Saturday, September 8, 2012

Green: Paradise and the color symbolism, history of color # 12

Green in Medieval times had rather varied symbolic meaning, depending if was used in the religious or secular context. In religious art it was a symbol of eternal happy existence, Paradise, and soul's hope for eternal bliss. Green robes symbolized eternal happiness through salvation, and often martyrs were dressed in red and green.

 As it was a happy color, specially the emerald was praised as the most beautiful jewel, in which all marvel of nature was incarnated and made imperishable. It was considered also an earthly representation of Paradise, and written about by monks. No wonder: emerald has strong color and is translucent, has light, and light and strong hues very important for the medieval aesthetics.

The painting on the left is by Hieronymus Bosch, who is often labeled as being  Northern Renaissance painter, but there is still so much of medieval elements in his paintings, also in this one. Bosch: a very mysterious painter, and lots was written about his speculated following of heresies. But this painting is quite conventional for Bosch's standards. It is the  left wing of the Last Judgement triptych, in the collection Gemaldesammlung der Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, in Vienna. It shows the fall of angels, and the story of creation of Adam and Eve, temptation and expulsion form Paradise. (Please click on the picture to view it bigger). It is about bliss, heavenly and earthly, and primordial sense of innocence, and about loss all of this. Also we see Jesus in Paradise. Why? Jesus was in medieval mystical writings and systems considered the Second Adam, the one who brings the Paradise back to the fallen human race.

But the hope of salvation was the expectation of something bigger, something which  could not be lost anymore, not a conditional existence in a Paradise in the story depicted in the Bosch's painting. It was about something above also the secular symbolism of green, which was found very limiting and temporary. In the secular world green was standing for Spring, new love, fertility. It was real hope for something beyond all  limitations, it was about the  life eternal, and the color of life was green, archetype of course,  but it got a new dimension: a heavenly one.

 And as such was totally elevated, wasn't anymore about life like in the Nature, where seasons  pass, or impermanent state of natural fertility which was bound with rebirth, suffering, aging and death. This life was about absolute perfection which never faded.

 And the hope, longing  for such existence was made one of the most important Christian virtues, (along with faith and unconditional love), and of course the color of it was green, because already showed symbolically what the all hope was about.

Mosaic of the apse int eh church of St Apolinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy. Thank you Berthold Werner for releasing this picture into public domain.
 This happy symbolism of green came from the earlier Christian art- early frescoes and mosaics. In this post I follow the line form the youngest to the oldest art. Now a mosaic which is c. 900 years older than Bosch's painting. The picture above shows VI c. mosaic with St Apolinare in Paradise, adoring the cross, sheep around him, a very typical composition. Above, on the wall, Christ is giving his blessing, and we have the repetition of Paradise and the sheep. Click on the picture to see it bigger.

An earlier mosaic, this time from V c, is on the entrance wall of the mausoleum of Galla Palcidia, Also in Ravenna , Italy.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd, mosaic, V c. Galla Placidia Mausoleum, Ravenna, Italy
This type of mosaic is part of the iconographic tradition of  mosaics seen in the one with St Apolinar. The iconography is overlapping. But here we have Christs who is depicted as beardless youth was the typical figure in early Christian art. He is not the Pantacrator Jesus giving blessing, he is tender and pensive, and all sheep are looking is his direction.This was a common way of depicting Jesus: among his sheep, in Paradise, not hanging on the cross. He was shown as such even in earlier art, in a fresco, still in the catacombs, also as a good shepherd. One stream of the symbolism of the color green has a long lineage dating from early Christian art.