The colour blue – the devil, the virgin and the red dyers’ bribes

Today, blue is probably the most popular colour around. We associate good things with it, it represents all sorts of positive things: air, sea, freshness, calm, and a few not so; feeling blue, blue monday. At least in this day and age, blue get a good deal of attention. But it was not always so.


Palaeolithic art
Palaeolithic art

Blue is not an old colour. It is not a palaeolithic colour – our ancestors in the caves didn’t have blue. The prehistoric palette was – as mentioned elsewhere – ochre, white, black and iron oxide. Yellow-brown, chalk, ash and rust.

This was the case a few millennia later too, when we settled down and started farming – and dyeing. Until the Middle Ages, these were in fact the main colours around, and social and religious structures and symbolism built around them (note that the catholic church still revolves around red, white and black, with green added as a tag-on for «all the other days»). In Europe, the oldest fabrics are all dyed in shades of red. In fact, they say, in Roman times, the latin word for ‘coloured’ and ‘red’ were synonyms. Greeks and Romans rarely dyed in blue, but the celts and germanic tribes did – using woad (that yellow plant you see all around temperate Europe). Hence, blue was seen as primitive and barbaric. Blue dye was used by the ancient people of the Middle East. They imported indigo from Asia and Africa. Indigo was used in biblical times, but it was expensive and used only for the finest cloth, and for the wealthy. In Europe, it was not used much, partly because it was expensive, but also because the colour was not … appreciated. It was also associated with the rabid celts and germanic people.  


In the bible, colour is rarely mentioned, but translations have made words that relate to luminosity, density, light and quality into colours. This of course, has ended in a lot of – to an atheist – delightful, snickering misunderstandings in the «life of Brian»-genre («it’s a sign, it’s a sign! he wants us all to remove our left shoe and follow!»)

The best bit is that in thEnglishsh version (and others), words that describe force, richness, love, beauty, prestige, death, blood, fire etc are simply translated as «red». Excellent ground for misunderstandings… and I shall not even start on the jewish tsitsit shawl, Cleopatra’s sails or the temple of Solomon. Brilliant stories they are – go forth and research!

Fashion in the high middle ages


The high middle ages is a period we can begin to recognise the outlines of our own society and you should think that at least the painters would use blue. The sky is blue. We see the sea as blue (which it is not), but the painters in the high middle ages painted the sky white, red or gold. Emperors and nobles in the 9-10th century fancied Roman customs, and wore red, white and purple (purple is another story – an enormously fascinating one!). So ignored by nobles, blue was worn by peasant. And it would stay like that until the 12th century.. Blue was described by the rich and wealthy as sickening, unnatural, barbaric and ugly. (isn’t this exciting?!)

There are remarkably few references to blue in liturgy, place names and people. Mr. Brown, Mr. Black, Mr White, Mr. Red. But no Mr. Blue. In latin, there are apparently no name with the root in ‘blue’ (this of course being contagious, the same goes for a lot of european languages).

Wilton dipthych
Wilton diptych

You would think that with all that emphasis on the heavens and all, christianity would expand blue. But no, the church stuck to the social and religious symbolism already in place for regulating society. Liturgical colours are discussed in sheaves and reams, and all sorts of colours are mentioned – except blue. Even though it is around in stained glass, enamel, paintings and in clothing. Blue is simply not part of the liturgical colour scheme or symbolism. Blue is not really entering the stage properly until the late 12th century… when blue turns up in stained glass windows, and then only as a backdrop to sacred figures.

Up until the 12th century, the virgin Mary was depicted in dark colours, to represent suffering and grief, and never in blue. Then something happens, and today, blue is associated with the virgins robes. A good example is the Wilton diptych from 1395.

stained glass blue devil

This combination of the cult of Mary and the idea of divine light, blue becomes wildly popular. It is, of course, a long story, what happened – it involves a squillon church meetings, a split on the view on colours – «if colours are light, it is divine, the work of God. If colour is substance, it is the work of the deceiving devil»…. chromophobes versus chromophiles, with axes to grind, a God to justify them, and improvable points to prove. Besides. Ultramarine pops up in Italy as the most expensive colouring. Money talks. 

Colours change importance and associative power. Blue changed from being a non-colour to represent loyalty, truth, courage, and the fact that the king of France chose the well-known coat of arms: azure with golden fleur-de-lis dotted around (and yes, king Arthur pictured with a blue shield with three golden crowns) surely drove the popularity of blue.  From hardly any coats of arms having any blue in 1200, at the beginning of the 15th century, one in three coats of arms had ‘azure’.

King of france
King of france

Heraldry is a very good source to monitor colours. It was extremely important to describe the various coat of arms in families, royals and to connect loyalties. And there is the important point that often, all children got their own coat of arms (women too, actually) usually with a basis in the parents´.

stained glass blue devil
stained glass blue devil

And here’s a good piece of ancient gossip: in the thirteenth century, wealthy red dyers asked stained-glass artists to represent the devil as blue, hoping this would discredit the newly fashionable colour that was threatening their precious profits.Pigheaded Newton and indigo

In fact, there was a fight whether the colours of the rainbow should include blue – and the fact that indigo is squeezed in between blue and violet, well, that seems to be more thanks to stubborn Newton than anything else. Indigo is often depicted as a colour somewhere between violet and blue, a purply sort of thing. Fact is, indigo in its raw form is actually more gray-lead-blue than anything else.

…since then, blues popularity have, erm, sky-rocketed. Today, it’s topping the favourite colour scale.
And by the way. Blue is not just blue…: Azure, baby blue, cerulean, cobalt, cornflower, dark blue, denim, Egyptian blue, electric blue, indigo, light blue, lapis lazuli, Maya blue, midnight blue, navy blue, periwinkle, Persian blue, powder blue, Prussian blue, royal blue, sapphire, sky blue, steel blue, ultramarine…

And no, it’s not my favourite colour.

(Purple is fascinating, though. Royal tyrian, slaves, snails and religious blunders.. and yellow – to us, a warning, the colour of hospital bin bags signifying harmful contagious waste; to the Chinese, the colour of the emperor. Ah. it never ends.)

More oddities on colours here

(all images either own or from Wikipedia)

The information in this post comes from these books:

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