On Being Blue

William Gass is the author of "On Being Blue" and the forthcoming essay collection "Tests of Time."

As a color in our culture, blue was slow to assert itself. Perhaps, as Michel Pastoureau conjectures, although it was certainly present in the natural world, early people had difficulty making use of it, while red, white and black offered themselves more agreeably. However, color itself--indeed all sensory qualities--received short shrift from the thinkers we know about, who apparently prized whatever you could put a number to and consequently looked for weight, shape and size to constitute the serious form of things, rather than such evanescent predicates. Reality, for the pre-Socratic philosophers and many later ones, was colorless, and the atomists said that what fell through space when their alleged particles did were as purely figural as the cube, sphere and pyramid.

The fact that fabrics offer the best clues to the function and status of color in a society, as Pastoureau argues, is, in a sense, a perfect reflection of the philosophers’ attitude, for fabrics drape and clothe, swaddle and cover things, just as dyes hide the natural condition of cotton or wool and tanning produces leather. Paint, too, is but a cosmetic, whether it gilds a girl or a statue of Pallas Athena. Colors (and other qualities) befool and delight the masses, another ground for mistrust. Churchmen, such as Bishop Claude of Turin (9th century) or St. Bernard (of the 12th), took the cosmetic metaphor literally, considering color to be as material as rouge and therefore vile. Although blue was difficult to process and expensive to use and consequently was neglected by Greek and Roman societies, it has covered a lot of ground and overcome many obstacles to reach its present preeminence. Pastoureau’s book is a clearly written and beautifully documented history of that ascension.

It is not uncommon for color words to slide a little along the spectrum, so that when a word such as glaukos , often found in Homer, is applied to something gray in one context while in another designates a yellow or a blue, it may be because it is actually referring to something weakly changeable such as “water, eyes, leaves, or honey.” Consequently, colors called blue sometimesweren’t. Guilt or honor by association was apparently the linguistic rule, and blue kept bad company. Pliny said that Breton women painted their bodies dark blue (if you say so) when they were about to engage in orgiastic rites (no kidding), therefore blue was a color of shame and to be shunned by the decent (good to know).

If color was an aspect of light (contrary to the Claude-Bernard camp), it had to be--like light--visible (a part of the world) and immaterial (an emissary from heaven). Improvements in stained glass seemed to solidify this union, as greens and yellows and reds streamed onto cathedral floors and rose up the sides of their columns. In the early 1100s, Abbot Sugar installed “painting, stained glass, enamel, fabric, gems, metalwork, and gilding” in his reconstructed abbey at Saint-Denis, uniting blue with gold “to evoke the splendor of creation” and encouraging envious imitation. Nothing was too good for the houses of God. Moreover, in many corners of Catholicism, money was coming in.


To rise in the church was to rise in the world. Blue’s increasingly important sacred status affected its secular one. Blue was no longer confined to commoners’ clothing. The blue perfected by the craftsmen at Saint-Denis showed up at Chartres and Sainte-Chapelle. The Virgin Mary began favoring it--even before the Lord’s light gave her divinity. By the time the 12th century had grown a beard, the Virgin’s blue robes had become an iconic requirement. During the Baroque period, gold became her fashion statement. After Pius IX promulgated the doctrine of Immaculate Conception in 1854, however, she was dressed in white again, as she often had been in the beginning. Nonetheless, Mary’s wardrobe had taken blue from its place in shadowy backgrounds and let it play among items not only instrumental to the Lord but designed for ordinary daily use.

Royalty, over time, and as a sign of its increasing importance, began to assume blue as its own--the French royal line leading the way with fleurs-de-lis in an azure field. Coats of arms increasingly included blue in their designs, dress codes were re-encrypted and the red or black knight that might confront a traveler on the other side of a bridge starts to yield--in stories--to a blue one. At first indeterminate, such armor eventually signified a resolute fidelity, but the faith beneath the metal was feudal, not religious.

As dyes improved, more and more monarchies succumbed to the charms of the new color, although the Germans and Italians were initially resistant. “By the end of the Middle Ages, even in Germany and Italy, blue had become the color of kings, princes, nobles, and patricians, while red remained the emblematic and symbolic color of Imperial power and the papacy.”

