Cinnabar and Vermilion: Beautiful and Toxic Mineral and Pigment

Updated on June 16, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton has an honors degree in biology. She has taught high school biology, chemistry, and other science subjects for many years.

Cinnabar on dolomite
Cinnabar on dolomite | Source

An Attractive and Useful Mineral

Cinnabar is a beautiful orange red to dark red mineral that is prized for both its color and its mercury content. In ancient times, cinnabar was ground into a powder to form a pigment called vermilion. This pigment was used for art and decoration and was also added to cosmetics. It's still used in artists’ paints today, although it's often replaced by synthetic and less toxic pigments.

Cinnabar is made of a compound called mercury (ll) sulfide or mercuric sulfide. The chemical formula of this compound is HgS. Mercury (ll) sulfide occurs in two forms in nature—the more common red or cinnabar form and the rarer black or metacinnabar form. Mercury and mercury compounds are toxic to humans, although cinnabar is not as poisonous as some other forms of mercury.

Cinnabar is usually found in rocks that form near volcanic activity or in hot springs. It’s produced near the Earth’s surface from hot liquids that bubble up from deeper in the Earth. Most of the world’s mercury supply is obtained from cinnabar. Major cinnabar producers today include Spain, China, Italy, Serbia, Slovenia, and parts of the United States.

Cinnabar, quartz, and dolomite
Cinnabar, quartz, and dolomite | Source

Uses of Cinnabar in the Past

Cinnabar, vermilion, mercury (ll) sulfide, and mercuric sulfide all refer to the same substance (with the exception of the rare black form of mercury (ll) or mercuric sulfide). Like several other red materials in nature, cinnabar was also known by the evocative name of “dragon’s blood” in earlier times. Its vibrant red color was a great attraction for people looking for pigments.

Ancient Romans created paintings and decorated statues and their faces with ground cinnabar mixed with a medium such as egg yolk or plant gums. The Mayan people used cinnabar to decorate burial chambers, the sarcophagi, and the dead bodies of important members of their society.

Earlier women in India wore vermilion along the parting of their hair and in a dot on their foreheads to indicate that they were married. Some modern Indian women still follow this custom. Today the pigment, which is known as sindoor, is made of turmeric, lime juice, and other substances instead of cinnabar.

Ancient Chinese people used cinnabar in their famous red lacquers and in special inks. The technique for making artificial vermilion from mercury and sulfur was apparently first devised in China in the eighth century. Vermilion from China is sometimes known as China Red.

A Large Specimen of Cinnabar

Art and Vermilion in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii

Vermilion was loved by artists of the past. Paintings with vibrant red colors created by vermilion have survived, including some in an Ancient Roman villa shown in the video below. The villa paintings may not have been as richly colored in the past as they are today, however. They've been preserved with a wax layer, which darkened the paint when it was applied. The paintings are gradually being restored to their natural color as well as being protected by new methods.

The name of the villa which has left us such interesting art is the Villa of (the) Mysteries. It stands just outside the city of Pompeii. The villa was affected by the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., but not to the same extent as many other buildings in the area.

The Villa of the Mysteries is believed to have been used for initiation into a mystery cult of Dionysus, the god of wine. The murals on the walls appear to depict initiates and their experiences, although expects are not quite certain about the meaning of all of the paintings. The murals are frescoes, which are paintings created on wet plaster that become an integral part of a wall. According to the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, some of the scenes in the frescoes show the drinking of wine and ecstatic dancing, which were rituals of the mystery cult.

Frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries

Color Change in Vermilion

Unfortunately, in some cases vermillion used in historical art has turned brown, black, or grey over time. The color loss of vermilion is of great concern to art historians and to those working in art conservation.

Researchers have discovered a chemical reaction which may be responsible for vermilion's loss of color. They say that chlorine salts in the air may act as a catalyst for a reaction that releases mercury from the pigment when it's exposed to light. The thin layer of tiny mercury particles on top of the vermilion may give the mineral a dark appearance. The grey color over some vermilion may be due to the production of mercury (l) chloride, which is white in color. Some researchers think that the change in appearance of vermilion is a more complex process than this, however.

