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Caput mortuum (Lat. "death's head") is today an opaque and deeply maroon colour, which the Fauvists found good use for. It is a useful pigment, which is why several brands, such as Talens, Beckers, and Vasari, have it in their assortment. However, it is easily mixed from English red (iron oxide) and Mars black (iron oxide). Caput mortuum is useful to deepen tones and to mix with greens, creating dark, greyish variants. Mixed with white, it creates bluish grays, which has often been used to colour a white ground with a cool, neutral undertone (cf. Vasari, here).

It is believed that the name of the pigment derives from alchemy. The term was used for the useless remains, the residue, that remained in the retort after chemical operations. It denotes the preliminary alchemical stage of nigredo (blackening), associated with spiritual death (mortificatio). The alchemists used this sign to denote Caput mortuum:

The term was also used interchangeably with mummy brown (Egyptian brown). Between the 16th and the 20th century it was made from ground-up mummies and was commonly used for painting the robes of important persons. The use was discontinued when artists found out its ingredients (cf. Wiki, here). However, unlike today's Caput mortuum, mummy brown had good transparency, and it was extensively used by the Pre-Raphaelites. Edward Burne-Jones was reported to have ceremonially buried his tube of mummy brown in his garden when he discovered its true origins (cf. Wiki, here). The pigments in Martin Drolling's "Interior of a kitchen" (detail) consist mainly of pulverized corpse(!).

Mats Winther
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