Ideas about the effects of a certain colour, its associations and symbolism, are far from uniform cross-culturally and even in the West. In addition, the naming of colours is almost impossible to clarify for earlier periods and for other cultures. It is not simply a problem of translation from another language, as Michel Pastoureau has explained:
It is difficult to determine which Greek or Latin words designate blue because both languages lack basic, recurring terms for it, whereas white, red, and black are clearly named. In Greek, whose color lexicon did not stabilize for many centuries, the words most commonly used for blue are glaukos and kyaneos… During the classical era, kyaneos meant a dark color: deep blue, violet, brown, and black. In fact, it evokes more the ‘feeling’ of the color than its actual hue. The term glaukos, which existed in the Archaic period and was much used by Homer, can refer to gray, blue, and sometimes even yellow or brown.
Philip Ball tells us that blue and yellow are categorized together in some Slavic languages as well as in other languages in northern Japan, East Nigeria, and among some northern Californian Native Americans. And in Western Europe since the medieval period there are plenty of examples of shifting meanings of colour terms. According to John Gage, the medieval colour terms bloi and caeruleus could each refer to blue or yellow, perhaps because of the technologies that produced them, in which mid-stage colours are transformed into others. All these authors are careful to warn us that unnamed colours are not necessarily unseen; or, rather, that the distinctions our language makes may be just as visible to those whose words do not identify and differentiate in the same way. Linguistic difference does, though, have implications for the use and status of particular colours in that culture. And it does remind us that our own categorizations and hierarchies (primary, secondary, complementary) are in an important sense arbitrary. Wittgenstein said as much in 1950, when he insisted that identification of colour is always a language-game.
If the identification and recognition of colour cannot be assumed across place and time, then neither can any intrinsic meaning or symbolism of a colour. Blue, says Pastoureau, was considered a warm colour in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and only began to be seen as cool in the seventeenth century. Kandinsky, mapping out his theories of the spiritual qualities of colour and colours, believed that blue was associated with the circle (red with the square, yellow with the triangle); his contemporary Adolph Hoelzel, on the other hand, had thought red circular, blue rectangular, as did the artist Oskar Schlemmer. William Gass (On Being Blue) and Alexander Theroux (The Primary Colors) each free-associate for pages on the meanings and associations of the colour. The radically diverse associations of colours with shapes and meanings lead John Gage to conclude that ‘colour symbolism has always remained inescapably local and contextual’.
And yet it is possible that there are pre-social factors in play. Colour itself is the effect of the electromagnetic field of light on the eye, where different sets of retinal photoreceptors are receptive to different wave lengths. Blue, with a wave length of 420 nanometers, has a higher frequency than green, red and yellow. Julia Kristeva suggests that this quality of blue produces a special reception, which she explores in relation to frescoes by Giotto in Padua:
Blue is the first color to strike the visitor as he enters into the semidarkness of the Arena Chapel…The delicate, chromatic nuances of the Padua frescoes barely stand out against this luminous blue. One’s first impression of Giotto’s painting is of a colored substance, rather than form or architecture; one is struck by the light that is generated, catching the eye because of the color blue. Such a blue takes hold of the viewer at the extreme limit of visual perception…
In this way, blue has a particular ‘decentering effect’, engaging with the viewer at some pre-linguistic, pre-conscious level. I don’t know how to assess this kind of claim against the overwhelming historical evidence of cultural relativism in colour perception (that, combined with my own prejudice in favour of sociological accounts). But a recent programme of BBC’s Horizon, on the theme of colour (and entitled ‘Do you see what I see?’), proposed very specific qualities of blue – presumably intrinsic rather than culturally specific – in which, interestingly, blue is perceived once again as a ‘warm’ colour. Experiments with restaurant décor found that diners perked up in the late evening in blue rooms. Scientists on the programme explained that we have photosensitive cells which are receptive only to blue, and which send the body a signal to wake up. Further, they argued that the colour blue digs into our earliest evolutionary consciousness, since primitive one-cell organisms can only detect blue and yellow; red and green reception came later, as new receptors developed in the eye.’
This business of meaning and symbolism turns out to be rather tricky, though I am inclined to default to my rather automatic resistance to such universal, sociobiological claims – at least until persuaded otherwise. We are on safer ground, though, in looking at the clear evidence for the changing importance of blue throughout the history of western culture. This history is nicely summarised by Colm Tóibín, in a 2004 catalogue essay for a Dublin exhibition called ‘Blue’: ‘Blue was the banished orphan who lived to take the throne’. He bases this on his reading of Gage, Pastoureau and others who have recorded the fortunes of blue, in art and in textile dyeing, over two millennia. It is primarily a history of the availability, and therefore cost, of materials. It is a history of plants – woad and indigo – and minerals – lapis lazuli, azurite, cobalt – and, later of the invention of synthetic blues. It is also very much a social history, linked not just to the discovery and extraction of colours, but to navigation and trade routes, relations between nations, and, especially in the case of indigo, the patterns of colonial power. For example, Philip Ball points out that the highly-valued blue, lapis lazuli (also known as ultramarine, because it came from ‘beyond the sea’), was more common in Italy than in northern Europe during the Renaissance, because it arrived from Afghanistan and elsewhere through Italian ports.
Michael Baxandall’s classic social history of Italian painting gives a marvellous insight into how the value and price of the precious mineral played out in the fifteenth century, in the detail of a 1485 contract for Domenico Ghirlandiaou’s Adoration of the Magi (in the Spedale degli Innocenti in Florence). The Prior of the Spedale specifies clearly that the artist ‘must colour the panel at his own expense with good colours and with powdered gold on such ornaments as demand it, with any other expense incurred on the same panel, and the blue must be ultramarine of the value about four florins the ounce’. Baxandall explains:
After gold and silver, ultramarine was the most expensive and difficult colour the painter used. There were cheap and dear grades and there were even cheaper substitutes, generally referred to as German blue. (Ultramarine was made from powdered lapis lazuli expensively imported from the Levant; the powder was soaked several times to draw off the colour and the first yield – a rich violet blue – was the best and most expensive. German blue was just carbonate of copper; it was less splendid in its colour and, much more seriously, unstable in use, particularly in fresco.) To avoid being let down about blues, clients specified ultramarine; more prudent clients stipulated a particular grade – ultramarine at one or two or four florins an ounce.
The fortunes of lapis lazuli in the history of art are entirely to do with its cost of extraction and transport, and its rarity, just as the fortunes of indigo in the history of textile dyeing are inextricably linked to Europe’s role in India and, later, America and the West Indies. In the West, although there were alternatives to lapis lazuli for artists, in particular the cheaper mineral azurite, it was ultramarine that was the most prized blue. The colour blue itself, rather insignificant in earlier periods, emerged in the twelfth century as a highly fashionable and desirable colour, manifested most clearly in the new practice of rendering the robes of the Virgin in ultramarine. Blue became a royal and noble colour, in painting and in heraldry. By the seventeenth century, blue had taken its place as a primary colour, displacing the white-red-black triad which, according to Pastoureau, ‘had been the focal point of Western color systems since antiquity (if not before)’.