Visual SquirrelsVisual Squirrels

Color & Art History History

Morocco, Tyrian purple, Phoenicians and snails


Tyrian purple? Nope. Gentian violet.

CORRECTION: the green powder is not from the sea snail. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made. Hours of research threw up Gentian violet. And though this is far, far less interesting, it has the benefit of being true. I will leave this post as it is, though, as the story of Tyrian purple is fascinating anyway. You just have to mentally remove the idea that the green stuff is snail :) Why one of the pigments had the label “murix”, I can only guess it refers to the colour, not the creature.


You think purple is for hippies? Think again.

Colours are full of mystery, and perhaps no other more than Tyrian purple. What is it? What snails? Is it mauve? Lilac? Aubergine? Is it Bordeaux, is it blue, indigo? Amethyst? Is it plum? Purple?

12 years ago, a friend from Australia came to visit, via Peru and Morocco, bearing gifts. A metal hamsa, and pigments in twisted plastic wrapped in Arabic newspaper. In a souk in Morocco, my friend must have poured over piles of pigments that look nothing like the colour they produce, and the handwritten stickers are in french, and of little use.

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 13.09.17

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I clad in Tyrian purple, 6th-century mosaic at Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Wikimedia

Two of them are sparkly, crystalline green pigments. Initially, one produced a deep blue, the other a deep ox-blood.

One of the labels says “murix”. I happen to know that this is a marine snail, but I could not quite believe that my pigments were actually this most mythical of dyes. The sparkly green was a hint, though; for an organic compound of some sort.

We go back to the ancient greeks: they named a land and people after the colour: Phoenicia, meaning “land of purple”. The purple people. The Phoenicians had a monopoly on this most royal, the most exclusive and possibly the most expensive pigment in history. 4th-century-BC historian Theopompus:

Purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver”

The authors of the book “The secret language of colours” claims that the price was 10-20 times its weight in gold.

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 13.34.10

Three Alaskan princes of the church

In the Byzantine era its use and production were restricted, only for royalty to use, and unauthorised use was punishable by death. Not that many could afford it. Do you think that it is a coincidence bishops in the church uses purply-ish robes? Supposedly it has some symbolic connection to the crucifixion, lent, piety. Or you can look at the royal connection: they are princes of the church. Power. Status. Money, is my guess.

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 13.05.23

Haustellum brandaris. Wikimedia CC

Tyrian purple comes from a marine snail, a mollusc. Why was it so coveted? Because it is colour-fast, it does not fade. In fact, it was considered that the colour changed with age and became more desirable. But what colour is it really? Regarding the ancients, we will probably never really know; there are several species of sea snails that give pigments, and the colours vary from ox-blood red to almost cobalt.

The Murex snail is a rather unassuming little thing, and to extract the colours there seem to be two ways: smash the thing and expose the hypobranchial gland, or squeeze it to make it essentially vomit the colour. As far as I can make out, my sparkly green pigments is the first: probably two different species of snails have been smashed for my benefit.

Now, the next day, in sunlight, my two colours have changed, and the “murix turquoise” looks deep turquoise. And what was ox-blood red… I will call Tyrian purple indeed.

Now; I have to figure out how to use it.

(More curious stuff about colours here)


The information in this post comes from these books:



“Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is”. All-round nerd with a tendency to poke things with a stick to see what happens. Doodler, artist, bookbinder, photographer, illustrator, graphic designer, web developer.

Latest posts by benteh (see all)

Have an opinion!