Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Purple, the Imperial Color, History of Color #10

Byzantine Emperor Justinian, mosaic in St Vitale church, Ravenna, Italy

I wrote about red and blue as colors of power in my recent entry. But the ultimate color of power was purple, before red and blue rose to higher prominence. It was before the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, which I mentioned in the entry about the holy blood relic in Reichenau and Bruges. Constantinople never recovered enough to produce purple dyed clothes again. This fact might give you some insight how expensive purple dye was.

 The purple dye was so expensive that it was a subject of sumptuary laws, and mostly restricted for the imperial or royal families. It was produced from Murex sea snail, and tens of thousands were needed to dye one piece of garment. Color purple took the name from the dye, wasn't the description of color itself. The price of dye was equal of weight in gold.  The main center of the craft of dyeing in purple was Tyre, in Phoenicia. The name Purple of Tyre comes from it. This purple wasn't the hue we perceive today as such: it was more reddish brownish, a very muted but intense color. The emperors robe on the mosaic above looks more blueish than in person. The robe of Jesus looks more brownish, but it is difficult to take very accurate pictures of mosaics in the interior, where every detail will be of exact color. And the purple of Tyre doesn't get reproduced very well on the computer screens either. But you get the idea.
Mosaics at San Vitale church, Ravenna, Italy, via wiki commons, thanks to Tango

Not only rulers were depicted in purple, but also Jesus and Virgin Mary. Byzantine art showed them as rulers, full of dignity and somehow stern looking, as does the Christ dressed in purple on Byzantine mosaic from the church St Apolinare Nouvo, Ravenna, Italy (via wiki commons) The style is Early Byzantine.

And here is shroud of Charlemagne, early IXc. manufactured in Constantinople, today in Paris, Musée National du Moyen Âge. (via wiki commons). Purple on silk created wonderful effects that enchanted the eye: depending on light looked more blueish or reddish, had luster fro which was prized too. Not many fabric are left from Byzantine times, mostly fragments, and like this one found in the graves of the rulers of the time.

Shroud of emperor Charlemagne, purple dyed silk
 The purple was known already in Antiquity, and was mythologically credited to be discovered by the dog of Hercules. Plato mentioned this color in his Symposium as the greatest hue of all. It was used in Egypt, and became the color of Roman emperors. Sometimes the law was not harsh and women were allowed to wear purple, but other times anyone else than emperor wearing a purple robe would be killed. The first church in Europe was founded because of religious devotion and courtesy of a woman, Lydia, who was a business woman, a merchant in purple dyed fabrics. She must have only rich clients.

One of the Roman emperors forbid his wife to buy additional purples robes, as he considered too expensive.

Today, to all my knowledge there is only one pigment manufacturer mill, Kremmer Pigmente from Germany, which sells  this kind of  purple for art conservation purposes. One ounce would be 153,120 $, of course on the website for the art conservators this dye is sold in fractions of  1gram (1 once has 30 grams, to remind you), so , it is sold sold here in fractions of grams
According to Kremmer Pigmente, it takes 10,000 snails to make 1 gram of purple, which would be 300, 000 to make one ounce.

Later instead of purple silks were dyed with kermes, which was red dye made of the bodies of dried insects. I am for sure glad we use different process in fabric dyeing today, not involving killing masses of mollusc, or insects. (But still,  today fashion industry is terribly unfriendly toward the environment, one of the main polluters). Lucky for me, a fine artist, I can pick and chose which pigments I want. Honestly, I couldn't bear to buy paints or dyes containing colors made out of living creatures. I don't wear silk either for this reason.

This red coronation mantle of Roger II, silk and gold thread, pearls and precious jewels was done in royal workshops  from Palermo, Sicily. Now in Vienna treasury.We see the new fashion coming, replacing purple with red, which resulted in pictures of royals, nobles and Virgin Mary dressed in red mantles.

Roger's II coronation mantle, via wiki commons, by Gryfindor