Rough lapis lazuli. Image by R.Weller at Cochise College http://skywalker.cochise.edu/wellerr/mineral/lapis/lapis3.htm
Lapis is the Latin word for “stone”, while lazuli stems from the Arabic “azula” for the color of the sky. The romantic languages owe its word for the color blue to this stone. When I think of lapis I first think of pharaohs’ tombs in Egypt, but the rock was also popular for ornamentation in ancient Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece and Rome around the same time.
Lapis is a complex mix of minerals, particularly lazurite, sodalite, calcite, and pyrite, which gives it the characteristic golden flecks. It is fairly soft at around 5 on the Moh’s scale, which allowed it to be carved and shaped centuries ago. Most lapis comes from the mountains of Afghanistan, where it has been mined since before 300 BCE and was the supply for much of the ancient world. Lapis is found throughout the Middle East, as well as Russia, the Andes mountains, Burma, Canada, India, and the US.
Lapis is graded by its brightness of color, and the finest stones are an almost unearthly rich ultramarine without visible white calcite veins. In fact, ultramarine paint was made of crushed lapis for hundreds of years before the synthetic color was produced in 1834. It was the most expensive pigment, surpassing the pure gold that was common in medieval illuminated images. It was also a prized dye for clothing and eye shadow in Egypt.
As with other blue gemstones, lapis is thought to aid with finding enlightenment and serenity, calming the mind for meditation, and discovering new ideas. To the ancient Egyptians it was a symbol of truth, and protective lapis scarabs were often wrapped with the dead for a safe afterlife. In civilizations across the world, it was thought to mirror the night sky with its twinkling stars. In Medieval Europe, lapis was thought to ward off dark spirits and aid in finding souls that would bring light and wisdom.