper, parchment, or tapestry.

“In the Alliterative Morte Arthure, Arthur has a dream involving Dame Fortune and her wheel,” said Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University. “In that dream, he sees that there are nine seats on the Wheel of Fortune, and one of them is reserved for him. In an elegant pattern of threes, we also learn that these seats belong to the so-called Nine Worthies.”

Dr. Armstrong said the Nine Worthies are divided into three groups. One group is from the Old Testament and includes Joshua, King David, and Judas Maccabeus. The next is from the classical world and they are Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar. The final three Worthies are from Christian tradition: Charlemagne, Godfrey de Bouillon, and Arthur himself.

The Cloisters Tapestry

One of the most famous pieces of art depicting the Nine Worthies is called the Cloisters Tapestry, which Dr. Armstrong said is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“Originally, this tapestry was woven at the request of the very wealthy Duc de Berry in the late 14th or early 15th century,” she said. “It comprised three separate tapestries, actually—each 21 by 16 feet. These larger pieces were assembled from 95 smaller fragments, and they are breathtaking.”

Dr. Armstrong said that one of the most noteworthy aspects of the tapestries is the incredibly detailed background behind Arthur and the other Worthies, which she said is “full of details of Gothic sculptures and architecture.” Some of the most vivid colors are meant to emulate stained-glass windows.

Unfortunately, of the three major tapestries, one has been lost to history at some point around the French Revolution.

“One hears stories about them that make an art historian shudder,” Dr. Armstrong said. “People from a village using panels of another set, the Unicorn Tapestries, as a mat on which to wipe their feet; or even worse, they’re cutting them up and turning them into curtains, as they’re thick and did a nice job of blocking out sunlight. Or they’re picking them apart in order to get at the gold and silver threads that were woven throughout.”

Despite this tragedy, the Arthurian tapestries that remain are testament to the vibrant and imaginative culture surrounding the King Arthur legend. It’s easy to imagine that the newly recreated folium features in several pieces from that time.

Dr. Armstrong is Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University

Dr. Dorsey Armstrong contributed to this article. Dr. Armstrong is Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, where she has taught since 2002. She earned an A.B. in English and Creative Writing from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature from Duke University.