By Dr. Elizabeth Garner and Joe Kiernan, copyright January 2014


The Feast of the Rose Garlands-the painting that won the paint-off in 1506 between the Italian painters and Duerer. Duerer won

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.



Emperor Maximillian, the guy who didn’t pay Duerer for a year. Notice how Green the background is

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!



Two of the apostles for the City Council Chambers

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.



The Haller Madonna. Notice it has red, blue, green and white

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.



Realgar crystals

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.


Two of the four Apostle paintings

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.

Orpiment pigment from realgar

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.



Burkhard von Speyer

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, the original crime family

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.


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.  



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    1. Thank you Gail, for your very nice comments. I would like you to know that since these articles have been published on LinkedIn, I have been publicly defamed, privately threatened, bullied, banned by a group leader in four LinkedIn groups, who has no legal understanding about the difference between “free speech” and defamation, and the consequences of suborning such type of behavior, publicly excoriated by men, who seem to be flapping in public their substitution of what belongs in their pants, and amazed at how paint could have created these reactions.

      Must be like chrome for motorcycle riders 🙂

      Please stay tuned, we have found some amazing more stuff, I can’t write fast enough.



  1. Elizabeth, I am shocked being erudite has resulted in this defamation of your expertise. It is a sad state that in lieu of expressing an opposing viewpoint which anyone is free to do, you are suffering insults. Only ignorance and immaturity would result in such inappropriate reactions to your words. Have broad shoulders and the courage to continue to share your knowledge. Just stay safe.