Once the cause or causes of vermilion's color change have been discovered, it may be possible to protect historical art from further damage. If a way to reverse the damage is discovered, it may even be possible to return the art to its former glory.

A detail from "Assumption of the Virgin" painted by Titian in 1516 to 1518;  the orange robes were created with vermilion
A detail from "Assumption of the Virgin" painted by Titian in 1516 to 1518; the orange robes were created with vermilion | Source

Uses of Cinnabar Today

In more recent times, powdered cinnabar or vermillion was added to candies as a food coloring, although it's no longer used for this purpose. Cinnabar is still part of many traditional Chinese medicines, however.

Cinnabar in the form of natural or artificially made vermillion is sold today as an artist’s paint. The paint is accompanied by a warning to avoid ingestion and skin contact. Many artists use cadmium red as a replacement for vermillion because it's safer and more permanent.

Some rock and mineral collectors like to include cinnabar samples in their collection. The color of the mineral varies considerably and ranges from orange to a deep purple-red. Some people enjoy the hunt for the perfect specimen.

The main use of cinnabar today is for mercury production. To extract mercury from cinnabar, the mineral is heated. The mercury escapes from the mineral as a gas, which is then cooled and condensed to make liquid mercury. Mercury is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature. It needs to be treated with great caution because it can be absorbed through the skin and releases dangerous vapors.

The early alchemists called mercury “quicksilver” for two reasons. One is that mercury is silver in color. The other is that when it’s placed on a surface it forms beads that roll around as though they are alive.

A cinnabar lacquer box from China, 1736 - 1795
A cinnabar lacquer box from China, 1736 - 1795 | Source

Other Meanings of the Word Cinnabar

The word "cinnabar" is sometimes used to name items unrelated to the cinnabar mineral in order to convey an exotic impression. For example, Cinnabar perfume contains no mercury. Today's cinnabar boxes are generally made of wood that is covered by a red lacquer containing no cinnabar or by a red resin polymer. The lacquer or resin is imprinted with a design. Cinnabar jewelry doesn't contain the cinnabar mineral, since mercury compounds shouldn't stay in contact with the skin.

Mercury Poisoning

Mercury exists in three forms—elemental mercury (pure metallic mercury), organic mercury (mainly methylmercury, the form found in some fish) and inorganic mercury, such as the mercury (ll) sulfide that makes up cinnabar. Unlike organic mercury, inorganic mercury doesn't contain carbon.

The severity of mercury poisoning in humans depends on many factors, including the form of the mercury, the way in which the mercury is absorbed into the body (through ingestion, inhalation, or skin absorption), the dose of mercury absorbed, the duration of the exposure, the frequency of the exposure, and the age and health of the affected person. Mercury poisoning can result in damage to the nervous and muscular systems as well as damage to the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, and respiratory system.

Mercury in a thermometer
Mercury in a thermometer | Source

Inorganic Mercury Toxicity

Inorganic mercury such as the mercury found in cinnabar is the least toxic form of mercury, but it's still poisonous.

  • Inorganic mercury is absorbed through the lining of the digestive tract, but in lower quantities than organic mercury.
  • Inorganic mercury doesn’t vaporize much at room temperature, so inhalation is not a major problem. The dust is dangerous for the lungs, however.
  • Small amounts of inorganic mercury compounds can be absorbed through the skin.
  • Contact with high levels of inorganic mercury can cause skin rashes.
  • Although it’s less likely to cause nervous system damage than other forms of mercury, chronic exposure to inorganic mercury can damage the kidneys and the nervous system.

Mercury: Properties and Safety

Toxicity and Safe Use of Cinnabar

There is uncertainty about how poisonous cinnabar is and about the amount required to produce dangerous effects. Scientists generally recommend that we limit our exposure to all mercury compounds, however, including inorganic mercury.

People using cinnabar are warned not to inhale cinnabar dust and to be very careful when breaking the mineral in case dust is created. The mineral mustn’t be ingested or licked. In addition, it mustn’t be heated, which might trigger mercury vapor release. Opinions are divided about whether cinnabar is safe to touch. Mercury (ll) sulfide can be absorbed through the skin, but how much is actually absorbed from a lump of cinnabar mineral is unknown. Since there are unanswered questions about the mineral's safety, it's best to wear gloves when handling it.

