Bible By Colour – Part One

Two years ago, the former minister of Gants Hill United Reformed Church asked me to write a series of articles about the importance of certain colours in the Christian Bible. How often are colours mentioned, and do they have a particular meaning in scripture? We know that a rainbow of colours was symbolic. In Genesis 9:13, a rainbow symbolised God’s promise that he would never flood the earth again. In Ezekiel 1:27, a rainbow represented the glory of God. Revelation 4:3 records John’s witness of the same rainbow as Ezekiel, but he also saw one above the head of a “mighty angel” who carried a book about the events to occur at the end of time.

The modern understanding of a rainbow was established by Isaac Newton (1643-1727), who divided up the visible wavelengths of light (colours) into seven groups. These are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Yet, there is a continuum of colours that fall between these categories.

Red

Red is one of the three primary colours (the others are yellow and blue) and appears on 75% of national flags. In contemporary times, red is associated with several things; for example, when seen on a traffic light or road sign, it means “stop”. Red is one of the colours used to describe fire, which can have both positive and negative connotations. Fire brings warmth and a means of cooking, but on the other hand, it can also signify danger.

In astronomy, Mars is known as the Red Planet, and on Jupiter, there is a Great Red Spot. There are stars known as red giants, red supergiants and red dwarfs. The sky occasionally turns red during sunset or sunrise. This has led to the saying, “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.” It was believed a red sky signified an approaching storm. The original phrase, however, comes from the Gospel of Matthew:

“He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” (Matthew 16:2-3, NIV)

Red is one of the autumnal colours that appear on leaves during the lead up to winter. This associates the colour with the end of life; however, it can also represent new life with its appearance in fruit, such as cranberries, apples, cherries and raspberries. Elsewhere in nature, the colour red appears on many woodland creatures, for example, red foxes, red squirrels, robins, grouse, redwings and red setters. 

Human blood is red, which symbolises both life (i.e. we need blood to live) and death (in terms of blood being spilt). Two per cent of the world’s population has naturally red hair. The term redhead, or redd hede as it was originally spelt, has been in use since around 1510.

In human and animal behaviour, red sometimes indicates dominance. Wearing red has been linked with success and enhanced performance, especially in sport. Although a more controlled test of this theory suggests this is not entirely true.

Other meanings that the colour red connotes are love (i.e. red roses on Valentine’s day), celebration and ceremony (red carpet), Christmas (Santa Claus), anger (“seeing red”), seduction (red lipstick) and sexuality (red-light district). 

In the New International Version of the Bible, the word “red” appears at least fifty times, although some translations use “red” more broadly. There is a wide spectrum of colours, and red is only one small section. Either side of red are similar colours, such as scarlet and crimson, which have separate mentions and meanings in the Bible – at least in the NIV.

On more than one occasion, the colour red is used symbolically to indicate sin or sinfulness. When Israel attacked the wicked Moabites, the “water looked red – like blood.” (2 Kings 3:22) When the city of Nineveh fell, Nahum tells us, “The shields of the soldiers are red.” (Nahum 2:3). 

The prophet Ezekiel wrote about a prostitute, a sinner who lusted after a group of men of whom a sketch was drawn on a wall in red. “But she carried her prostitution still further. She saw men portrayed on a wall, figures of Chaldeans portrayed in red.” (Ezekiel 23:14) An interesting thing to note here is the colour red was the first pigment to be used in art. In this instance, it may be a coincidence that the drawing was in the same colour as one representative of sin.

In Zechariah 1, the prophet heard the Lord was very angry with his ancestors. Later on that day, Zechariah had a vision: “During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.” (Zechariah 1:8) The prophet recorded another vision of red horses in Zechariah 6:2. 

Another red horse is mentioned in Revelation 6:4 as a sign of war, bloodshed and the end times: “Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.”

A red dragon is used as a similar symbol but also represents Satan’s power and determination to bring about destruction: “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads.” (Revelation 12:13)

Other mentions of red in relation to the end times are:

  1. Revelation 6:12: I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red.
  2. Revelation 9:17: The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulphur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulphur.

