Tuesday, October 20, 2020

St Albert the Great and the Philosopher’s Stone ... Bloodstone

Following an earlier article about natural pigments, I was contacted by a reader (h/t Nancy, you know who you are!) who has trained as a botanical watercolorist, and who explained how the choice of natural pigments aids the process of imitating natural colors. She mentioned a pigment I had not come across before called bloodstone. She wrote: 

Having taken numerous botanical art watercolor courses there is always discussion of limited palettes and of course, the artist is always striving to match the colors of nature perfectly in this art form which is partly scientific. I recently discovered that Daniel Smith watercolor has a large line of mineral-based watercolor paints called Primatek. These include Lapis Lazuli and many other beautiful and completely natural paints. One that I purchased is Bloodstone which was cherished by Christians as being almost mystical. It is made from the bloodstone which is a dark green stone with spots of red said to have come from or resemble the drops of blood which Christ shed.
Bloodstone is a mineral also known as heliotrope, a conglomerated mineral that consists of silicon dioxide (quartz) in the form of jasper, with red inclusions of iron oxide.

Raw bloodstone
Polished bloodstone

It is described by St Albert the Great in the way that Nancy has described. The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy entry on St Albert states: 
Albert’s Treatise on Minerals shows that he undertakes his own observations and did not merely collate authorities on the topic. He studies different kinds of minerals and metals as well as rare stones. Beginning with the mineral kingdom, he notes the properties of each mineral specimen, including where it was found along with its cause or causes. Next, he deals with rare stones, investigating the powers of these specimens along with their causes. He then produces an alphabetical list of a large number of these more precious stones. Throughout the treatise, Albert is careful always to proceed from the effects or properties of the mineral world to hypotheses concerning their causes. It is clear from his text that he himself made a number of studies (experiments) with different minerals.
In this treatise, he calls it the Stone of Babylon and quotes Pliny, the Elder, who attributed “magical” properties to the mineral. In fact, some of these properties, such as stemming blood flow, are quite reasonable, given that, as Wikipedia points out, iron oxide is an astringent. Albert the Great was in fact not one to accept such sources uncritically, as the above entry explains, and was a leading figure in developing a systematic approach to natural philosophy in the modern era - what we call today natural science.
There is nothing superstitious about attributing a symbolism to its appearance, as Christians did in the past. This is natural. But we must distinguish between this and the attribution of unverified “magical” properties to the mineral. We might flatter ourselves today that we are past the superstition that Albert sought to dispel, but that isn’t so. Do an internet search on bloodstone, and you will find all sorts of New Age accounts of the “crystal’s ” properties that match anything that the Romans or the medieval produced in terms of irrational superstition.
After all this, as a paint pigment, given the mystique attached to it, it is rather a disappointing warm grey-brown used primarily as a wash combined with other colors. The range of colors produced by Daniel Smith is in watercolor and oil and can be viewed here.

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