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Issue 5, 2011
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The use of microscopic X-ray diffraction for the study of HgS and its degradation products corderoite (α-Hg3S2Cl2), kenhsuite (γ-Hg3S2Cl2) and calomel (Hg2Cl2) in historical paintings

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Abstract

Since antiquity, the red pigment mercury sulfide (α-HgS), called cinnabar in its natural form or vermilion red when synthetic, was very often used in frescoes and paintings, even if it was known to suffer occasionally from degradation. The paint hereby acquires a black or silver-grey aspect. The chemical characterization of these alteration products is rather challenging mainly because of the micrometric size and heterogeneity of the surface layers that develop and that are responsible for the color change. Methods such as electron microscopy, synchrotron-based microscopic X-ray fluorescence, microscopic X-ray absorption near edge spectroscopy, Raman microscopy and secondary ion microscopy have been previously employed to identify the (Hg- and S-) compounds present and to study their co-localization. Next to these, also microscopic X-ray diffraction (XRD) (either by making use of laboratory X-ray sources or when used at a synchrotron facility) allows the identification of the crystal phases that are present in degraded HgS paint layers. In this paper we employ these various forms of micro-XRD to analyze degraded red paint in different paintings and compare the results with other X-ray based methods. Whereas the elemental analyses of the degradation products revealed, next to mercury and sulfur, the presence of chlorine, X-ray diffraction allowed the identification, next to α-HgS, of the Hg and S-containing compound calomel (Hg2Cl2) but also of the Hg, S and Cl-containing minerals corderoite (α-Hg3S2Cl2) and kenhsuite (γ-Hg3S2Cl2). These observations are consistent with X-ray absorption spectroscopy measurements performed at the S- and Cl-edges.

Graphical abstract: The use of microscopic X-ray diffraction for the study of HgS and its degradation products corderoite (α-Hg3S2Cl2), kenhsuite (γ-Hg3S2Cl2) and calomel (Hg2Cl2) in historical paintings

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Publication details

The article was received on 15 Dec 2010, accepted on 07 Feb 2011 and first published on 03 Mar 2011


Article type: Paper
DOI: 10.1039/C0JA00260G
Citation: J. Anal. At. Spectrom., 2011,26, 959-968
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    The use of microscopic X-ray diffraction for the study of HgS and its degradation products corderoite (α-Hg3S2Cl2), kenhsuite (γ-Hg3S2Cl2) and calomel (Hg2Cl2) in historical paintings

    M. Radepont, W. de Nolf, K. Janssens, G. Van der Snickt, Y. Coquinot, L. Klaassen and M. Cotte, J. Anal. At. Spectrom., 2011, 26, 959
    DOI: 10.1039/C0JA00260G

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