  2. Threats are immature from anyone, I am sorry that you have to listen to that. I think the reason people might be upset with your article is because you are declaring something “unsafe” for consumers without proper cited sources and evidence to back it up (I do say good things, keep reading). Art is also very different now because of modern manufacturing and misleading labels. As an artist I am very interested in the chemical composition of my paints and mediums, and unfortunately modern universities have taken the science side out of class because it is seen as “dangerous,” however, the same chemicals are used in chemistry classes without objection and are even routinely created in organic chemistry. Many artists throughout history actually lived far longer than the average life expectancy of their time: Leonardo da Vinci died at 67, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni died at 88, Peter Paul Rubens died at 62, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn died at 63, Gian Lorenzo Bernini died at 81, Federico Barocci died at 86, and Jean-Philippe Rameau died at 81. Although Leonardo and Michelangelo predated oil binding, they did use many of the same chemicals. While researching chemical compositions of past and present paint, I was very impressed with the understanding and care taken in the paint making process and steps of artists to secure their own safety and that of their clients. My greatest concern in my own work in the mixing of incompatible pigments (sulfate and copper for example), and although artists warn of possible discoloration due to a reaction, conservationists (trained in science, art, and archaeology) say that reactions like these are rare because the nature of oil paints. Oil paints (including modern) are made by mulling a pigment(s) into linseed, safflower, or walnut oil until every particle of that pigment is surrounded by oil particles, and since these drying oils have a high iodine value, they dry to a very strong and flexible film that may yellow after 100 years but will not release gases because oil paint drys through oxidation and not evaporation and the chemicals in oil paint are chosen for their stability (lightfastness) at livable human temperatures (these compounds are created by pre-oxidization or by adding heat and pressure). Many of the harmful pigments are rarely absorbed (although no one should risk finger painting), but they are most harmful through breathing the oil-less dry particles while mulling or by drinking contaminated water. Please understand that any dry particle that is not air is harmful because it can irritate your lungs and bypass the digestive system into your blood. I do want to mention the reason why heavy metals are unsafe to humans. Heavy metals like lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury and arsenic will not melt your skin or cause explosive chemical reactions in your body, the real problem with these metals is that they simple don’t react at livable temperatures and pressures, and since the human body is kept alive by millions of chemical reactions, but lead/others are absorbed by our bodies and take up electron space and replace the chemicals like reactive iron. Once this happens the kidneys have to work over time and too much will kill you. Example, say you are driving and you see a tree growing in the middle of the road. Well trees aren’t toxic or hazardous essentially, but in the context of a road block, it can kill you or at the very least make you change your direction causing stress. The logical thing isn’t to cut down all the trees, but to be aware of potential road blocks (trees, deer, drunk person, whatever). Lead/others either need to stay in the ground, chemically neutralized (Ferricyanide), or made aware/restricted from pollution/fined/banned (happened with lead in Europe). With all of that being said, you are making wonderful points about lacking proper education concerning chemicals and toxic effects. Sadly, oil and encaustic painters tend to be the more chemically savy and take the extra steps to ensure proper disposal of hazardous waste. My painting trash is separated and not just tossed in the dumpster like the kitchen trash. I also consider Windex and Pine Sol hazardous waste too, in fact I didn’t realize how dangerous Pine Sol was until I started oil painting. I finally got the nerve to buy some scary/deadly turpentine and learned that Pine Sol is the same thing but with more chemicals. After that I sent all my cleaners/surfactants to the garage. Surfactants have scarier chemistry compounds than turp. Some people believe that Spike oil of lavender the somehow a healthier solvent, it’s not, that stuff will burn your nose hairs. Simply, solvents are solvents. They facilitate chemical reactions, and since water is the body’s solvent, all other solvents need to be treated with care, limited in use, and disposed off properly (I personally know too many people who dump their mopping water down the drain). The worse part is that since we live in such a manufactured world, to increase sales, products are labeled with generic names and no one know what they actually bought, not to mention all the additives that aren’t being stated. I think that the worst innovation in art is the creation of acrylic paints, not worst in terms of creative potential, but putting pigments, which are chemicals, into a water soluble paint is only going to go down the drain, same with water colours. Not that I hate either, I just know that before oil painting, I didn’t know what cadmium sulfide was. The Vermilion/Cinnabar Mercury compound has stability issues and isn’t used anymore, Chromium green’ chemical structure changed so it can’t be absorbed (now it’s used in paint and makeup). Lead was more of a hazard because of commercial industrial use because no one knew that it was being put into toys and everyday items, and I am not even going to go into petroleum byproducts, agricultural fertilizers, and over use of medications (which then goes into the water). Fluorination depending on the type is thousand to ten of thousands worse than burning fossil fuels. unfortunately most chemicals aren’t used by industries for safety reasons but because it’s a byproduct from another chemical process that they need to use for something, justified as helping the economy. Ironically the one good chemical that is one of the greatest neutralizers on the planet is avoided because of a misunderstanding of facts. Iron Oxide or rust is physically unable to facilitate the growth of the Tetanus causing bacteria because the bacteria spores cannot survive in oxygen. Tetanus’ bacteria is immune to oxygen in adult form and is comely found on human skin and is contracted by a sharp point/nail that pushes the bacteria in the skin without bleeding. All in all I think you are on a good track and calling out the use of chemicals, but poisoning due to a dried oil in unlikely. It is more common that due to limited chemical combinations, the poison of choice back then was the same chemical used in paints. Not a bad read, a lot of the pigments are actually not used today though. You might want to look into wavelength spectrum theory though because in physics only certain chemicals can reflect certain wavelengths and limiting chemicals would be limiting colours. As a general rule, I just try to learn whats in from of me as much as I can. Artist’s don’t have the monopoly on chemicals, we are actually stuck with industrial byproducts like everyone else. Are you wrong to point a finger at artists? No, but the big industry CEO’s have someone to blame now. Anyway, keep writing because artists do need to be aware of their materials, but I think that artists do try to keep others safe and that means more than industries who deny having any hand in pollution or contamination. Hope this is readable, I am half asleep but I did try summarize as much as I could.

    1. Excellent education for all! However, I don’t think it’s important to give cited sources in this particular case, everyone in the Renaissance knew how dangerous the pigments were, which is why the apprentices got assigned to mix them. The obvious is the obvious. And we have definite proof that Duerer did specifically intend to poison one client, Heller, who was trashing Duere’s name all around town because of a misunderstanding that that Albrecht had to finish up the Duke of Saxony’s altarpiece first. The Durers were extremely angry at many in Nuremberg, hence they took their revenge as they could, and succeeded wildly




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