Casting light on the darkening of colors in historical paintings

F. Da Pieve, C. Hogan, D. Lamoen, J. Verbeeck, F. Vanmeert, M. Radepont, M. Cotte, K. Janssens, X. Gonze, G. Van Tendeloo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)


The degradation of colors in historical paintings affects our cultural heritage in both museums and archeological sites. Despite intensive experimental studies, the origin of darkening of one of the most ancient pigments known to humankind, vermilion (α-HgS), remains unexplained. Here, by combining many-body theoretical spectroscopy and high-resolution microscopic x-ray diffraction, we clarify the composition of the damaged paint work and demonstrate possible physicochemical processes, induced by illumination and exposure to humidity and air, that cause photoactivation of the original pigment and the degradation of the secondary minerals. The results suggest a new path for the darkening process which was never considered by previous studies and prompt a critical examination of their findings.

Original languageEnglish
Article number208302
JournalPhysical Review Letters
Issue number20
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2013
Externally publishedYes


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