Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Famous Blue: History of Color # 5- the Middle Ages

 Wilton Diptych: Virgin and Child with Angels, Unknown French Master, via Wikimedia Commons
Blue was famous during the Middle Ages. People valued the color of the sky, it reminded them of heaven, and its symbolism put it close to gold: it was also the color of divine wisdom, (but gold was used also as light), color of spirituality, calm, contemplation, and all things heavenly. It became also the color of power, but about this on another occasion. Today I will explain the dense code of visual symbolism of the picture above.

Still during 15th century Cennino Cennini, (artist, who was also a writer and theorist of painting techniques) wrote that blue was “illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors”.

People talked and wrote a lot about this color. It was considered extremely beautiful and working good on human psyche, it was praised a lot. Also blue pigment was extremely expensive, and for this reason people talked about it in a very different context: painting was a business like any other enterprise, and business talks and written contracts regarding  commissions in which using blue was necessary, specified how much blue should be used. Blue pigment was almost as expensive as gold, sometimes more than gold. It had a beautiful name: ultramarine. It was imported from a valley which is today Afghanistan, made from nothing less than high quality semi-precious lapis lazuli stone, also used in jewelry. The poetic name ultramarine means "from beyond the seas." The stone was extremely difficult to grind, which added to the high price of the pigment.

Artists wanted to make sure how much of ultramarine was to be used, on which parts of the painting. Because of the high price of the pigment, and together with red it was usually reserved for painting robes of the Madonna and Jesus. This example is saturated with blue. Blue was specially the color of French Gothic, especially Late Gothic. Many Madonnas in French art had blue robes, after times of purple and red. (Red for Madonnas’ robes was used more often in the North).

What is the symbolism included in this painting? You know already about gold as diving light and wisdom, blue as divine wisdom and contemplation, things heavenly. This picture is about joys of heavenly existence. First, we have the banner of victory, the banner of resurrection. The colors represent purity of the soul, the sins of humanity washed clean with blood of love ( the sacrifice on the cross) . Wreaths of white roses on the heads of angels symbolize purity and joy of heavenly life. The broaches of the stags represent Jesus: stag means purity and destruction of evil (stag tramples on evil and destroys it). Black on of angels wings stands for depth of the divine mystery. 

Flowers: white rose represents purity and is the flower of the Virgin. The iris was also her emblem, and daisies stand for baby Jesus, his purity and innocence. A lot about purity, right? The vegetation was also emblem of purity; the Virgin was often shown in a garden, which was her emblem, hortus conclusus, "enclosed garden," symbolizing her virginity. Garden had also other meaning starting from early on in Christian art: it was representation of heavenly paradise.

This painting was commissioned for King Richard II. Here the Virgin looks like a fine courtly lady surrounded by ladies in waiting. During Medieval times adoration of the Virgin and courtly love had often similar visual and linguistic vocabulary.