Monday, October 10, 2011

The Beauty of Carved Stone

There is so much natural beauty in stone - I enjoy seeing it used to the full extent of its potential.  Going through a museum like the Orsay in Paris provides the opportunity to see stone used a variety of ways.  The floor of the museum is populated with neo-classical sculpture, most of which is pure, opaque, featureless white stone.  The emphasis is on the form of the sculptures, not the color or the material.  But apparently the idea that classical sculpture was colorless is an accident of history.

There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that most ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were painted, gilt, or inlaid with colored stone.  Color was important in the art of that era in a way that is no longer obvious to us.  By the time these ancient sculptures were unearthed in Italy during the Renaissance, much of the color of the statues had been worn away, and any embellishing gemstones had been removed.

Barrias 1899 sculpture "Nature Unveiling Herself to Science" is an example of a "neo-classical" form with polychromy - colors.  This statue is composed largely of marble and onyx.  The onyx forms the off-white folds of Nature's veil, and sweeping red and cream marble forms the drapes of her gown.  The sculpted stone of the gown is skillfully completed to allow the color and pattern of the red marble to look very much like fabric.  The clasp of the gown is a scarab of malachite mounted on a blue belt of lapis lazuli.  The original also apparently had red coral lips and lapis eyes as well.

It can be so easy to take the idea of stone sculpture for granted, given how often such pieces are of a single color.  Using colored stone, and playing on those colors to enhance the piece, makes the art seem so much more real, accessible, and very hard to ignore.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

October's Birthstone: Opal

Radiant, colorful opal is the birthstone for October. There are several theories about the origin of the word “opal,” but the most probable is that it is derived from the Sanskrit word upala, which means “valuable stone.”

The aborigines of Australia have an ancient story about how opal was created. The Creator descends to earth, bringing a message of peace to humanity. The Creator’s foot touches the earth, and the rocks in that spot suddenly come to life and begin to glitter in a variety of brilliant colors. Those sparkling rocks became opal.

Most of the world’s opal, 95-97%, is mined in Australia--hence the creation story--with a small amount produced in the Americas. Opal is related to quartz; but unlike quartz, it is not a mineral. It is instead a kind of silica, and is found in various types of rocks. The most commonly found colors of opal are greens and whites, and the red/black combination is the most rare.

Opal’s most notable characteristic--its glittery, colorful radiance--is know as “play of color.” In the 1960’s, scientists discovered that within opal, tiny spheres of silica interrupted the passage of light through the gemstone, causing the light to refract. This answered a question that until then no one could answer--why opal produces the lovely play of color that makes it so popular.

If you’re looking for an alternative for an October birthstone, pink tourmaline is a beautiful choice. Because it is classified as a semi-precious stone, it is more expensive than opal. Tourmaline comes in a variety of colors, including one called “watermelon” which is green on the outside and pink on the inside.

Photographs of Opal by Opals-On-Black
Photograph of Tourmaline Ring by Liverpool Design Festival

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