Proverbs 23:31 says, “Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly!” This is a warning about the temptation of sin. It may look good but it will have its repercussions. In the book of Job, the colour red is a sign of sorrow, grief and distress. “My face is red with weeping, dark shadows ring my eyes.” (Job 16:16)

Red is also a symbol of death. The Red Sea, which lies between Africa and Asia on the edge of the Indian Ocean, has claimed many people’s lives. Today, the Red Sea is bordered by Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It is approximately 1400 miles in length and about 220 miles wide.

The most famous Bible passage involving the Red Sea takes place in the book of Exodus. Moses rescued the Israelites from Egypt by parting the waters of the Red Sea. When Pharaoh and his army tried to cross, God caused the waters to return to normal, drowning the entire army.

  1. Exodus 13:18: So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.
  2. Exodus 15:4: Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea. The best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned in the Red Sea.

The Red Sea is also mentioned in the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 Kings, Nehemiah, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Acts and Hebrews. 

On a couple of occasions, Biblical characters are given names that mean “red”. “The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau.” (Genesis 25:25) “He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)” (Genesis 25:30)

At least three verses of the Bible mention items being dyed or decorated red. The significance of this, if there is one, is uncertain.

  1. Exodus 25:5: ram skins dyed red and another type of durable leather; acacia wood.
  2. Exodus 26:14: Make for the tent a covering of ram skins dyed red, and over that a covering of the other durable leather.
  3. Jeremiah 22:14: He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the colour red is associated with the fire of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit. It has also been the colour worn by the Cardinals since 1295. In general, red is the colour of Christ’s blood and, therefore, a symbol of his crucifixion. At Christmas, red tape or ribbon is used during Christingle services to represent the blood. The flags of some historically Christian nations still bear a red cross. 

Crimson and Scarlet

The New International Version of the Bible frequently uses the words “crimson” and “scarlet” when other newer versions may use “red”. In the original Hebrew text, there were several other ways to describe a reddish hue. Three of these words are now translated as “crimson”. They are karmity, which means deep red; tola, the maggot from which the dye is derived; and shaniy. The term “scarlet” is a translation of the Greek word Kokkinos, which refers to the shape of the insect from which the dye is extracted.

Crimson is a strong red colour that slightly inclines towards purple on the colour wheel. The colour was originally produced using the dried bodies of the kermes insect found in Mediterranean countries.

In Polish, crimson or Karmazyn is another name for a nobleman. People of high nobility often wore crimson robes. Poland is also one of two countries that have the colour crimson on their national flags – the other country is Nepal. In Denmark, the Grand Hussar Regiment wears a crimson jacket as part of its ceremonial uniform. The King’s Royal Hussars in the British Army still wear crimson trousers, giving themselves the nickname “Cherrypickers”. Likewise, in the USA crimson is the colour of the Ordnance Corps.

The plant rhubarb is poetically referred to as “crimson stalks” for obvious reasons. The crimson sunbird is the national bird of Singapore. In Australia, there is a species of parrot known as the crimson rosella. Occasionally, in places such as Mexico and Florida, a crimson tide occurs when certain algae turn the water red.

In some religions, such as the Bahá’í Faith, crimson stands for tests and sacrifice. But where does it appear in the Bible?

The Second Book of Chronicles, chapter two, tells us about King Solomon’s plans to build a temple in Jerusalem. He requested the help of King Hiram of Tyre, with whom he wished to continue the friendly relationship King David had established. The people of Tyre were known for their dyeing industry, particularly for using crimson and purple dyes. Solomon requested Hiram to send him a man who could assist with the decoration of the temple.

  1. 2 Chronicles 2:7: Send me, therefore, a man skilled to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, and in purple, crimson and blue yarn, and experienced in the art of engraving, to work in Judah and Jerusalem with my skilled workers, whom my father David provided.
  2. 2 Chronicles 2:14: whose mother was from Dan and whose father was from Tyre. He is trained to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, stone and wood, and with purple and blue and crimson yarn and fine linen. He is experienced in all kinds of engraving and can execute any design given to him. He will work with your skilled workers and with those of my lord, David your father.
  3. 2 Chronicles 3:14: He made the curtain of blue, purple and crimson yarn and fine linen, with cherubim worked into it.

