By Dr. Elizabeth Garner and Joe Kiernan, copyright January 2014
HOW OIL PAINTS AND OIL PIGMENTS WERE MANUFACTURED IN RENAISSANCE TIMES
Oil painting was an extremely dangerous occupation. All pigments were hand made using various extremely toxic materials, that if not handled with extreme caution AND CORRECTLY, could kill.
The process to develop the medium was usually made from a linseed oil base and or a variety of other similar oils as an additive. Olive oil was a popular oil base mixture of the time, until it was discovered olive oil works it’s way through the paint and “drips out.” This happens because the olive oil virtually never dried fully, and in time, with the added help of moisture in the patron’s home or church, it comes to the surface. It is known Leonardo da Vinci was adding wax to his paints to thicken them for better working because of this problem with olive oil. Another trick Renaissance painters discovered was adding 5-10% honey to the mixture to preserve discoloration, especially in darker colors.
When producing pigments for colors a chemical changing process, known back then as alchemy, was needed in order to attain the copper sulfate necessary. The more arsenious oxide used to do this, the deadlier the fumes produced and the more concentrated was the toxicity of the pigment powders. Apprentices were the ones usually assigned this mixing tasks. The Masters knew this and had to teach them to be very very careful.
The colors of Green, Yellow, Red and Blue as being toxic in preparation and application and without a sealing coat to lock in fumes these would all continue to release poisonous fumes for its lifetime. Even with a clear coat, in , as it cracks and chips, it releases toxic fumes again. It’s really good that all of Dürer’s paintings are in museums now, where only the staff could be getting poisoned.
HOW MUCH GREEN? GREEN KILLS
Greens pigments used in the Renaissance included Verdegreen, Malachite, Emerald Green, and Paris green. If green pigments are not sealed by a clear binding coat, this pigment will deliver a slow dose of concentrated arsenic gasses. The greens produced this way today are just as deadly. Mercury is a biproduct of creating green pigments. Green was deadly, the greener the color, the deadlier it was!
HOW WHITE IS WHITE?
Lighter colors used as in the whites and soft yellows were created using “white lead”. White lead was a favorite choice of many for its consistancy and pliability to create an image over a few days. It was highly toxic during production and application. We must also know that all these paintings including whites or flesh tones have had white lead added to the mixtures, palatte or surface of these works. If not sealed by a protective sealing top coat when applied, it will release poisonous lead gasses throughout its lifetime.
HOW BLUE CAN YOU GET?
For the pigments of blue, it was known that lapis lazuli was the prime choice, as was aquamarine. These two pigments were very expensive and usually only ended up on the dress of royalty until the end of the 15th century. Azurite was another excellent option for making a strong blue pigment in the 14-16th centuries. It was acquired in deposits in silver veins and also through copper ore. The mines that produced these minerals during the Renassaince time were in central Europe, mostly owned by the Nuremberg Patricians, and in France.
Azurite, on many paintings of the day, was often mislabled as lapis lazuli to cheat customers. No matter how one worked with this product, the production and application of this color created many noxious fumes from arsenic sulphate. Another manufacturing process produced a highly toxic gas known as mercury cyanide. Both byproducts were deadly.
RED EQUALED DEATH, RED EQUALED YELLOW DEATH
Making red paint was a hugely sought out color by customers in their paintings during this time. Realgar is the most likely choice of pigments in Germany. This mineral was produced in Hungary, Bohemia, and Saxony, from mines once again owned by Nuremberg Patrician corporations and syndicates. It can be found in the mines along veins of lead, silver and gold.
Realgar was known at the time as “Ruby of arsenic” or “Ruby of Sulpher”. It has wonderful qualities and is brilliant red, after a mining brutal production which spewed arsenic gasses into the air. Mining was very dangerous. The powder was then collected and ground into the pigment powder. If this powder were left in the sunlight, it would turn a shade of yellow. This yellow is known as Orpiment another highly valued color in paintings.
