Coloring the Image: The Use of Egyptian Blue in Bronze Age Mediterranean Fresco Imagery (15 min)


Allisen Hunter, Florida State University


The pigment Egyptian blue has often been considered the most prestigious and advantageous pigment available to Bronze Age Mediterranean fresco artists. While the presence of Egyptian blue is well attested and its use widespread throughout the region, it is not used exclusively; the darker blue pigment riebeckite is often thought to be a cheap substitute. This assumption attributes a modern perception of value to the pigments. Rather, a pigment’s inclusion or exclusion within a scene was determined by its perceived suitability within an artistic convention. This paper demonstrates the advantage of utilizing both analytical/technological and iconographic studies of Bronze Age Mediterranean frescoes to better understand the choice of pigments.

A case study of the contrasting depiction of marine and naval scenes to scenes that use blue as the main background color demonstrates that choice of pigment is not dictated by purely economic motivations. Patterns of use indicate that the pigment Egyptian blue is considered suitable or preferable for a variety of images that differ from site to site and throughout time, such as its presence within depictions of water on the coastline, the deep sea, as a background plain in submerged marine scenes, or the sky. These varied patterns suggest local practices and individual choices in frescoes, regardless of assumed cultural assignments of “Minoan,” “Cycladic,” or “Mycenaean.” The combined examination of the pigments and the image indicates that while there is an increased trend of Egyptian blue usage in Late Bronze Age Aegean frescoes, an assumed preference for the pigment based on its perceived economic value is not a satisfying explanation. Rather, social and aesthetic choices seem more important.