November in Sydney is all about the colour purple. Overhead, the
jacarandas are in full bloom and, when the wind gusts through, many of those
blooms are blown to the ground to form a soft purple carpet underfoot.
In the ancient and early medieval world, the dye known as “royal purple”
was prepared from the secretions of the predatory Murex snail. The snail is
still found in the shallow, coastal waters of the Mediterranean and its
harvesting for the dyers’ “palate” has been documented to at least as far back
as the Phoenicians. However, as between 10,000 and 12,000 murex were needed to
produce one gram of purple dye, it was an expensive process and the resulting
product was very highly prized. Thus purple became limited in its use to the
preparation of cloth for the garments of the wealthiest in society. And it was
a very short step from there to purple’s association with royalty. By the
Middle Ages the “royal purple” was being replaced by (dark) blue as the royal
colour of choice because of the difficulties in securing regular supplies of
the murex purple.
With all of this in mind, I quite like the irony of seeing common garden snails inching their way across my backyard’s purple jacaranda carpet: this time, the snails are “on” the colour purple, not “in” it.
A post inspired by ‘Seeing Green: A Philadelphia Story‘ by Yeah, Another Blogger
Our English word for the colour ‘green’ comes from the Old
English word grene which has the same
word root as that of the words grass and
grow. It’s no surprise, then, that we
associate green with nature and new life. Similarly, in the Middle Ages, the
colour green – with its profuse representation in the natural world – was a
potent symbol of the beauty of God’s creation. God’s promise of hope, fertility,
and abundance was renewed each year as people witnessed the green shoots of
Spring pushing through the cold, hard earth of Winter.
The great 12th century abbess and visionary,
Hildegard of Bingen, seems to have had quite a fondness for the colour green.
Firstly, there is her detailed knowledge of, and admiration for, the plants and
herbs of her locality which she used in healing medicines and ointments for her
nuns and others needing treatment. Then, there are the green-themed ‘upmarket’
remedies that Hildegard recommended: She regarded the emerald as the “jewel of
jewels” for treating many ailments – heart and stomach problems, headaches,
even epilepsy. The emerald’s efficacy was due to its excessive greenness which,
for her and others of the time, signified that it had absorbed all the green
goodness of the natural world as it sprang back to new life each Spring. The
emerald was not necessarily ingested, however; just wearing it as a charm or
drinking some wine in which it had been placed was considered effective. (No
doubt many of us would agree that wearing an emerald might make us feel better!).
Hildegard also evoked greenness in relation to spirituality. She used the word viriditas (from the Latin meaning
‘greeness’) to describe the vitality, verdant beauty, and potential for growth
of the human soul.
Not everyone saw green as a positive force, however. Some
medieval churchmen were wary of the colour precisely because of its association
with the natural world. That is, some saw green as representative of the
pre-Christian religions that worshipped nature, and found their meaning in the renewal
and abundance that the seasons brought. The medieval ‘Green Man’, depicted with
his face and head surrounded by foliage, is a motif often found carved into
medieval (English) churches. His incorporation into Christianity points to the
way that the Church often managed to ‘neutralise’ the power of the Old
Religions by appropriating their symbols. Some scholars think that the rise –
in literature if not in fact – of the legendary outlaw, Robin Hood (topic for a
later post), and his distinctive green clothing, was associated with some
people’s yearning for a return to the old forms of worship.
The beauty of the colour green, however, overshadowed the
negative associations and it was a popular choice in the illuminated
manuscripts of the time. But it was tricky to make. The naturally occurring
earth and plant greens were not lightfast and so a mix of the more sturdy
primary colours – yellow and blue – gave the best effect. Or, sometimes,
verdigris – made from the blue-green rust of copper – was a good alternative
but, again, the green colour thus-produced tended to darken over time.
Actually, it was not until the 18th century that a vivid green was produced; and, unfortunately, as it was made by mixing copper with arsenic, it was a dangerous hue, considered responsible for the deaths of many, possibly even Napoleon Bonaparte who had a penchant for green (arsenic-based) wallpaper in his palaces. It was not until the early 20th century that a vivid and safe green was produced. As that great philosopher Kermit the Frog so often said: “It’s not easy being green”.