Healthy Green Gift-Giving
The Rise of Blue
News for December 2007
It's That Season Again
The Rise of BlueMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Last month we have seen that blue is, in Europe and Europe-derived cultures, the most popular color among adults, but it has always been so? And if not, when and why did things change?
In the time of ancient Rome, dyeing meant first and foremost to change the original tint of a cloth into one that belonged to the vast range of the reds (from pale ochre to deep crimson, including all the yellow-oranges, vermilions, etc.) so much so that, often the words ruber (red) and coloratus (colored) were used as synonyms. Traces of this usage are still evident in modern Spanish, where colorado is a common word for red.
This predominance of red seems to be extremely ancient, even dating back to prehistoric times: there is archaeological evidence for the association of red ochre with prehistoric burial sites dating back as far as about 90.000 years ago (1).
In the ancient world, as in some extra-European cultures (some Central African peoples come to mind) blue and green were (and are) not seen as specific, individual colors, but as shades of black.
It might seem strange to us, used as we are to synthetic dyes, but in antiquity the pigments used to dye in red where almost the only ones that, with the techniques used at the time, penetrated deep into the fibre of cloth and (especially in the case of the precious vermillion) with the passing of time could even become deeper and richer, while black, for instance was extremely difficult to fix into the fibres and in a relatively short time would invariably fade to a bluish or greenish tint. Back then, any cloth dyed in a rich, brilliant, deep color was precious, sought after, and valuable.
In ancient Rome, the black-blue-green triad defined the concept of dark. Moreover, blue also had a barbaric connotation due to the habit of some tribes beyond the empire’s borders to use woad to paint themselves (2).
Up to the first half of the 12th century, blue was absent from the color range of ceremonial dress. At most, it is the faded, greyish color of every-day work clothes. Traces of this habit remain in the English-speaking nations’ use of the expression blue-collar worker, meaning a factory worker (blue being still the most common color for work-overalls).
Between the mid-12th century and the beginning of the 13th, something changed: in Italy and France first, followed later by England and the Lowlands, dyers start to produce a brilliant, intense, deep blue.
It was the start of a literal deluge. This new blue became the fad of the century and started endangering the primate of red. Blue appeared first in ceremonial dress, then in princely clothes (even becoming France’s royal color, possibly in intended opposition to England’s red), and at the end took by storm every possible field of application.
All during the century, cultivations of madder (the basis for an herbal red dye) shrank, while woad cultivations expanded, so much so that, in some cities along the Rhine, madder merchants on the brink of financial disaster asked painters and stained-glass masters to paint devils in blue, hoping to stem the tide.
Contrary to their hopes, the color of sky soon found a defined place in sacred art, and we see it used constantly and intentionally in the Virgin’s cloak and Jesus’ tunic (in Mary’s case over a red dress, and in Jesus’ under a red cloak). In this case, blue symbolized the divine and red the humane: Mary’s humane essence exalted and ennobled by celestial grace, and Jesus’ divine nature ‘clothed’ by the freely chosen humane one.
It is a matter of discussion whether the technical advance produced the change of perspective or if some social urge found the old chromatic scale of white-black-red limiting and inadequate and stimulated the dyers’ experiments. The only thing that can be safely inferred is that the medieval world was ready for the change and embraced it with a passion that, as we have seen, still has consequences in our time.
In ancient China, while blue was not an imperial color (that distinction being given to yellow) it was counted among the five primary colors, along with red, yellow, white and black. In a decidedly hierarchical society as that of Imperial China, the use of colors was codified and prescribed or forbidden according to rank and occasion. The blue range (including green as well) was usually associated with government officials (and, by extension, scholars). The use of blue sedan chairs was reserved for higher officials, those of lesser ranks used green ones and a blue stone button on the cap indicated an official of the third rank.
In clothing, blue was and still is seen as a dignified, respectable color. According to what I’ve been told, in Taiwan a blue robe is usually associated with teachers.
In the classic Chinese color symbolism for the points of the compass, blue stands for the East (in many Native American traditions, it is West). In many cases, though, it is used simply as a reference to the sky, and, by extension, heaven. This is the case with the blue tiles covering the roof of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, one of the most exquisite examples of Ming architecture.
In the East as in the West, though, symbols are often double-sided. While in English-speaking countries our beloved blue is used to mean sadness or fear, in Beijing opera a predominantly blue face indicates a cruel character.
My space for this month is finished, and in closing my last column for 2007 I wish you a joyful Christmas, Hanukkah or Solstice and a wonderful New Year.
(1) See for instance http://www.dailygrail.com/node/3518
(2) A classical example would be the Picti of Britain, whose Latin name means 'the painted ones'.
Photo of the Altar of Heaven in Beijing courtesy of Mr. Marino Bonomi
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