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.

But there is always a problem about the translation of words for colour, because even in the Middle Ages texture and depth and tone, and indeed the method of producing a colour, may have mattered as much as finding a clear and single denomination for it. ‘The technical literature of the Middle Ages for the most part avoided an engagement with abstract colour terms and simply listed specific colorants,’ John Gage writes. ‘A number of late medieval texts do show an awareness of the problem of abstract colour classes but they too pass quickly to the discussion of pigments.’ (3) ‘The emphasis on colour intensity,’ Michel Pastoureau writes in ‘Blue’, ‘led medieval people to perceive colour very differently than we do now: for the dyer or painter, and for their clients and publics, heavily saturated colour was often seen (or imagined) as closer to another bright colour than it was to a weaker, less concentrated tone of the same colour.’ (4) Thus the abstract word for black in Latin may have at certain times included blue; the terms red or even yellow may not have had the clear and single meaning which we now give to them. And words which denoted blue changed their meaning over centuries. ‘The saphirus of the ancients and of the early Middle Ages was not our sapphire (blue corundum),’ John Gages writes, ‘but lapis lazuli, which continued to be one interpretation of the word until well into the middle of the thirteen century.’ (5)
In tenth century Spain purpura was a silk cloth rather than a colour and continued with its early meaning in Europe until the Renaissance; the term ‘scarlet’ first appeared in the German-speaking world in the eleventh century to mean a woollen fabric, but two centuries later the word had come to mean a version of red. The term sinople, which once meant red, later came to denote green. So, too, with the word perse which went out of use in the sixteenth century. The OED defines it thus: ‘In early writers, Blue, bluish, bluish-grey; in later writers often taken (after Italian) as a dark obscure blue or purplish black; also as name of the colour or stuff of the colour.’ But in the middle of the sixteenth century, according to John Gage, it was also used to signify the colour we might call rust. (6) It may have been a term for a type of cloth which was associated with blue and came, at certain times, to mean blue, but it is very difficult to interpret. Gage also writes that ‘the structure of colour-terminology in Arabic was very similar to that of the European languages of the Middle Ages, with an emphasis on light and dark and a relative imprecision in the discrimination of hues.’ (7)
Nor did colours have fixed symbolic meanings which were generally understood by each citizen of the medieval world. Symbolic meaning was protean, fluid and ambiguous. A colour or an aspect of nature could symbolise opposing things. A lion could symbolise the devil for its ferocity and in its bravery and strength could be Christ; the regal purple colour of Christ’s robes could be close to the scarlet of sin.
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