A Magical, Turbulent History of the Color Green

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I’m besotted with GREEN: The History of a Color by French art historian Michel Pastoureau. It’s the brand-new, third installment in his five-book series, each book devoted to the (largely Western) history of an individual color. He’s already tackled black and blue masterfully; now he moves into green, a “middle color” in Aristotle’s reckoning. It’s a fitting challenge for this wonderfully inventive historian. The color green is fickle, mutable, variously the color of love, youth, irresponsibility, but also madness, debauchery, and the underworld. 

GREEN: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau

GREEN: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau

Pastoureau charts the color’s move from near-invisibility in antiquity, its rise as the sacred color of Islam, and its sudden popularity in the Middle Ages. I’ll freely admit it: in many Pastoureau is the scholar I want to be when I grow up. His books are smart and well-researched, but super-readable and packed with fascinating asides. You learn an enormous amount about the color in question, while also thoroughly enjoying everything color’s history illuminates along the way. There’s so much good stuff here, I’ll be covering GREEN in two blog posts.

Let’s start in antiquity, shall we? It’s easy to forget the all-white classical sculptures we see in museums were once all brilliantly — even garishly painted — and illuminated in a much different way from our cold electrical lighting. Pastoureau takes us back, remarking on the relative dearth of green in Greek and Roman cultures, art and fashion. Color terms in written accounts are also famously slippery, another fact one tends to forget. Classical writers tended to highlight other aspects of color than mere hue: how reflective, how saturated, how clear or smoky. Their color terms reflect how they parsed the visual spectrum, just as ours does.

A color’s popularity can also easily rise or fall with how difficult the color is to produce. Romans and Greeks struggled with finicky green dyes and pigments, whereas the Egyptians had figured out green glassware and used it everywhere in faience ceramics.

Image by Glen Gulley on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1zfyfHL

Image by Glen Gulley on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1zfyfHL

Exploring a color becomes a fantastic excuse to learn about a new milieu or historical figure. I loved reading about Nero, who apparently adored green. He relished eating leeks (useful in protecting the singing voice), supported the proletarian-leaning green stables in the chariot races, and collected emeralds, gazing at one during gladiator matches as a momentary respite from the bloody proceedings. 

 Image by Clyde Robinson on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1wjS79b

Image by Clyde Robinson on Flickr: http://bit.ly/1wjS79b

Image by Dennis Harper on Flickr: http://bit.ly/104Rbtn

Image by Dennis Harper on Flickr: http://bit.ly/104Rbtn

The Bible is strangely silent about color generally, with nearly zero mentions of green in the entire book. Yet this vacuum may’ve proved fruitful later, when Pope Innocent III declared green the Church’s color for “ordinary time” – the huge stretches of days between holy days, themselves colored red, black or white according to whether they emphasized blood and sacrifice (red), mourning and penitence (black) or joy and virgins (white). Biblical rainbows, as depicted in medieval art, tended to echo these symbolic colors instead of the actual color spectrum Newton observed centuries later.

Mohammad famously loved the color green, an association I’ve blogged about before. Warring factions of Islam eventually unified under this sacred color, which flourished in art and architecture – with the notable exception of carpets. As Pastoureau writes: “By contrast, one does not tread on so venerable a color.”

Image: Green Mosque via COLOURLovers: http://bit.ly/1voTKlE

Image: Green Mosque via COLOURLovers: http://bit.ly/1voTKlE

During the Middle Ages, green enjoyed a promotion, suddenly fresh, visible and unsullied by previous associations like so many other colors. Pastoureau details the rise of courtly orchards, rituals to welcome spring that involved wreathing one’s person with living green shoots, and the like. Green became the color of hope, youth, change, promise. Because change is inherently unstable, imaginary figures like the mischievous Frau Minne emerged. A fixture of 12th century lyric poetry in German, the goddess of love wore a green dress, slinging arrows gleefully at her prey, “capricious and deceitful” as Pastoureau describes her. The second image below doesn’t show her in green, but the sheer bloodiness of hearts slain gives you a clear sense of her power to cause calamity:

frau minne in green

11-24FrauMinneViolence

Image by Julie Goonan via Behance: http://bit.ly/1oeS2Tj

Image by Julie Goonan via Behance: http://bit.ly/1oeS2Tj

The courtly orchard was rife with symbolic trees, clothing, gestures. I especially loved reading about the layered symbolism of linden trees. Reminiscent of music (their wood was used to create nearly every period instrument) and love (their leaves were heart-shaped), linden trees were the source of many useful medicinal substances, so much so that the German word for “to soothe” is lindern. Similarly, green parrots emerged as the ideal courtly gift between lovers, a unique and rare specimen symbolic of beauty, speech and love. I also hadn’t realized that Jan Van Eyck’s iconic picture The Arnolfini Wedding depicts an already-married couple celebrating the arrival of a new baby: clearly augured by her round figure and her brilliant-green, hopeful dress. 

 

Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding

Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding

Green later takes a nosedive back into turbulence, moral ambivalence and outright evil. Fortune’s wheel spins, even for colors. Stay tuned!


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One thought on “A Magical, Turbulent History of the Color Green

  1. sophia5

    It is not true that in the Arnolfini Portrait the woman is pregnant. There is debate over whether it’s an engagement, wedding, or business contract being performed, but it definitely has nothing to do with a baby! That was the style of dress in the time.

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