Sunday, March 18, 2012

History of Color # 2: Color during Middle Ages

Yesterday I mentioned  the psychological impact the stained glass windows had on people during the Middle Ages, giving the viewers sense of awe. I have chosen to start with stained glass windows, as a window is very close to light by its function. And when glass is colorful it has strong similarity to a  precious stone. People during the so-called "Dark Ages" were obsessed with light and splendor. They loved bright hues, which reminded them of precious jewels. The comparison of color to precious stones was common among medieval writing which we still can read today.

People also loved gold, not only for its high material value, and being a metal  of bright color, but also for its light reflecting properties. Gold was, logically, the symbol of divinity, of spiritual illumination, and most of all, of divine light. Among the colors of  the rainbow the most  beloved color "trinity" during the Middle Ages was gold, blue and red. Yes, gold instead of yellow. Yellow was used as cheaper alternative to gold, but became also ambiguous, I will elaborate on this subject another time .

 Practical reasons also played a role in those choices: for example in a  dimly lit church, when you have bright colors and gold, everything looks more luminous, splendorous. And gold reflects light in the shadow, it gives a beautiful glow, as you see on the picture.

Interior of a church, can't recall which one, somewhere in the Black  Forest area, Germany.

As the medieval minds were so enamored with colors and light, it is understandable that a very complex metaphysics of light was developed by the scholars, theologians, and other  writers. When those people wrote about beauty, they often wrote  using therms describing light. This was not only comparison to the sunlight, but also to a fire. You can imagine the glow of gilded altar like on the photo above was fitting the aesthetic, religious and philosophical expectations of the viewers centuries ago. The Middle Ages used a very extensive vocabulary describing light.

To this  vocabulary of the aesthetics of light belongs the term "illuminated manuscripts,"  which refers to medieval books containing masterful calligraphy, richly painted in many colors and gilded with gold. Those books were adorned by ornate letters, and often had  lush illustrations.  The creation of illuminated manuscripts was a time consuming process, done by monks who were able and willing to spend their lives copping or illustrating books by hand . Take a look at this initial from an  illuminated manuscript. 

This Madonna with Child. is  a very typical example of Medieval painting.Golden background was such norm in religious art during the  Middle Ages, as it represented divine light and wisdom. Often the halos of the saints were painted blue, which represented spiritual virtues, contemplation and divinity, and  contrasted nicely with gold. Halos were painted in gold too, and the name "aureole" comes form the name of gold in Latin. Golden aureoles in religious art survived for long time.

Gold and precious stones, or color enamels was used on book covers and  reliquaries. Enamels were also used in jewelery. It was all about color. I have chosen to show you the beautiful chasse from the collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the golden reliquary of the magi shrine from Cologne cathedral. The form of  the chasses was common. Such clear are the colors of the Chasse with Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty . The  Magi Shrine  Reliquary looks very architectural, often reliquaries had this form, imitated architecture: they are like little golden buildings in miniature.

And this beautiful Bust of the Virgin still has lush traces of its original bright paint!

Take a look at this example: it is the portal of the cathedral in Freiburg, Germany. I apologize for the poor quality of this picture: when I took it,  there was a plastic net spanned during renovation work, and this created strange light reflexes. (Talking about light, ha!) But you can surely  guess the richness of colorful paint and gold when the portal was freshly made, and was carefully kept this way. The interiors of the Medieval cathedrals were colorful too. Not garish, but simply intense, jewel-like. If the budgets of the cities allowed for such splurge, the ceilings of the cathedrals were painted in blue and adorned with golden stars. Today this doesn't seem like a real splurge now,  but then blue pigments were expensive.

Portal of the cathedral in Freiburg, Germany.

I hope you like the links, as the pictures are of  high quality, (not like my take of the portal), and have perfect descriptions. If you have chance, you can see those examples in person at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This museum has great collections. Freiburg is great to visit also, but the Cologne cathedral is very unusual in this regard that is the closest to the ideal of a Gothic cathedral as such. Not only the very slender proportions, but it is a truly a  finished cathedral. Some ideals were designed in theory, but never totally finished in real life. You see sometimes towers which were never finished, have flat tops without spires, like some of the  famous cathedrals in France.

Coming soon: the post about colors disliked by the medieval people, and after that a post about symbolic meaning of colors. Please, stay tuned.