Appropriately the merchants of madder, the chief source of red dye, were soon in violent conflict with dealers in woad, a plant of the mustard family which was the main supplier of blue before indigo arrived from the Americas. In madder-making centers like Magdeburg, “hell was painted blue in frescoes in order to associate the rival color with death and pain.” Despite such underhanded tricks, by the end of the Middle Ages, woad had triumphed. Even so, no one then could possibly have imagined that IBM (Big Blue) would signify the final crowning of the color.

The manufacture of blue dyes from woad was complex and tedious. Among other steps, it required the use of clear clean water, and that put the dyers at odds with the tanners, whose need for purity was similar but whose tendency to contaminate was the dyers’ equal. The authorities eventually kicked them both out of town and made them pollute downriver.

Despite our problematic acquaintance with the Creator, we still knew his will. Among other things, we were not to mix what nature kept separate--not meaning fire and ice but blue and yellow, for example. Those whose work tended to mess with matter--painters, apothecaries, alchemists, blacksmiths, dyers--were warily eyed, as if their skills, however desirable, made them akin to the satanic. Pastoureau’s text moves us through one fascinating area of activity after another. In these homely practices, far from the so-called historic center of things, we can often comprehend, far more deeply than in grander precincts, a people’s cast of mind. The dyer’s craft was believed to require the union of “dead” minerals with “living” plants; so the dyer’s care for his tools and utensils, his methods of manufacture and conditions of work were driven as much by a concern over unnatural results as by profit and pride.

The subtle interaction of the chemistry of color with its social and political significance was sufficiently dynamic by the late Middle Ages to drive red from the throne and supplant its chromatic triad of white-red-black with black-white, blue-red, green-yellow. When black became the taste in formal clothes, it encouraged navy. Blue couldn’t lose. Similar changes were taking place in music and the other arts. Latin was losing ground. Moralizing was on the rise. The printing press was being inked.

Colors were used to mark marginal figures whose bright clothes gave fair warning that a usurer or a minstrel was approaching, a leper or a Jew; however, shades of blue were never so employed, rather red, green or yellow, alone or together, were used in such service. “Blue” is full of delicious lists: the striped clothing assigned to prostitutes in London, the yellow scarf worn by them in Venice (1487), green in Bologna (1456), their black cloaks in Milan (1498), their billowy green and yellow sleeves in Seville.


The Reformation was sour-eyed. The fact that we had to wear clothes at all was a sign of Adam’s fall, so if we called attention to our dress with any sort of embellishment or flamboyance, we were mocking the first sin itself. Black would do well to demonstrate its wearer’s humility. Life itself was a penance. Writing went in the same direction, adapting itself quite successfully to the new scientific spirit while dropping adornment and indulgences. A pale and prosy John Locke replaced the pithy rhetorical roll of Thomas Hobbes.

Policy devices designed to protect madder from woad (ranging from price supports to the pain of death) were attempted again in the 17th century to save woad from its competition with indigo, and the pathetic failures of such schemes offer us a lesson for our own times. In turn, indigo’s rule was over when chemists began creating colors like Prussian blue in tubes.

Goethe’s “Theory of Colors” placed blue at the active pole of his chromatic system, with yellow at the weak and colder end, but he had already wildly increased the social demand for blue by giving Werther, the romantic hero of his popular novel, a blue dress coat and a yellow vest that were widely copied. Unfortunately, in the grip of Werthermania, suicides among the lovelorn (who had “the blues”) also multiplied. The blue in flags and uniforms (which allowed the color to fight in literal wars), in jeans (a democratic garb which downplayed its own significance), as the Gauloise hue, even of the Earth from far away in a black sky: these examples bring Pastoureau’s history to an almost hurried close, since the focus of this book is on blue’s storied past and not on an anecdotal present.

The jacket, cover and end-papers of this luscious book are appropriately blue; its double-columned text breathes easily in the space of its pages; it is so well sewn it opens flat at any place; and fascinating, aptly chosen color plates, not confined to the title color, will please even those eyes denied the good luck of being blue. *