Raphael and Lemnine Clay

A couple of years ago an artist asked me if I had noticed unusually bright red chalk drawings by Raphael in the Vatican Museum.  Immediately I knew the ones she meant. I did notice the drawing media seemed more cherry than mahogany red with a slightly greasy look.  

Seeing a bright red on an old drawing means the drawing media had been boosted the with organic dyes (madder root for example) to make the pigments look brighter.  If that were true, the Raphael drawings I saw had to have been kept in a drawer so no light ever fell on them. Color made from dyes fade. More likely Raphael found some unusual rare pigment in its natural state. Where did Raphael get the bright red earth pigment from?

The island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea seems to be the place.

Lemnos was sacred to the Greek god of metallurgy, Hephaestus, who landed there after Zeus threw him out.  According to archeologists, Lemnos has been inhabited since the 12th century BCE.  Iron cooking pots and weapons have been dated to the 9th BCE.  Since the time of the Greeks, at least, Lemnos has been renowned for its red clay considered most famous for its healing properties.  Pliny defined the earth as “rubrica Lemnia”

While there were mystic stories of miners mixing goat blood into the clay, the unique color was actually the result of hematite in its chemical composition (approx. 5%).


The 2nd century Greek physician, Galen, wrote about traveling to Lemnos to witness the preparation of Lemnine clay.  Under the auspices of the priestess of Artemis in early August, the red clay was prepared into cakes , dried and sealed with the sign of Pan (the goat) in an ancient process which continued throughout the Dark Ages.

The seal must have been very distinctive if its purpose were to authenticated the package.  Usually called “Sphragis” or sealed clay, Lemnine earth was sold as a medicine until the 19th century.  Raphael as resident painting master of the Vatican had access to any pigment available in the world.  Whether or not the pigments were intended for art making (fresco and painting), they could be had for a price.  Obviously very few artists would buy expensive medicines to make drawings unless the color was irresistible even iridescent, bright.  


I liked the color. After enjoying the research into ancient medicines, I realized I didn’t care. I care about the working properties. I called Diane Townsend, master pastel maker for Diane Townsend Pastels, and a world class expert on pigments and their history for a consultation.  She was curious too.  She started to make prototypes of “figment sticks.”  The name evolved because during the early formulation process a quote from Andy Warhol oddly re-occurred.  He said he’d like to have only the word “figment” on his tombstone.  Plus Figment Sticks are truly figments of our imaginations. More info on our formulation process and evolution from Raphael to Figment Modern Pastel next.  


If you want to try some:  http://www.townsendpastels.com and contact Diane Townsend here:  http://www.townsendpastelblog.com