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We take colour for granted these days. Just look at this blog for instance. I know it’s not the jazziest one out there but there are plenty of strong, true intense colours that don’t change much from day to day. In the past such reliable colours were considered luxuries and many were used as codes to inform viewers about what was going on.
Yesterday I was writing about the Bayeux Tapestry so I thought I would make a start with that.
Here is a family photo showing Duke William with his two brothers, Bishop Odo and Robert, who would look after Normandy once William had departed for England. The two brothers are dressed in blue but William’s long tunic is a strong red. This is no accident. The red is designed to show that William is a soldier, a leader. Red was associated with strength and ferocity – a military colour. Since dye tended to fade with time, faded red – ie pink – was also a military colour. Pink was worn almost exclusively by baby boys until the advent of colorfast aniline dyes in the 19th century, whereas blue was considered a girls colour.
Blue had come to be associated with girls due to its use to mark out the Virgin in religious paintings. This particular intense shade of blue, ultramarine, was obtained by grinding a paste of lapis lazuli, a semi precious stone only found in one small area of Afghanistan. From the earliest times the stone was prized for its rarity and the pureness of its colour. Lapis lazuli was worth more than its weight in gold. To honour the virgin it became routine to use this most precious of pigments to colour her robes.
Earth colours – yellow and red ochres, raw and burnt earths – were easy to obtain and cheap to produce. Likewise vegetable dyes – yellow, green brown, grey – could be gathered from the wild. Fixing the dye with a salt or urine mordant produced fabric that would fade more slowly. But these naturally obtained dyes marked the wearer out as being of low origin. Figures in paintings who are shown in shades of brown or grey are almost always of low class. At the opposite end of the scale was the nobility, and there was one particular colour reserved for the very grandest of these.
Purple dye was also known from the earliest times. Fabric dyed using murex sea snails was made by the Phoenicians and traded all around the Mediterranean. The dying process was lengthy, disgusting and costly. It took a lot of dye to produce the intense Imperial purple demanded by the emperors of Rome and Byzantium, so fabrics in the proper colour were highly prized and highly priced too. It is on record that the emperor Aurelian refused to buy the empress a gown of purple silk because it was far too costly even for him.
Paler shades of purple could be worn by the nobility and a mixture of murex and madder or kermes was used to produce a strong purple red to dye the cloak of imperial commanders but sometime purple was used to honour other people.
When the tomb of St Cuthbert, one of Britains nicer saints, was opened, it was found that his bones has been wrapped in a shroud of purple Chinese silk, the colour still true after 1000 years.
Black is now the colour of formality – black tie, little back dress, mourning clothes – but in the middle ages, as was the case with red, black tended to fade. The dye was achieved by making a mixture of walnut shells and iron. As time passed the iron reacted with light and moisture to tint the fabric a reddish hue. Benedictines, an order of monks who wore black habits, are frequently described as wearing ‘rusty’ black.
In the 15th century new mordants were discovered that would fix dyes firmly, and black became a very fashionable thing to wear. Lorenzo Lotto, who painted the picture to the right, is noteable for his lavish use of black, emphasising the seriousness of his pictures and the worth of his subjects.
As a foot note to this, any time you see a film with early knights dressed in black fabric, bear in mind that it’s romance and not reality.
Tomorrow I’ll be writing about livestock! See you then.