In Lovely Blueness: Adventures in Troubled Light

Printer-friendly version
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.

If colour were troubled light, then black and white were the easiest to calm; they were in Greek and Roman times basic colours, but blue remained the most unruly, contantly absent without leave. In examples of Greek painting, John Gage writes, ‘the absence of blue on the palette attributed to the four-colour artists continues to be a serious problem’. (14) When Aulus Gellius in the second century AD wrote about colour terms, he made no reference at all to blue. When writing about the rainbow, ‘no ancient author mentions the colour blue,’ Michel Pastoureau writes in ‘Blue’. ‘For both the Greeks and the Romans, there was no blue in the rainbow. Xenophanes and Anaximenes and later Lucretius mention only red, yellow and violet; Seneca purple, violet, green, orange and red; Ammianus Marcellinus, purple, violet, green, orange, yellow, and red.’ (15) Aristotle wrote: ‘If the principles we laid down about the appearance of colour are true, the rainbow necessarily has three colours, and these three and no others.’ (16) Blue was not one of these colours. When the thirteenth century writer Roger Bacon created a scale of colour using Latin words, towards the end he listed venetius, which may between blue and black or may be yellow, and lazulus, which is lapis lazuli. He listed no direct colour for blue. Just as there is no blue in Homer, blue had no presence in Arthurian literature.
In the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent 111 addressed the role of colour in the liturgy and declared white, black, red the principal colours, with violet, green and yellow the colours which could also be used. He said nothing about blue, which is still to this day not used in a Catholic priest’s vestments. Before the fifteenth century, Michel Pastoureau writes, ‘not a single collection of recipes for colour production - either for dyeing or for painting - explains the green that is obtained by combining blue and yellow.’(17) Green was prepared using other methods.
However, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries blue became more common in western art, greatly helped by work in stained glass depicting the Virgin’s robes, which had been made mostly in darker colours up to then; blue quickly became various in its shades and acquired many nuances. (In his book ‘The Art of Cezanne’, Kurt Badt identifies an exceptional use of blue as a central colour in an Italian painting: ‘It is possible that in a picture of the Virgin in the Basilica of San Clemente (middle of the ninth century) we have the first isolated example of a composition built around blue. In this picture, the Mother of God is seen clothed entirely in blue robes.’ (18))
‹ Back