Thus, the colour crimson is associated with the Temple and praising God.

There are only two other mentions of the word “crimson” in the NIV Bible, and they are both found in the book of Isaiah. In chapter 63, Isaiah writes about God’s day of vengeance and redemption. The first verse says: “Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendour, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? ‘It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.’” In this verse, crimson is a sign of splendour and victory, but in an earlier chapter, crimson means something entirely different. It is also an example that distinguishes crimson and scarlet as two separate colours:

Isaiah 1:18 (NIV): “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

In this example, both crimson and scarlet represent sin. It may not be the colours themselves that denote sin but rather the fact they have obscured the purity of the original whiteness of the snow and wool. 

Scarlet lies somewhere between red and orange on the colour wheel, making it weaker than crimson. Nonetheless, the same insects originally produced the scarlet dye. Synthetic scarlet is often called cadmium red and was the standard red of many artists during the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 20th century, scarlet became associated with revolution. It appeared on revolutionary emblems as a symbol of the blood of martyrs in the French Revolution. It also became the colour of communism, used on the Soviet Union’s flag and is still used on the Chinese flag. In China, red is also a symbol of happiness.

Scarlet is the colour of the traditional academic dress of doctorate students in the United Kingdom. The Foot Guards and Life Guards also wear scarlet for ceremonial purposes. Army regiments across the world use the colour scarlet on their uniforms too. The countries that do this include Australia, Jamaica, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, Kenya, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Brazil and the USA. 

In the Roman Catholic Church, scarlet symbolises the blood of Christ and Christian martyrs. In Lutheran tradition, scarlet decorations are displayed from Palm Sunday until Maundy Thursday. Other Christians often associate scarlet with prostitution. This is partly due to the description of an adulterous woman in the Book of Revelations, sometimes referred to as the Great Scarlet Whore.

Revelation 17:3-4: Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.

As a result, cities in which prostitutes work are named “red-light districts”, and sex worker organisations have titles such as the Scarlet Alliance. The scandalous novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) uses the colour to denote adultery. 

Other negative connotations of scarlet in the book of Revelation include:

  1. Revelation 18:12: cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble.
  2. Revelation 18:16: and cry out: “Woe! Woe to you, great city, dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!”

The first time the word “scarlet” is used in the NIV is in Genesis 38 when Tamar gave birth to twins. A scarlet thread was tied around the wrist of the eldest so that they could differentiate between the two.

  1. Genesis 38:28 (NIV): As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.”
  2. Genesis 38:30 (NIV): Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah.

The colour is most frequently used in the book of Exodus concerning the construction of the Tabernacle. This connects scarlet with God, giving it an entirely different meaning in comparison to the final book of the New Testament. Between Exodus 25 and Exodus 39, the colour scarlet is mentioned over 25 times. Examples include:

  1. Exodus 26:1: Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim woven into them by a skilled worker.
  2. Exodus 26:31: Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim woven into it by a skilled worker.
  3. Exodus 28:15: Fashion a breastpiece for making decisions—the work of skilled hands. Make it like the ephod: of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen.
  4. Exodus 35:25: Every skilled woman spun with her hands and brought what she had spun—blue, purple or scarlet yarn or fine linen.

Leviticus 14 mentions scarlet yarn at least five times in the instructions for the cleansing of defiling skin diseases:

  1. Leviticus 14:4: the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the person to be cleansed.
  2. Leviticus 14:6: He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water.
  3. Leviticus 14:49: To purify the house he is to take two birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop.
  4. Leviticus 14:51: Then he is to take the cedar wood, the hyssop, the scarlet yarn and the live bird, dip them into the blood of the dead bird and the fresh water, and sprinkle the house seven times.
  5. Leviticus 14:52: He shall purify the house with the bird’s blood, the fresh water, the live bird, the cedar wood, the hyssop and the scarlet yarn.