Mercury was a strong bi-product of producing the reds, especially Realgar and Vermillion when making copper sulphate. The mercury is what was used to make the copper suphates. For copper engraved metal plates because they have copper, using mercury to speed up the chemical reaction to polish the plate would be used, because they could. These chemicals were always on hand. This mercury is a bi-product of producing the powder for the reds and the greens.
In the 15th-16th centuries, Spain was using Realgar to kill rats, some nations still use it for the same purpose today. Even today Realgar and Orpiment are 2 of the 3 top elements used in the production of arsenic. Deadly stuff.
Black at the time was made using the same toxic mediums, however the pigment itself was acquired mostly by scrapping the soot from lamps and or grinding up burnt bones and horns. The process wasnt toxic, it was the oil base it was added to that was fatal. It was to this mixture that Renaissance artists perfected the 5-10% honey addition to avoid color fading to a grey.
THE BORGIAS HAD FUN POISONING PEOPLE-WHAT THESE POISONS DID
Arsenic is colorless and odorless. Arsenic poisoning was the choice of poisons of the period ala the Borgias. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning begin with headaches, confusion, severe diarrhea, and drowsiness. As the poisoning develops, convulsions and changes in fingernail pigmentation called leukonychia striata occurred. When the poisoning became acute, symptoms included diarrhea, vomiting, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain, and more convulsions. The organs of the body that are usually affected by arsenic poisoning are the lungs, skin, kidneys, and liver. The final result of arsenic poisoning is coma and death. Arsenic is related to heart disease (hypertension related cardiovascular), cancer, stroke (cerebrovascular diseases), chronic lower respiratory diseases, and diabetes.
Mercury poisoning– Lets remember also that in the Renaissance people with depression and syphilis were being treated with mercury, it was commonly available. They were all adding mercury to wine and it was known but not controlled that mercury made the wine taste a bit sweeter, so bad wine usually got more mercury added, although most of Nuremberg was consuming beer because the water was so polluted. A law was passed in late 16th century banning any land to add mercury to the wine.
Common symptoms of mercury poisoning include peripheral neuropathy (presenting as paresthesia or itching, burning or pain), skin discoloration (pink cheeks, fingertips and toes), swelling, and desquamation (shedding of skin), profuse sweating, tachycardia (persistently faster-than-normal heart beat), increased salivation, and hypertension (high blood pressure).
Affected children may show red cheeks, nose and lips, loss of hair, teeth, and nails, transient rashes, hypotonia (muscle weakness), and increased sensitivity to light. Other symptoms may include kidney dysfunction (e.g. Fanconi syndrome) or neuropsychiatric symptoms such as emotional lability, memory impairment, and / or insomnia.
Lead posioning– Symptoms may be different in adults and children; the main symptoms in adults are headache, abdominal pain, memory loss, kidney failure, male reproductive problems, and weakness, pain, or tingling in the extremities. Early symptoms of lead poisoning in adults are commonly nonspecific and include depression, loss of appetite, intermittent abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and muscle pain. Other early signs in adults include malaise, fatigue, decreased libido, and problems with sleep. An unusual taste in the mouth and personality changes are also early signs.
All of these above said pigments are created, applied and continue to be deadly toxins until they are sealed within a clear coat of lacquer to seal in these toxins. If they are left unsealed, or begin to flake or turn to a dust, it becomes a deadly painting of toxins. Deteriorating lead paint can produce dangerous lead levels in household dust and soil. Deteriorating lead paint and lead-containing household dust are the main causes of chronic lead poisoning.
WERE ANY PAINTINGS UNSEALED? OR OVERPAINTED AND UNSEALED?
THE ANSWER IS YES. Even if a Dürer sealed a painting, all they would have to do is overpaint on the sealed coat to poison clients, just even a little bit. Or if any paintings were covered with new pigments to conceal any trace of the Cipher by others who realized there were clues or were doing restoration, the new paint would be sitting on the surface in brilliant fashion poisoning by the day. German curators have already proved there are many areas of overpaintings in the Dürer’s paintings.
PART II WILL TELL US WHO WERE THE ENEMIES and who the Dürers hated and were poisoning.