Caput mortuum (plural capita mortua) is a Latin term whose literal meaning is "dead head" or "worthless remains",[1] used in alchemy and also as the name of a pigment.

Alchemy and chemistryEdit

Alchemical symbol for Caput mortuum

In alchemy, caput mortuum (alternately called nigredo) signified a useless substance left over from a chemical operation such as sublimation and the epitome of decline and decay; alchemists represented this residue with a stylized human skull, a literal death's head.[2]

The symbol shown on this page was also used in 18th-century chemistry to mean residue, remainder or residuum. Caput mortuum was also sometimes used to mean crocus metallorum, i.e. brownish-red metallic compounds such as crocus martis (ferrous sulphate), and crocus veneris (copper oxidule).[3]


Caput mortuum
      Color coordinates
Hex triplet#592720
sRGBB  (rgb)(35, 15, 13)
CMYKH   (c, m, y, k)(70, 75, 70, 0)
HSV       (h, s, v)(7°, 64%, 35%)
ISCC–NBS descriptorDark reddish brown
B: Normalized to [0–255] (byte)
H: Normalized to [0–100] (hundred)

Caput mortuum (variously spelled caput mortum or caput mortem), also known as cardinal purple, is the name given to a purple variety of haematite iron oxide pigment, used in oil paints and paper dyes. It was a very popular colour for painting the robes of religious figures and important personages (e.g. art patrons).

The name for this pigment may have come from the alchemical usage, since iron oxide (rust) is the useless residue of oxidization. It was originally a byproduct of sulfuric acid manufacture during the 17th and 18th centuries, and was possibly an early form of the copperas process used for the manufacture of Venetian red and copperas red.[4]

Caput mortuum is also sometimes used as an alternative name for mummy brown (alternatively Egyptian brown), a pigment that was originally made in the 16th and 17th centuries from ground-up mummies, and whose use was discontinued in the 19th century when artists became aware of its ingredients.[5]


  1. ^ Stone, Jon R. (2005). The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations. Routledge. p. 142. ISBN 0-415-96909-3.
  2. ^ Eastaugh, Nicholas (2004). Pigment Compendium: A Dictionary of Historical Pigments. Butterworth-Heinemann. p. 81. ISBN 0-7506-5749-9.
  3. ^ Liungman, Carl G. (2004). Symbols: Encyclopedia of Western Signs and Ideograms. Ionfox AB. p. 236. ISBN 91-972705-0-4.
  4. ^ Harley, R.D. (2001). Artists' Pigments: c. 1600-1836. JG Publishing : Archetype Publications. ISBN 1-873132-91-3.
  5. ^ Church, A. H. (1901). The Chemistry of Paints and Painting. London: Seeley and Co.