Vermilion is recorded twice in the King James translation. It comes from the Hebrew word shashar (Strong's Concordance #H8350) which means a reddish or a piercing red ochre color. It is one of the least mentioned colorations found in Scripture.
Unfortunately, Scripture is silent regarding how vermilion paint was made. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary speculates it was derived by combining sulphur and quicksilver. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states it may have been created using an oxide of iron.
Secular history, however, tells us that this pigment was made from a mineral named cinnabar. After it was mined and crushed, it produced a bright red powder that was used to create this pigment. Quantities of this ore are known to exist in countries such as China, the United States, Spain (which for many years hosted the largest cinnabar mine in the world), Germany, Peru, Egypt and Italy.
Cinnabar is a toxic mercury sulfide mineral which means it is detrimental to humans. Its poisonous effect on ancient humans was revealed in a 1996 discovery of 5,000-year-old bones in Portugal. The bones showed mercury poisoning had occurred that was attributable to the mineral (Earliest Evidence of Mercury Poisoning in Humans). Early man used the vermilion colored powder for decorating chambers and figurines.
Color of indulgence and sin
Jehoiakim was installed as Egypt's puppet king of Judah in 609 B.C. (2Kings 23:34). A corrupt ruler, He used his authority for selfish gain even though the nation was burdened by a large tribute (2Kings 23:33). He sought to build himself a lavish palace with rooms painted vermilion and filled with expensive cedar paneling (Jeremiah 22:14). This costly building would be built through the forced and unpaid labor of Judah's citizens (verse 23)!
God's judgment on Jehoiakim was that the vain ruler would die an ignominious and violent death. His body would be treated like those of deceased donkeys, dragged off and thrown outside Jerusalem's walls with no one mourning his demise (Jeremiah 22:18 - 19). He ruled for only eleven years, dying in 598 B.C. at the age of 36.
God allowed the Kingdom of Israel to be taken out of the land due to their many sins. The Kingdom of Judah, however, failed to take to heart the punishment their brethren received and soon exceeded them in rebelling against the Lord. The spiritual harlotry Judah committed by seeking Babylonian protection and spiritual guidance was symbolized by a woman who lusted after reliefs of Chaldean soldiers painted with vermilion on a wall (Ezekiel 23:11 - 16).
God commanded ancient Israel to tithe on their herds and flocks (Leviticus 27:32 - 33). Shepherds would cause their sheep or calves to pass under a rod that, according to Jewish tradition, had its end dipped in vermilion or red ochre. Every tenth animal that went under the rod was touched by it to designate that it was for the Eternal (Adam Clarke's Commentary).
The most accepted color for ordinary garments among the Old Testament's earliest Israelites was white. In later times, purple, scarlet, and vermilion dyes were extensively used for such clothing, as well as black, red, yellow, and green.
In medieval times, when the principal use of sealing wax was for attaching the impression of seals to official documents, the composition used consisted of a mixture of Venice turpentine, beeswax and coloring matter of this pigment.
Added info on Biblical meaning of vermilion
One of the challenges for those creating a Bible translation is deciding what color is referenced in the Hebrew text. According to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, the only real color terms found in the Old Testament are white, red and green. All others listed (black, blue, gray, etc.) require a determination be made based on context, the object being referenced, and so on.
Vermilion, for example, appears twice (Jeremiah 22, Ezekiel 23) in the KJV, ASV, JPS, RV, HCSB and other versions of Scripture. It appears only once in the NASB and YLT. This color does not appear at all in the NIV, CEV, GNB and God's Word translations.