French historian Michel Pastoureau, whose Blue: The History of a Color has just been re-released to English-speaking audiences, is one of our age's great librarians of civilization. On its surface, Blue is a dull exercise in scholarly record keeping—but in fact, it is an exhilarating and richly informing book on how the European peoples from the Iron Age until today have decorated themselves and their cultural artefacts with the color blue.
Pastoureau argues that the color blue is both a naturally occurring phenomenon and a complex cultural construct which is “first and foremost a social phenomenon.” His impressive scholarly narrative does not fall prey to postmodernism's worse excesses; Blue offers a coherent raison d'être behind Western history, no matter how that story is colored.
Blue was once little-known in the Western palette. Homer's sea was “wine dark”; blue would not be used as water's color until the seventeenth century. It has evolved from its original association with warmth, heat, barbarism, and the creatures of the underworld, to its current association with calm, peace, and reverie. Like the unruly green, the Romans associated blue with the savage Celtae and Germani, who used the woad herb's rich leaves for their blue pigments. These northern barbarians also painted themselves blue before war and religious rituals. The ancient Germans, according to Ovid, even dyed their whitening hair blue.
The Romans, in contrast, preferred the color red—the Latin word, “coloratus” was synonymous with that for red, ruber. The Romans and Greeks did import lapis lazuli, the exquisite blue rock, from exotic locals such as China, Iran, and Afghanistan. But neither used the barbaric blue for important figures or images, saving it for the backgrounds for white and red figures. Even the Greek words for blue, like the names of colors in the Bible, largely were meant to evoke certain states or feelings as opposed to exact visual colors. Blue, like green, was the color of death and barbarism. The nobler colors—white, red, and black—were preferred.
The barbaric tribes that ushered in the Dark Ages after Rome's fall brought their love of woad-extracted blue into the newly formed Germanic kingdoms. But their ascendant Christian kings adopted Roman trappings: blue gave way to red, at least among the upper class, who delegated blue (along with vegetable consumption) to the peasantry. In its first thousand years, the Catholic Church also largely ignored blue, adopting white, a symbol of purity, holiness, and Christ's resurrection, as the color for liturgical worship and dress.