In Lovely Blueness: Adventures in Troubled Light

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In 2004 Colm Toibin curated an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin called 'Blue' which consisted of blue objects from the collection. This is his introduction to the catalogue.

Blue comes to us through silence and mystery and much argument. The word we use to describe blueness was not in every language, or arrived later than words for white and black, red and yellow and green. In ancient Greek, as far as we can make out, the word for black may have been the same as the word for blue. In modern Catalan the word for blue (blau; blava in the feminine) is the same as the word for bruise, deriving from the Latin word for bruise, blavus. No one now believes that Roman and Greek eyes were too primitive to see the colour blue, but it was not an essential term in the lexicography of colour and, with the exception of work in mosaic and in some illustration, it was not used as one of the central colours in Greek or Roman art.
No one believes either that colour itself was not important in the ancient world and that complex terms for colour were not abundant. When they were needed, the words were invented. Colours of horses, for example, came in rich diversity. Writers in Latin in the fifth and seventh centuries listed thirteen horse-colours, ‘some of which are rare and highly specialised terms,’ according to John Gage in ‘Colour and Culture’. (1) Byzantine Greek offered eleven terms. An Arab-Latin glossary offered eight and a Spanish thirteen century treatise on horses fourteen different words for the colour of horses. While terms for colour could be plentiful, they could also be entirely missing. The absence of a word for brown is characteristic of many languages. ‘I have found no word for brown in several Australian, Melanesian and Polynesian languages, in Tamil, Eskimo, Welsh and the Arabic of the Egyptian peasant,’ W.H. R. Rivers has written. ‘There appears to have been no word in Homeric Greek which one can regard as the equivalent to brown…the same is true of the Greek spoken by the majority of the citizens of Cyprus at the present day.’ (2)
Blue mostly came from far away. Woad was made in the brutish north and frightened Julius Caesar (‘Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horribiliores sunt in pugna aspectu’); indigo came from India; lapis lazuli from the east. Blue, for the most part, was distant and expensive and somehow, for the Greeks and the Romans, it was associated with barbarians, some of whom had blue eyes and others blue robes. The main colours in which the Greeks and Romans worked were black and white, red and yellow. In the late Middle Ages, red robes were the most expensive.

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