10 facts about the color black

Black—favorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists—has always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad. In this beautiful and richly illustrated book, the acclaimed author of Blue, Red, and Green tells the fascinating social history of the color black in Europe. 

Here are ten facts from the book about black:

When Isaac Newton discovered the color spectrum in 1665, he presented a new order of colors in which there would no longer be a place for white or black. This thinking continued for centuries.  

In the Medieval period, painters and dyers did not make purple by mixing blue and red, rather by mixing blue and black; purple was a sort of demi-black.

In Medieval Europe, white is the color of priests, red the color of warriors, and black is the color of artisans.

In the Upper Paleolithic period, humans learned how to make black pigment by burning plants and minerals. Depending on the original material—woods, barks, roots, shells, pits—the shade of black would be more or less brilliant and more or less dense. When they learned how to burn bone in a similar fashion, they had access to even more beautiful blacks.

The most prized black pigment by the Romans was from vines, obtained through the calcination of very dry vine shoots that gave the color depth and blue highlights.

In Latin caeruleus can refer to both blue and black. Viridis can refer to green and black.

Medieval heraldry used only six colors: white, yellow, red, blue, green, and black. Black could be found in 20-25% of European coats of arms. Red was the most common color and green, the rarest.

It was lawyers, judges, and magistrates who popularized black as a color for clothing in early 14th century Europe. Prior to that, black was the color of Satan and fear, but it came to be seen as a color of sobriety and gravitas. By the end of the century, merchants, bankers, and all men of finance had also adopted black as their chosen color for attire.

Early inks following the appearance of Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid 15th century contained linseed oil to make it heavy and viscous enough to adhere to the paper; iron or copper sulfate to give it a brilliant black color; and metallic salts to facilitate its drying.

While the Age of Enlightenment was characterized by a near universal retreat from dark colors throughout much of Europe and embrace of bright colors and pastels, Protestant morals in Northern Europe forbade too vivid or frivolous colors—black prevailed there.

Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études de la Sorbonne in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton) and The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes.

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.

Announcing Red: The History of a Color

In Red: The History of a Color, Michel Pastoureau writes that to speak of the “color red” is almost a redundancy. The “archetypal color”—and the first that humans mastered and reproduced for painting and dyeing—red has conjured courtly love, danger, beauty, power, politics, and hell. From the paleolithic age through Greco-Roman antiquity to the present, red has represented many things, so many, in fact, that in several languages, the word means “beautiful” and “colorful” at once.

In this gorgeously illustrated book, Pastoureau, the acclaimed author of Blue, Black, and Green, now masterfully navigates centuries of symbolism and complex meanings to present the fascinating and sometimes controversial history of the color red. Take a tour of Red: The History of a Color, and read on about two upcoming giveaways.

For a chance to win one of three copies up for grabs, enter our Goodreads Valentine’s giveaway, which will be running from February 1 to February 28. And for a second chance to win, share your own creative red photos with us on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #PUPRed—we’ll be giving another book away to a random participant on Valentine’s day.