Friday, November 1, 2013

Caput Mortuum for La Toussaint

The day after Halloween was a school holiday at my Catholic grade school in New Orleans in the fifties.    My French grandmother called it Toussaint, meaning All Saints,  and some people spent the day at the cemetery, bringing pots of gold and purple mums to the family tomb.  It was a letdown from Halloween, but still nice to have a day off.  A perfect color for Toussaint is the purplish color on these drawings.  It's called caput mortuum, which translates from the Latin as "head of death." It was called that because it was the purplish rusty color of refuse, dead matter,  left in the retorts and crucibles of alchemists when they had completed processes of chemical transformation. 

I have some caput mortuum from Zecchi in Firenze as well as some that my friend Sandy and I made from clay we found at a lake near her house.  It's a wonderful brownish purple that comes from iron oxide-rich clay.  It's a very old color, and there are references to it in manuscripts from as early as the 9th century.  It was a favorite color in the early Medieval period,  especially good for its somber hue and its ability to render shadows and darkness.

I used it today to draw some little objects from my studio, beginning with my grandmother's very old key to the window seats in her diningroom.  The next drawing is of a stone knife found on campus in a newly-plowed corn field.  An archaeologist friend estimated it to be several thousand years old, although as it was not in context, it was worthless to him in his fieldwork.  Below the knife are my other grandmother's silver thimble with her name Jessie engraved on it, a little silver heart, and a tiny head.

At the bottom, painted in Zecchi's dragon's blood paint, is a piece of broken ceramic pipe from some ruins near the village in Italy where I lived several years ago for two summers.  Dragon's blood is actually of plant origin so is really a dye rather than a pigment. It was one of the favorite reds of the Middle Ages, along with the much-brighter vermilion.

Above is a page from my field journal for pigment collecting showing a map to the caput mortuum site as well as samples of the paint (along with some bright yellow to bring out the purple hue in the caput).  The little baggie at the top is full of dry caput mortuum pigment.