One potentially serious problem is that sometimes drops of liquid mercury can be found in a piece of cinnabar mineral, which are more dangerous than the cinnabar itself. Liquid mercury releases a poisonous vapor.

Cinnabar and a mineral called alunite
Cinnabar and a mineral called alunite | Source

A Beautiful Mineral

Cinnabar is a beautiful but potentially dangerous mineral. Anyone coming into close contact with the mineral—especially if this happens on a frequent basis—should be aware of important safety precautions. It's wonderful to be able to admire the mineral at close range, as long as this is done safely.


© 2011 Linda Crampton


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the interesting and informative comment, Bede.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image

      Bede 4 weeks ago from Minnesota

      Thanks for an interesting Hub Linda. I'm doubtful that cinnabar was painted on fresh plaster as indicated in the video on the Villa of Mysteries, since the alkaline nature of lime plaster would have quite an adverse effect on the pigment. It's more likely that the red was painted entirely in "secco", once the plaster dried. That's how Renaissance artists such as Fra Angelico were able to use cinnabar on wall paintings. The only red pigments that really work in buon fresco are the more earthy red ochres. However, many synthetic reds are now available that are virtually the same as cinnabar or vermilion, such as Irgazine red. It's difficult to grind, but it's worth the effort.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Mama Nez.

    • profile image

      Mama Nez 6 months ago

      Thank you, I found this site very helpful. We were watching a show on restoring Japanese historical sites where vermillion was used for painting.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Rosie. Jewelry known as "cinnabar jewelry" generally doesn't contain the cinnabar mineral and is safe. To be certain of this, though, you would need to show your bracelet to an expert.

    • profile image

      Rosie 11 months ago

      I just bought a carved cinnabar bangle bracelet at an antique auction. I had no idea that it could be harmful to wear. Is there any new info on its harmfulNess? I really would like to wear it. Thank you

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Sorry, Dee, I can't answer your question with certainty. Personally, I wouldn't want real cinnabar touching my skin for a long time, but that's just my opinion. As I say in the article, there is disagreement about exactly how safe cinnabar is to touch.

    • profile image

      Dee 2 years ago

      I have a ring with a cinnabar quartz cabochon set in it. There is a barrier of silver open work under it. The cab is about 1/2 inch long oval. Is it safe to wear?

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, vcipryk. Pure, natural cinnabar mineral is mercury sulfide, which wouldn't leave an oily deposit on paper, so it's interesting to think about what was in your beads!

    • profile image

      vcipryk 5 years ago

      I bought some carved red "cinnabar" beads at a gem store. They left an oily finished on the brown paper bag they were in. I was trying to research why, (which I still don't know the answer to) but through your well written article, I gained a whole new perspective on RED Thanks very much

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks a lot for the visit and the lovely comment, RTalloni!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

      Interesting read. I like this sort of hub for several reasons--the learning opportunity, the potential need-to-know, and because it is well-written yet concise it is easy to read and keep in one's back pocket for that moment in a conversation when it can be used to the amazement of other people. :)

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks a lot, kashmir56. I appreciate the comment and the vote!

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      A very interesting and awesome hub,thanks for writing hubs we can learn new things from !

      Vote up !!!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for commenting, Simone. Cinnabar is an interesting mineral to research!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      How fascinating! I had no idea that cinnebar was another name for vermilion, nor did I know that it was toxic. What an interesting history it has, too! Awesome Hub!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the lovely comment, b. Malin. I appreciate your visits and kind comments so much!

    • b. Malin profile image

      b. Malin 6 years ago

      Always a different and Informative Read Alicia, and this Hub is no exception. I Never knew about this mineral and it's something certainly to acknowledge and think about. Thank you my friend.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and comment, fashion!

    • profile image

      fashion 6 years ago

      Great article with precious information.Well done

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much for visiting my hub and giving such a nice comment, Prasetio!

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Another great hub from you. Again, you always come up with valuable information and I always learn from you. Thank you very much. You always got my vote. Cheers....