• 2022.04.06
  • Ultramarine Blue
I hope you enjoy this article which continues from my previous article concerning “ultra.” In Japanese, the Spanish “azul ultramarino” is “gunjo-iro” (navy blue) or the slightly brighter blue pigment called “ruri-iro” (lapis lazuli blue, azure). The term combines the prefixes “azul” (blue) and “ultra” (beyond) with “marino” (seas/marine) to make it “the blue from beyond the seas.” Ultramarine is a pigment refined from the raw material “lapizlázuli” (lapis lazuli), blue rock that isn’t found in Europe but came across the Mediterranean Sea all the way from Afghanistan in the East. The pigment that is the color of the sea, “gunjo-iro” (navy blue), is called “azurite,” while “ruri-iro” (lapis lazuli blue, azure) is considered the blue of the sky and is called “ultramarine.”
In the art world, this blue, which is more expensive and prized than gold, is probably used most often for the cloak of the Virgin Mary in religious paintings. Guido di Pietro, commonly known as Fra Angelico, an early Renaissance friar and painter, is a particularly well-known user of blue, and even today the blue he used is called “Fra Angelico blue.” “The Annunciation,” in the collection of the Prado Museum, would be one of the best examples of the use of this blue.
The condition of this painting had deteriorated, there was cracking in the surface caused by splitting of the poplar panel used for the support, and dirt had accumulated over many years. But it was restored to its former glory after year-long cleaning and restoration work that started in 2018, in preparation for an exhibition held as part of the commemorations for the Prado Museum’s 200th anniversary in 2019. When you compare the before and after images, you can clearly see the difference in the brightness, especially in the Fra Angelico blue and the gilded portion, and even through the eyes of an amateur, you can imagine the high degree of technical skill of the restorer.

Photo 1: “The Annunciation” (1425-1428) by Fra Angelico in the collection of the Prado Museum. The left side shows the painting before restoration, and the right side after restoration.https://www.museodelprado.es/actualidad/multimedia/restauracion-de-la-anunciacion-de-fra-angelico/ecf64690-8ff0-5c2d-aaef-fce1ea95bcd6

Another person whose fascination with blue led to his name being lent to the name of the color is the 17th century Dutch painter Vermeer. Making quite an impression is the blue of the turban in “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” known as one of his best paintings, and also the subject of a movie, but when it comes to blue, the striking blue of the apron as well as the cloth draped on the table in “The Milkmaid” burns into your memory, don’t you think? He was so madly in love with this expensive pigment, ultramarine, that he put his own fortune in peril. Perhaps thanks to, or because of, his obsession with that blue, it is sold by art supply stores as “Vermeer blue.”

Photo 2: “The Milkmaid” (1658-1660) by Johannes Vermeer in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Incidentally, the first thing that comes to the mind of a Spaniard when they hear the word “ultramarino” might be “a grocery store in a side street.” Here it is “ultramarinos,” with plural “s” at the end, which means a store that sells foods and other goods with a long shelf-life brought over from “beyond the sea.” Formally speaking, they might be “almacén de ultramarinos” (literally, “warehouse of goods from beyond the sea”).
Thinking that these “ultramarinos” grocery stores are now becoming an endangered species, as is usual with the expansion of new bulk discount stores, I am so glad that despite the opening of supermarkets in local neighborhoods, the ultramarinos are surviving with the continued support of the locals. An example is “Ultramarinos La Giralda,” a long-established grocery store that opened in 1914 in the Andalusian port town of El Puerto de Santa Maria. The “Giralda” in the store’s name is the belfry of the cathedral of Seville, the capital of the autonomous community Andalusia.

Photo 3: Though a long-established grocery store with a history of over 100 years, the outside looks very ordinary and unexciting.

Photo 4: The grocery store’s business card features a silhouette of the minaret (tower used for the call to prayer) from the days when the cathedral was a mosque, before it became Catholic.

Contrary to the rustic image and the air of pathos of this grocery store’s external appearance, it offers excellent foods you can only get locally as well as specialty foods from all over Spain, foods that the nationwide supermarket chains don’t stock, and is highly esteemed not only among the locals but also celebrities with discriminating taste who holiday here. There is also at the rear of the store a place where knowledgeable customers can grab a drink, something else you almost never see in ordinary supermarkets. It’s what you would call a place where you eat in, but judging from the look of it, it is exactly like a place, a standing counter or table, provided in a liquor store for customers to have a drink.

Photo 5: The inside of the store is also plain.

What I had here was Manzanilla, an exquisite, especially dry local sherry fermented and matured from grapes from a vineyard exposed to salty sea breezes. For snacks, we had another classic, the usual dry-cured Iberico ham…and so on as we blathered from lunchtime on while the regular ladies and gentlemen dropped into the store, which highlighted to me that it is first and foremost a store frequented by the locals.

Photo 6: The inside of the store seen from the standing table during our lunchtime drinks


  • Susumu Yamada
  • JobSpanish and Japanese Translation

It’s been almost 37 years since I received a residence permit and work permit from the Spanish government and paid my first tax and social insurance premiums. Now that I’m at that age where I will soon go and register at the senior human resources center, I’m grateful to have this opportunity to introduce you all to this country that has taken care of me these many years.

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