Satirical diptych, anonymous, 1520-1530.
Color is always an intriguing subject when it comes to historical clothing and social history. We tend to believe that our modern perception of color have stayed unchanged through history but we clearly can find that it is not so.
Colors seem to get more complicated the deeper you dig into it historically. The symbolism of a color tend to change due to who wears it, what is fashionable and how expensive colors are to produce at the time. I have already sneak peaked at the color blue in the proverb entry “Wrapped in a blue cloak“, where I also end up discussing the color of red slightly.
Red is a very interesting subject when it comes to color. As a modern viewer we are costumed to associating red with lust, eroticism, women and also prostitution (red districts). We also might think about the devil, about love, about anger and Christmas.
Historically the color of red have had many different meanings making it a complicated, and versatile, color. In fact so much so, that I’ve decided to look into the color red. The color red connected to the devil, the holy, the commoner and the Reformation:
The devil in red
We tend to associate red with the devil, in modern times – the devil is almost always depicted in red or in red clothes. Red is one of the few colors mentioned fairly often in the bible, which might be an answer to that. I’ll quote two well known ones, the first one about the “Whore of Babylon” and the second one about sin:
And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness; and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns.
And the woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls. She held in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. On her forehead a mysterious name was written: Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth. (Revelation 17:3)
“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD, “Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
But what does this mean? Does the bible tell us that the color of red is devilish in itself? Or is it possibly used by the devil because the scarlet red was associated with riches and power to people at the time? During biblical times the scarlet red was a very expensive and difficult color to achieve, and only worn by the fortunate. Did the Whore of Babylon “dress in purple and scarlet” to glam the people meeting her, manifesting power and hierarchy with it?
“Whore of Babylon”, illustration from Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament, 1534. Workshop of Lucas Cranach.
Also the color red is almost impossible to wash out once dyed (especially scarlet). Can this be a reason why it was used in the bible to symbolize the concept of sin – that even red can be turned back to white if you put your faith in Christ.
The holy ones in red
Pope Sixtus, pope during 1521-1590. Unknown artist
Scarlet has symbolized wealth and power, both politically and religiously, since even before ancient Bible times. This color, second only to purple, was a status symbol in the mighty Roman Empire and officers in Rome’s army wore cloaks dyed in it as well as high-ranking non-military people. The production of the dyeing of scarlet was a very expensive and painstaking procedure and could only be afforded by the very wealthy at the time.
Since the late 13th century Roman Cardinals, who are high-level religious leaders in the Catholic Church, use scarlet for their ecclesiastical clothing. The pope is even today dressed in red – especially his cap Camauro and in the papal red shoes.
Jesus Christ in art during the late medieval and early modern period is frequently portrayed in a robe in red. This plays rather unwell with the notion that red is always a devilish color. In this context in fact, red symbolizes the divine. The color blue is during history often connected the Virgin Mary – we often find her depicted in a blue robe, symbolizing piety, faith and chastity. But in fact the color blue in sakral contexts is a color that represents the secular earth, while red represents the divine. This is why we see Jesus often in a red robe (he is divinity) and sometimes cloaked in blue (secular earthly world). Virgin Mary on the opposite is often dressed in blue (she a earthly woman) but can be seen robed in red (divinity).
“Last Judgement” by Stefan Lochner, c. 1435.
“Resurrection” by Dirk Bouts, 1455
“Christ Appearing to His Mother”, by Follower of Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1475
“God, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist.” Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432
The commoner in red
I often come upon the claim that red was a color only for the rich and privileged during the late medieval and renaissance period. But yet we find it to be a very popular and common color among the every day man, especially during the 16th century. How is that possible?
The claim that red was only used by the rich is simply not completely true. Achieving different shades of red in textiles during the medieval period started to become common and fairly easy. It all depended on which kind of of red you wanted. The extremely expensive and exclusive version of red was Scarlet (made from extremely high amount of shells). But during the middle ages we get the the less rich red in the Madder dye:
By the 13th century, madder was being cultivated on a fairly large scale in Europe […] In the middle ages, Charlemagne encouraged madder cultivation. It grew well in the sandy soils of the Netherlands and became an important part of the local economy. (Source).
The madder reds became very common in Europe and a highly popular color during the renaissance, being a way for commoners to imitate the more expensive reds of the higher classes.
“The wedding dance”, Pieter Bruegel the elder, 1566.
Different kinds of reds was defined through what people called it. For example, there is about 20 different names for shades of red that were used in early modern Britain. A lot of the names are quite… fleshy. (The dates are for when they were first known or when they were notably fashionable):
- Bristol Red – 1500-1580; 1550-80: (a “pleasant” red)
- Scarlet – 1522 (bright red)
- Redds – 1522
- Crimson – 1522 (red)
- Murrey – 1522 (mulberry colour) 1550-80 (purplish red)
- Carnation – 1547-53; 1550-80: (resembling the colour Raw Flesh)
- Incarnate – 1547-53; 1550-80 (raw flesh red)
- Horseflesh – 1559 (possibly a very dark flesh red, like raw horsemeat)
- Blod – 1547-53 (blood red)
- Sangyn – 1550-80 (sanguine; blood red)
- Ox-Blood – 1550-80
- Ruby – 1554
- Gingerline – 1595 (reddish violet)
- Lustie-Gallant – 1550-80: (light red)
- Strammel – 1575 (red)
- Amaranth – 1550-80 (a reddish purple)
- Pink – 1522
- Maide’s Blush – 1590 (rose color)
- Ham-Color – 1550-80 (possibly the light red of ham)
- Soppes-in-Wine — 1559 (it used to be normal to put soppes, pieces of toast or stale bread, in wine, so since all wines are reds, this is probably a lightened shade of wine). (Source)
What we today might simply call “a red”, had historically many different names and therefor also possibly many different meanings simply due to who wore it and how.
Martin Luther in red
What actually inspired me to write this entire entry on the color red, was reading that Martin Luther, infamous for wearing black, personally wore a lot of red (97, Rublack). This made me rethink the symbolism of color and how red must have meant truly different things, depending on who wore it. Rublack concludes that “Luthers choice of scarlet clothing also reflects the increasing sartorial distinction that scholars had begun to raise their status”. (98, Rublack).
And when I started looking for Luther in red, I ended up it finding sneaky red garments in quite a lot of depictions of him that I had not thought about earlier:
Double Portrait of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon (1543)
Martin Luther in the bible of Hans Plock.
Collage of reformators, 1540., from the bible of Hans Plock
Magdeburg commemoration woodcut of Martinus Lutherus (1546)
It seems Luther really did feel fly in red.
I am honestly not sure if this entry made me any wiser when it comes to this alluring color, dear readers. Maybe we can come to the conclusion that the color red have and always will fascinate, be fashionable and attractive in our eyes despite the symbolism behind it or who wears it. And that the color of red historically did not come in just one shade, but in plenty.
→ “Dressing Up – Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe”, by Ulinka Rublack.
→ Fabric colors in English renaissance
→ The bible.
Suggested further reading, for the curious:
→ Secret history of red
→ Historical overview of dyes, dying and fabric colors in the renaissance