Twice, scarlet is mentioned in the book of Numbers:

  1. Numbers 4:8: They are to spread a scarlet cloth over them, cover that with the durable leather and put the poles in place.
  2. Numbers 19:6: The priest is to take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool and throw them onto the burning heifer.

The second of these is also referenced in Hebrews 9:19. “When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people.”

Potentially the most famous mention of scarlet in the Bible occurs during the story of Rahab and the Spies. This is found in the second chapter of the book of Joshua. Rahab was a prostitute but in this story, the colour scarlet is not a reflection of her occupation. Rahab helped Joshua’s spies escape, and in return, they told her to tie a scarlet cord in her window so that when Joshua’s soldiers attack the city, she would be spared.

  1. Joshua 2:18: unless, when we enter the land, you have tied this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you have brought your father and mother, your brothers and all your family into your house.
  2. Joshua 2:2: “Agreed,” she replied. “Let it be as you say.” So she sent them away, and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window.

Other mentions of the colour scarlet in the Bible are:

  1. 2 Samuel 1:24: “Daughters of Israel,weep for Saul,who clothed you in scarlet and finery,who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.”
  2. Proverbs 31:21: When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
  3. Song of Songs 4:3: Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; our mouth is lovely. Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate.
  4. Jeremiah 4:30: What are you doing, you devastated one? Why dress yourself in scarlet and put on jewels of gold? Why highlight your eyes with makeup? You adorn yourself in vain. Your lovers despise you; they want to kill you.
  5. Nahum 2:3: The shields of the soldiers are red; the warriors are clad in scarlet. The metal on the chariots flashes on the day they are made ready; the spears of juniper are brandished.

Generally, scarlet is a colour associated with wealth and opulence. This meaning is supported with the only mention of the colour in the Gospels. “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him.”(Matthew 27:28) The “him” in this verse is Jesus, and the soldiers in the Praetorium are mocking him. They dressed him in a scarlet robe to make him look like a king. As we all know, the soldiers then crowned him with a crown of thorns and put a staff in his right hand whilst jeering, “Hail, king of the Jews!”

Despite the unfortunate connection to prostitution, both crimson and scarlet represent wealth and power, both politically and religiously. Even the verses in Revelation refer to this. By the end times, people were worshipping their wealth and power rather than God.

According to surveys across Europe and the UK, scarlet is also associated with courage, force, passion and joy. Combining this with Biblical meaning, it is ascertained that scarlet is a powerful and positive colour – crimson, too.

Yellow

There is no mention of the word orange in the Bible. The closest the Bible comes to mentioning the colour in the NIV is Revelation 21:20, which states: “the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.” According to the AUV Bible (An Understandable Bible), [sard]onyx is “an orange-coloured stone similar to chalcedony”. 

Yellow is the second of the primary colours. It is the colour of canaries, daffodils, lemons, egg yolks, buttercups and bananas. There are yellowtail fish, yellow-fever mosquitos, yellowjackets (wasps), yellow birches and yellow poplars.

The history of the colour yellow is rather intriguing. In Ancient Egypt, yellow was associated with gold, thus considered eternal and indestructible. The skin of gods was believed to be yellow, so the Egyptians used the colour yellow extensively in their tomb paintings. The ancient Romans followed suit, using yellow to represent gold and skin tone.

Yellow Star Badge

The meaning of yellow in artwork changed sometime in the centuries following the crucifixion of Jesus. In paintings of Jesus’ disciples, Judas Iscariot often wears yellow, thus the colour has become associated with betrayal, envy, jealousy and greed. From this, the tradition of depicting Jews or other non-Christians in yellow began. Whilst this practice fell out of use, it was briefly reinstated during the 20th-century when Jews living in German-occupied countries were required to wear a yellow badge featuring the Star of David.

In China, the colour yellow represents happiness and wisdom. The first Chinese emperor was known as the Yellow Emperor, and all subsequent emperors were considered a child of heaven. Only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow and, instead of a red carpet, distinguished guests were honoured with a yellow carpet.

