THE GOLD OF THAT LAND: Biblical Minerals & Rocks  


67.     vermilion

Hebrew: sh‚shar, bright red. Jeremiah 22:14; Ezekiel 23:14.

Probable Identification: cinnabar or red ochre.


    Red ochre or earthy hematite (Fe2O3) was the earliest source of brick-red pigment for paints and cosmetics. It has a dark reddish brown to black color, but crystalline hematite has a bright metallic luster. Hematite occurs worldwide and is the most abundant iron ore.

    Cinnabar (HgS) forms bright vermilion red, hexagonal rhombohedral crystals with a resinous luster when pure, though it is usually finely disseminated through vein deposits. The finest crystals occur in Spain, Yugoslavia, and the Hunan province of China.

Historical Background:

    Unaware of mercury's toxicity, ancient peoples prized bright red cinnabar (HgS) as a pigment for their cosmetics and paints. The Egyptians had to make do with more sombre red ochre or hematite until the first millennium BC, when trade introduced supplies of cinnabar from Almaden in central Spain, which is still the world's leading source of mercury.

    The red paint used to decorate the palace of Herod the Great at Jericho contained cinnabar.

    Inscribed red ochre objects and shell beads coated with red ochre found at Blombos Cave in South Africa document decorative uses of hematite as early as 75,000 years ago.

    Jeremiah and Ezekiel included vermilion in their lists of selfish indulgences used in the building and decoration of ostentatious palaces.



Hurlbut, 1952, op. cit.; 203-204.

Lucas & Harris, op. cit., 395.

Porat, Naomi, & Shimon Hani. 1998. A Roman Period palette: Composition of pigments from King Herod's palaces in Jericho and Massada, Israel. Israel Journal of Earth Sciences; 47:75-85.

Ralph, Jolyon, 1993-2004.

Tennisen, op. cit.; 111.


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Last updated: 05/13/06.