12 Facts from Red: The History of a Color

RedOver the years, the color red has represented many things, from the life force and the divine to love, lust, and anger. Throughout the Middle Ages, this vibrant color held a place of privilege in the Western world. For many cultures, red was not just one color, but rather the only color worthy enough to be used for social purposes. In this beautifully illustrated book, Michel Pastoureau, the acclaimed author of Blue, Black, and Green, illuminates red’s evolution through a diverse selection of images that include the cave paintings of Lascaux, Renaissance masters, and the modern paintings and stained glass of Mark Rothko and Josef Albers. How much do you know about the history and symbolism of red?

In many languages, the same word can mean “red,” “beautiful,” and “colorful” all at once. Coloratus in classical Latin and colorado in modern Castilian can both mean “red,” or simply “colored.”

In Russian, the word for “red” shares a common root with the word for “beautiful.” Krasnyy and krasivy respectively.

The image of a white, somber Greece, inherited from historians and theoreticians of neoclassicism, is false. The Greeks made use of vivid, contrasting colors.

Vases with red figures appeared in Athens abut 530-520 BCE, presenting a background painted uniformly black with figures worked in relief that took the red color of the clay upon firing. The drawings were more precise than what had come before, the realism greater, and the subjects more varied.

In ancient Rome, cinnabar was a popular medium for making red despite its high price and dangerous nature—it is a powerful poison. For example, it was present throughout Pompeii in wall painting.

Dyeing, like painting, was first achieved in ranges of red.

Henna is a bush that grows in warm regions whose leaves when dried and reduced to a powder provide a colorant for dyeing in red or in reddish brown.

Throughout their history, Roman dyers seem to have been most skilled in the range of reds, purples, oranges, and yellows. Celtic and German dyers were most successful with greens and blues.

The flag of the Crusades was white with a red cross, symbolically representing the blood of Christ and representing the blood that the soldiers were willing to spill to free the Holy Lands.

In the Middle Ages, judges were most often dressed in red, the color of their delegated power and their function: to state the law and render judgments in the place king, prince, city or state. The angel who expelled Adam and Even from Paradise was depicted in red clothing: an angelic dispenser of justice.

In the medieval period, red was both feminine and masculine—virile and full of grace. On the feminine side, it represented love, radiance, and beauty. For men, it was the color of courage and power.

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For more on the history and symbolism of this vibrant color, read Red: The History of a Color. You can also enter our giveaway for a chance to win a copy, and be sure to share your red photos with us on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #PUPRed.

Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études de la Sorbonne in Paris. A specialist in the history of colors, symbols, and heraldry, he is the author of many books, including Red: The History of a Color.