Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Nothing brings on analysis paralysis like trying to decide on a paint color. Which shade of blue should I paint the bathroom? The sheer number of color choices in the paint store are overwhelming. How about “Wing Commander,” “Mystification,” or “Bashful Blue?” If only we were in the Middle Ages this would be so much simpler to decide. Or more likely, blue would not even cross my mind as a viable color.
Color history is tangled with social status, economics, trade, industry and religion. Fashion, taste, what color is valued, and symbolic meaning are mirrored in the history of art. What is surprising is the sparse literature on the history of color. Blue in particular faced its ups and downs, in favor, out of favor, but can only be considered alongside the histories of other colors, particularly black, red, white, and, green.
Marketing, society and eighteenth century science contribute to how we think and feel about color. Complimentary colors, primary and secondary colors are so 1700s! Warm and cool colors are so 1900s! Gray was a color of hope and joy in the late 1400s and early 1500s. But blue is unique in many ways.
By far the most popular Western color today, that was not always the case. For Romans, blue signified the color of barbarians to the north that would raid and disrupt their territories. Barbarians used blue body paint to scare the enemy and it worked. Blue eyes were considered highly undesirable by Romans. Although blue was used frequently in Roman mosaics and tile it is rarely found in paintings.
The Forgotten Color
Red, white and purple were the preferred colors for Roman nobility and their popularity continued into the early Middle Ages. Red continued to be associated with nobility for centuries but eventually became associated mostly with the papacy and cardinals. However, black is the color with the strongest emotional and historical negative/positive signifiers.
Romans wore black for funerals, a color practice that continues today. Black clothing was worn by the lowest Medieval class but we would recognize a Medieval black more as a brown-grey due to the plant dyes used. In Christian religion, black has always had a negative meaning associated with chaos, evil and death. A beastly black devil is common in Gothic and early Renaissance art.
The Medieval mind considered red an opposite color to white – not black. Yellow and blue were not mixed to make green; a concept the Medieval mind could not fathom. There were two Latin names for black – one a washed out matte black and one for a deep saturated black.
Colors took on code for unacceptable conduct and immoral behavior. The seven deadly sins were associated with colors:
Pride and lust: red
Anger and avarice: black
Colors shifted in the fourteenth century and meanings changed. Black and blue grew in status. Judges and government officials began to wear black – the deep saturated variety – as a sign of austerity and power. Soon merchants and nobility followed.
Red Devil, Stained Glass Fragment from St-Etienne in Bourges, Metropolitan Museum, New York. 1200-1215. The devil was not always depicted in black. Prior to the Gothic period the devil was multi-colored or appeared in many different animal/human forms. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
However, blue escaped any shameful symbolism or negative connotation in the Middle Ages or Renaissance. The color was poised to take on new meaning. We first see a new use of blue in French stained glass windows to represent divine light. The pairing of blue with divine light dramatically changed the color’s role. To understand how impactful this was, blue had no part in Catholic liturgical services (i.e. vestments, altar cloths), is rarely mentioned in literature, and there were very few words to describe blue. Blue was usually not even used to depict water – green was more frequently used. Blue was essentially overlooked and unimportant.
Vision of St. Germain of Paris, stained glass, The Cloisters Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1245-47. St. Germain is surrounded by divine blue light. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
The Morals of Blue and Black
Soon blue became synonymous with the Virgin Mary. Usually depicted with a blue cloak, her divine status accentuated, she became one of the most painted subjects of the Renaissance. In the thirteenth century blue became a prestigious color adopted by nobility, patricians and kings. Blue was now a color associated with morality, godliness, and virtue.
There were three main sources of blue. Patrons often prescribed in contracts that the Virgin Mary be painted with the most expensive blue, ultramarine blue, derived from lapis lazuli, mined in Badakhshan, Afghanistan. Other blue parts of the painting could be made with less expensive azurite German blue. Venice and Florence were important market centers for blue pigments. Venice was a direct importer of Afghanistan lapis lazuli and many other rare minerals and materials used in painting. Blue was often extracted from the leaves of the woad plant which produced an intense and fade resistant blue. Dyeing was highly regulated. Dyers of blue could not dye red; but were allowed to dye in black and green.
Giovanni Bellini, Contarini Madonna, Accademia, Venice. 1475-80. The blue pigment in stained glass and paintings has not faded as much as other colors. Lapis lazuli was expensive as gold, if not more so.
Black and blue remained popular and associated with moral characteristics from roughly 1400-1600. Sumptuary laws were another factor influencing color popularity and meaning. Intended to rein in extravagant goods and spending on luxury items, sumptuary laws also codified the morality of clothing and publicized social status.
Expensive dyes that produced scarlet reds – the type the Venetians excelled in making – were highly regulated in an effort to discourage ostentatious displays of wealth. Certain color combinations or patterns were prohibited as immodest and showy: stripes, multi-colored or checkered patterns. Keep in mind that colors were perceived with very different connotations, for example, yellow and green together were thought of as garishly socially unacceptable, more appropriate for court jesters. The socially marginalized were allowed bright colors that would mark them as different, such as non-Christians, the physically or mentally challenged, drunkards, or lepers.
The moralizing aspects of color became more pronounced with the Reformation. If Martin Luther had a paint store black, grey, and brown tones would dominate. Protestants disapproved of red, pink, yellow, orange and most greens. Bright colors were associated with the Catholic church, both liturgically and artistically, and were viewed as over the top spectacle. These somber hues were used by Rembrandt and many Northern European artists. Red was especially targeted as a papist color associated with extravagance. Blue escaped condemnation.
(Left) Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1530s. We don’t know the identity of the young man, but the direct gaze and hand on his hip conveys a learned man with an attitude of confidence. The elegant rich black doublet with blue sash signifies a well to do noble man. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
(Right) Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1530s. Martin Luther was a popular subject matter in Northern Europe. The Reformer is dressed in simple Protestant dark clothing. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Catholics reacted with more color. The puritan north was dark toned and Catholic Europe, especially Italy, used playful color. More color crept back into European courts by the mid 1600s. Blue never lost favor, particularly as exotic indigo was imported with slave labor and chemical compounds produced different shades of blue. Blue is one of the most common colors in European flags and became a symbolic color of the French Revolution. It continues to be one of the most popular colors today. Generally viewed with positively, “the blues” is also associated with feeling down and melancholy music.
Agnolo Bronzino, The Holy Family, The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. 1527-28. The bright colors typify the Florentine court style. Other mythological paintings by Bronzino undoubtedly appalled the Protestants with their nudity and sexual overtones. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
As for black, meaning and acceptance fluctuated widely. Popularity increased following World War I in European dress. The color took on various meanings, as a symbol of anarchy, as a sign of rebellion (black motorcycle jackets) to formal (black tie) and sexy (little black dress).
And the bathroom paint color? I went with a blue-gray “Winter Lake.”
Pastoureau, Michel. Blue: The History of a Color. Princeton University Press, 2001.
Pastoureau, Michel. Black: The History of a Color. Princeton University Press, 2009.
Pulliam, Heather. “COLOR.” Studies in Iconography, vol. 33, 2012, pp. 3–14.
Thomas, Anabel. The Painter’s Practice in Renaissance Tuscany. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Walton, Marc. “The Material History of the Color Blue.” November 1, 2014, Chicago Humanities Festival. Guest Lecture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpQjTS7VtQQ