III: Madder

How mummy paint created robbery fashion.

III: Madder
A blooming madder stalk. Photo by Dinesh Valke.

Good morning. Today is tridi, the 23rd of Brumaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate la garance, an herb used for dying things red.

Madder is an herb that grows so tall on such a thin stalk, it typically falls over by the end of its growing season. The star of the show has always been its root, which is bright red even when covered with dirt, and becomes even more brilliant when washed and gently scrubbed. The root can be pounded into a powder that is excellent for making red dye, which is something people have done with it since before recorded history.

Lake pigments are dyes and paints made from crushed herbs that are then mixed with metallic salts or other substances to "fix" the color. Some of these herbal pigments, like indigo, are better known as colors than plants. Rose madder – or madder lake – is probably another.

The invention of rose madder is traced to ancient Egypt, where it was used to dye textiles and paint mummy portraits. A lake pigment, however, is semi-transparent and "fugitive," meaning it fades when exposed to light over a period of time. Mummy portraits were a perfect use for the paint, given that they were sealed away in the darkest of tombs, but over time, most artists opted to use them more as a glaze to enhance other red pigments, particularly when painting bright crimson robes or lips.