The Color Blue in Art & Life – Everything You Wanted to Know

It must have been a slow day in the New York Times when an article  appeared that talks about the color blue. But, like anything else the NYT does, it’s for good reason.

Blue is the most popular color in the Western world: fully 50% of people would call it their favorite color if asked .

And we all recall readily the blue of the sky in a Renaissance painting, echoed in the brilliant lapis lazuli in Madonna’s robe. But it wasn’t always so.

The color blue is one thing, surprisingly, that the Renaissance’s all’antica tendencies in architecture and art did not get from the Greeks and Romans. This is not because the Greeks didn’t use blue, but the color is probably faded in the architecture that stood, or stands today.  But rather that for some reason, the Greeks and Romans did not formalize a term for the color, so today our two common words for blue in English and other Romance languages are from Arabic, azure (lazaward), or German, blue (blau). In fact, the Romans considered blue a vulgar color used by barbarians, even blue eyes were looked down upon.

It was not until the twelfth century when Madonna was depicted dressed in blue – and then it could not be stopped.  The kings of France started using blue in their coats of arms in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the rest is history.  Royal blue was born. Then with improved dyeing techniques, blue spread to ceramics and fabrics and into everyday items.

But why this sudden shift in medieval times? The influence of art? Religion?

In Michel Pastoureau’s Blue – The History of a Color, which enlightened (and entertained) me much on this subject, he speculated that our perception of a color, which is cultural, may have been influenced by medieval storytelling. For example, in Arthurian literature,

Very often, a chivalric tale is interrupted by the sudden appearance of an unknown knight bearing plain arms (of a single color) who blocks the hero’s path and challenges him to fight. The color of these arms was used by medieval authors to suggest the character of the stranger and to heighten anticipation about the outcome of the battle.

Depending on the color on his coat of arms, a red knight usually has evil intentions; a black one wishes to conceal his identity; a white knight, a good guy; and a green knight usually a youthful one who could create chaos. There was no blue knight. Blue was neutral.

But by the middle of  the fourteenth century, blue knights appeared and were seen as “courageous,  loyal, and faithful characters.”

In the thirteenth century,

Blue began to compete with red as the color of aristocracy and royalty. With the Protestant Reformation and all the value systems it produced, blue became a dignified and moral color, which its rival red was not; as a result, blue’s presence expanded in numerous areas at the expense of red. 

NB   Disclosure: I don’t write about politics.  The approaching US election is a coincident.

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