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On Being Blue

BLUE: The History of a Color, By Michel Pastoureau, Translated from the French, by Markus I. Cruse, Princeton University Press: 216 pp., $35

November 11, 2001|WILLIAM GASS | William Gass is the author of "On Being Blue" and the forthcoming essay collection "Tests of Time."

As a color in our culture, blue was slow to assert itself. Perhaps, as Michel Pastoureau conjectures, although it was certainly present in the natural world, early people had difficulty making use of it, while red, white and black offered themselves more agreeably. However, color itself--indeed all sensory qualities--received short shrift from the thinkers we know about, who apparently prized whatever you could put a number to and consequently looked for weight, shape and size to constitute the serious form of things, rather than such evanescent predicates. Reality, for the pre-Socratic philosophers and many later ones, was colorless, and the atomists said that what fell through space when their alleged particles did were as purely figural as the cube, sphere and pyramid.

The fact that fabrics offer the best clues to the function and status of color in a society, as Pastoureau argues, is, in a sense, a perfect reflection of the philosophers' attitude, for fabrics drape and clothe, swaddle and cover things, just as dyes hide the natural condition of cotton or wool and tanning produces leather. Paint, too, is but a cosmetic, whether it gilds a girl or a statue of Pallas Athena. Colors (and other qualities) befool and delight the masses, another ground for mistrust. Churchmen, such as Bishop Claude of Turin (9th century) or St. Bernard (of the 12th), took the cosmetic metaphor literally, considering color to be as material as rouge and therefore vile. Although blue was difficult to process and expensive to use and consequently was neglected by Greek and Roman societies, it has covered a lot of ground and overcome many obstacles to reach its present preeminence. Pastoureau's book is a clearly written and beautifully documented history of that ascension.

It is not uncommon for color words to slide a little along the spectrum, so that when a word such as glaukos , often found in Homer, is applied to something gray in one context while in another designates a yellow or a blue, it may be because it is actually referring to something weakly changeable such as "water, eyes, leaves, or honey." Consequently, colors called blue sometimesweren't. Guilt or honor by association was apparently the linguistic rule, and blue kept bad company. Pliny said that Breton women painted their bodies dark blue (if you say so) when they were about to engage in orgiastic rites (no kidding), therefore blue was a color of shame and to be shunned by the decent (good to know).

If color was an aspect of light (contrary to the Claude-Bernard camp), it had to be--like light--visible (a part of the world) and immaterial (an emissary from heaven). Improvements in stained glass seemed to solidify this union, as greens and yellows and reds streamed onto cathedral floors and rose up the sides of their columns. In the early 1100s, Abbot Sugar installed "painting, stained glass, enamel, fabric, gems, metalwork, and gilding" in his reconstructed abbey at Saint-Denis, uniting blue with gold "to evoke the splendor of creation" and encouraging envious imitation. Nothing was too good for the houses of God. Moreover, in many corners of Catholicism, money was coming in.

To rise in the church was to rise in the world. Blue's increasingly important sacred status affected its secular one. Blue was no longer confined to commoners' clothing. The blue perfected by the craftsmen at Saint-Denis showed up at Chartres and Sainte-Chapelle. The Virgin Mary began favoring it--even before the Lord's light gave her divinity. By the time the 12th century had grown a beard, the Virgin's blue robes had become an iconic requirement. During the Baroque period, gold became her fashion statement. After Pius IX promulgated the doctrine of Immaculate Conception in 1854, however, she was dressed in white again, as she often had been in the beginning. Nonetheless, Mary's wardrobe had taken blue from its place in shadowy backgrounds and let it play among items not only instrumental to the Lord but designed for ordinary daily use.

Royalty, over time, and as a sign of its increasing importance, began to assume blue as its own--the French royal line leading the way with fleurs-de-lis in an azure field. Coats of arms increasingly included blue in their designs, dress codes were re-encrypted and the red or black knight that might confront a traveler on the other side of a bridge starts to yield--in stories--to a blue one. At first indeterminate, such armor eventually signified a resolute fidelity, but the faith beneath the metal was feudal, not religious.

As dyes improved, more and more monarchies succumbed to the charms of the new color, although the Germans and Italians were initially resistant. "By the end of the Middle Ages, even in Germany and Italy, blue had become the color of kings, princes, nobles, and patricians, while red remained the emblematic and symbolic color of Imperial power and the papacy."

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