In politics, yellow represents liberalism. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, and SNP all use yellow in their campaign materials. In the US, the Libertarian Party is recognised by the colour yellow. In Chinese history, a Daoist sect was known as the Yellow Turbans; they staged a rebellion against the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD).

Yellow has been and continues to be used to represent optimism and pleasure. It is a colour that attracts attention. Yellow is the most visible colour from a distance, and many countries have used the colour on their emergency vehicles. The RAF rescue helicopter is yellow, as are the vehicles used by the Royal Danish Air Force. The colour is frequently used as a warning; for instance, yellow (amber) traffic lights mean slow down, and a yellow card in football is a caution but not expulsion.

The colour yellow is prevalent on national flags across the world. The flags of three of the five most populous countries feature yellow: China, India and Brazil. Other countries include Germany, Bhutan, Ukraine, Belgium, Lithuania, Spain, Colombia, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mozambique, Romania, Sweden, the Vatican, the Philippines, Chad and the European Union.

Buddhist and Hindu monks usually wear yellow or saffron robes. The Hindu divinity Krishna was often portrayed in yellow, as is Lord Ganesha. In Islam, yellow is a symbol of wisdom. In the various religions of the islands of Polynesia, yellow is a sacred colour associated with the food of the gods.

In Christianity, yellow is both positive and negative. The latter relates to Judas Iscariot and the former concerns wealth and gold. Similarly, there are both negative and positive connotations of the colour yellow in the Bible. Yellow is used to describe two things; one is gold or something valuable, the other is leprosy.

In Leviticus 13, God gave Moses and Aaron regulations about diagnosing skin diseases, i.e. leprosy. This was the job of the priest, in this case, Aaron, who had to examine all suspected cases of the disease and determine whether the sufferers were unclean.

  1. Leviticus 13:30: the priest is to examine the sore, and if it appears to be more than skin deep and the hair in it is yellow and thin, the priest shall pronounce them unclean; it is a defiling skin disease on the head or chin.
  2. Leviticus 13:32: On the seventh day the priest is to examine the sore, and if it has not spread and there is no yellow hair in it and it does not appear to be more than skin deep.
  3. Leviticus 13:36: the priest is to examine them, and if he finds that the sore has spread in the skin, he does not need to look for yellow hair; they are unclean.

For examples of yellow representing gold or valuable objects, you have to compare the NIV with other versions of the Bible. Take Psalm 68:13, for instance. the NIV says: “Even while you sleep among the sheep pens, the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold.” The King James Version, on the other hand, says: “Though ye have lien among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold.”

Often, the word yellow is not cited. Instead, yellow objects or items are named. Frankincense is an off-yellow colour and is mentioned approximately 25 times in the Bible. In Matthew 2:11, one of the gifts Jesus received from the magi was Frankincense.

Many precious jewels are referenced throughout scripture. Chrysolite, a yellow gemstone, is mentioned ten times. In Revelation, chapter 21 tells us about the New Jerusalem. The city’s walls are made of jasper and the city itself from pure gold. There are to be twelve foundations, each one a different gemstone. It is here that chrysolite gets mentioned for the tenth and final time. “The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.” (Revelation 21:19-20, NIV)

The book of Revelation also contains one mention (in the NIV) of the word yellow. This occurs in chapter nine, in which John writes about the riders of the apocalypse. Verse seventeen describes the breastplates of the riders, which were “fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulphur”.

Sulphur is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, although without the colour yellow attached. As well as Revelation, the yellow chemical element appears in the books of Job, Isaiah and Luke. In each of these cases, sulphur is an indication of destruction, thus giving the colour yellow another negative connotation.

Yellow is a difficult colour to attach meaning to due to its connection with both positive and negative things. In terms of emotion, yellow is generally considered a happy, optimistic colour. Chris Martin, the lead singer from the band Coldplay, said the band wrote the song “Yellow” to reflect “the mood of the band. Brightness and hope and devotion.”  

“Look at the stars/Look how they shine for you/And everything you do/Yeah they were all yellow.”

