Lovely Blueness


Just the other day Jim Elkins made me aware of a very fine text on blue written by Colm Tóibín.

 In 2004 Colm Tóibín curated an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin called ‘Blue’ which consisted of blue objects from the collection. The following passages are derived from In Lovely Blueness: Adventures in Troubled Light, Tóibín’s introductory essay to the exhibition:

[…] Blue comes to us through silence and mystery and much argument. The word we use to describe blueness was not in every language, or arrived later than words for white and black, red and yellow and green. In ancient Greek, as far as we can make out, the word for black may have been the same as the word for blue. In modern Catalan the word for blue (blau; blava in the feminine) is the same as the word for bruise, deriving from the Latin word for bruise, blavus. No one now believes that Roman and Greek eyes were too primitive to see the colour blue, but it was not an essential term in the lexicography of colour and, with the exception of work in mosaic and in some illustration, it was not used as one of the central colours in Greek or Roman art.

[…] Blue mostly came from far away. Woad was made in the brutish north and frightened Julius Caesar (‘Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horribiliores sunt in pugna aspectu’); indigo came from India; lapis lazuli from the east. Blue, for the most part, was distant and expensive and somehow, for the Greeks and the Romans, it was associated with barbarians, some of whom had blue eyes and others blue robes. The main colours in which the Greeks and Romans worked were black and white, red and yellow. In the late Middle Ages, red robes were the most expensive.

Tóibín continues showing us how names of colors have changed through history, and he points out how difficult it is to translate color names both over languages and time. e.g: ‘The emphasis on colour intensity,’ Michel Pastoureau writes in Blue, ‘led medieval people to perceive colour very differently than we do now: for the dyer or painter, and for their clients and publics, heavily saturated colour was often seen (or imagined) as closer to another bright colour than it was to a weaker, less concentrated tone of the same colour.’

[…] for both Western and Arabic writers, colour was subservient to light. Boethius said that colour was an accident. Scholars such as Averroes made light a far more important structural concept than colour, believing that the colours of art were finite while the colours of nature infinite. These theories of colour and light would lead to Goethe’s most beautiful phrase: ‘Colour is troubled light.’

[…] ‘With a new social order,’ Michel Pastoureau writes, ‘came a new order of colours.’ […]  Part of the reason for the growth in blue’s popularity was progress in France and England in the cultivation of woad and improvement in dyeing techniques. ‘In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries,’ Michel Pastoureau writes, ‘blue at long last became a first-rate beautiful colour – the colour of Mary and royalty, and thus the rival of red. During the following four or five hundred years, these two colours shared the preeminent position over all others and in many spheres formed a partnership of contrast: red versus blue meant the festive versus the moral, the material versus the spiritual, the near versus the far, the masculine versus the feminine.’ By the late fourteenth century the French poet Guillaume de Machaut could write: ‘He who would rightly judge colours and pronounce their true meaning, must place before all others beautiful blue.’

 A century later, map makers began to make water blue instead of green.

For an avid student of blue like me, Tóibín’s essay is a true treasure!


Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)
Oil on canvas, 46,5 x 40 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague

(Question to self: How come I think of Vermeer’s painting of the girl with a pearl earring as a blue painting?)


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Rebecca H. says:

    Of course Toibin wrote about the color blue! Apparently every great writer does at some point 🙂

    1. Sigrun says:

      Its a great text – just what I was looking for (without knowing it…)

  2. Arti says:

    Glad to read your post about this Interesting Colm Tóibín article. I’m now all curious… anyone wrote about grey? That’s what we’re having… grey and white. What a coincident, I’m pondering on grey and blue too. 🙂

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