Skip to main content

Vermilion (resource)

Dates of Use: Before 900 CE–present day (rarely used today)

Source: Human-made inorganic pigment

Chemical Name: Mercuric sulfide

Formula: HgS


  • Vermilion is a bright red pigment. It is made from pure sulfur and mercury.
  • It is chemically identical to cinnabar, which is a natural mineral. Cinnabar was used as a red pigment for at least 1,000 years before vermilion was invented.
  • Vermilion is resistant to fading, like all mineral pigments. It is not fully chemically stable, however, and it can turn black under certain conditions.
  • Vermilion was most likely invented in China. The earliest-known description of the process used to make it comes from the eighth-century alchemist Jābir ibn Ḥayyān. He was an alchemist associated with the Islamic Golden Age.

Making Vermilion

The process of making vermilion is considered to be a major achievement in technology and chemistry. It involved mixing pure yellow sulfur with silver mercury. This produced a dark, almost black substance. When the black material was ground into a powder, it gradually turned red. A longer grinding process resulted in an even brighter red pigment.

The mercury content in vermilion makes it highly toxic. Many artists were alchemists (and may have made vermilion themselves), but the process of making it was dangerous. Poorly paid servants or assistants were often given the task of processing the raw materials into vermilion.

Philosopher with a flask. Splendor Solis attributed to Salomon Trismosin circa 1582. Photo credit: British Library, Harley MS 3469


Alchemy was a combination of early science and spiritual beliefs. Splendor Solis is an illuminated manuscript about alchemy. Illuminated manuscripts are handwritten books that are decorated with precious metals like gold or silver. The pages were usually made from animal skin. Splendor Solis is just one version of the alchemical text. There are 20 versions that exist worldwide. The author of this book is unknown, although it has often been attributed to Salomon Trismosin. Trismosin claimed to have found eternal youth by using the “philosopher’s stone.” Alchemists believed they could use alchemy to create a philosopher’s stone that would help them retain their youth.

The page from Splendor Solis (pictured above) shows an alchemist holding a flask in his left hand. The flask is filled with golden liquid and has a black scroll coming out of it. The inscription on the flask translates to “Let us ask the four elements of nature.” 

The process of creating vermilion was seen as a key to manipulating the four elements that make up the world. It was thought that a similar process would ultimately create the philosopher’s stone. This object was believed to have the power to change the form of one substance into another (such as turning iron or tin into gold and silver). The stone could also be used to cure illness and to make a person stay young forever.

According to the Greek theory of atomic matter, everything in the world is composed of four elements. These elements are water, fire, air, and earth. Alchemists viewed sulfur as “fire” and mercury as “water.” When these two elements combine, they create a red substance that looks much different than its source materials. Alchemists believed that the production of vermilion confirmed the four-element theory. They viewed it as unlocking a godlike power. This power brought them one step closer to being able to produce any substance from the four elements, even gold.