Green

Combining all versions of the Bible, there are almost ninety mentions of the colour green, but only half of them appear in the NIV. The translator of the NIV decided that the word “pasture” was as good as “green field”, and it was not necessary to write “green trees” when “trees” would suffice.

The colour green is between yellow and blue on the visible spectrum. It is a secondary colour produced by mixing two primary colours – blue and yellow. The word “green” comes from the old English word grene, which has the same root as the words “grass” and “grow”. The majority of green we see in the world comes from nature, such as grass, trees, vegetation and so forth. 

Green is common in plants because they contain a chemical called chlorophyll, which gives them this colour. Many fish, birds and reptiles are also green and use the chlorophyll green of their surrounding environment as a means of camouflage. Green creatures include frogs, parrots, snakes and the green huntsman spider.

In Ancient Egypt, green was associated with regeneration and rebirth, but it was rarely used in their artworks. The Romans, on the other hand, connected the colour green with Venus, the goddess of gardens, vegetables and vineyards, amongst other things. As a result, green, earthy pigments featured in their artworks. By the second century AD, the Romans had at least ten different words for varieties of greens.

Van Eyck – Arnolfini Portrait

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance era, colour determined people’s rank and profession. Red was reserved for nobility and browns for peasants. Green was used for merchants, bankers, gentry and their family. For this reason, Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa wears green in her famous portrait, as does the woman in the Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441).

Green is used as a symbol for a variety of things. In terms of traffic and safety, green grants permission and announces that it is safe to proceed. In most countries, the colour is also associated with nature, health, life, springtime, freshness and hope. Due to this, it has been adopted by organisations, such as Greenpeace and the Green Party. Bins specifically for garden waste are green, and areas in cities designated as a garden or park are referred to as green areas.

In China, green is associated with the east, sunrise, life and growth. In Thailand, they connect the colour with something a little more obscure: a child born on a Wednesday. Many places relate green with youth; for instance, an inexperienced person may be called “green”. Underripe fruit is usually green.

Surveys undertaken around the world reveal that people mostly think of calmness, nature and freshness when confronted with the word green. Other suggestions are less positive, for example, jealousy and envy. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was the first to use the term “green-eyed monster” in his play, Othello, about jealousy. 

Other phrases that include the word green are:

  • Having a green thumb – being good at gardening
  • Greenhorn – an inexperienced person
  • Greenroom – a room in a theatre where actors can rest when not on stage. This term originated from the colour of this room at the Theatre Royal in London.
  • Green around the gills – someone who is looking a little ill
  • Going green – a company or person who is participating in activities to preserve the environment, i.e. recycling

The colour green has a few significances in religion. According to Islamic tradition, the robes and banner of Muhammad were green. Al-Khidr, who supposedly met and travelled with Moses, was known as “The Green One”.

In Christianity, clergy may wear green during “ordinary time”, i.e. a Sunday that does not fall within a particular holiday or festival season. In Eastern Catholic Churches, green is usually the colour of Pentecost. Many associate green with Christmas, for instance, Christmas trees and holly leaves. Interestingly, in Scotland and Ireland, green is used to represent Catholics. This is how Catholics are symbolised on the Irish flag, with orange representing Protestants.

In the Bible, there does not appear to be any particular meaning connected to the use of the word “green”. It is mostly used to describe the colour of grass, trees or plants.

  1. Genesis 1:30: “And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
  2. Genesis 9:3: Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
  3. Psalm 23:2: He makes me lie down in green pastures,he leads me beside quiet waters
  4. Psalm 105:35: they ate up every green thing in their land, ate up the produce of their soil.
  5. Joel 2:22: Do not be afraid, you wild animals, for the pastures in the wilderness are becoming green. The trees are bearing their fruit; the fig tree and the vine yield their riches.
  6. Mark 6:39: Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.

The greenness of nature is a positive thing, but many verses in the Bible talk about the lack of green. Exodus 10:15 talks about the result of the plague of locusts sent by God to the land of Egypt: “They covered all the ground until it was black. They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees. Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land of Egypt.”

In Job 39:8, God speaks to Job about the animals he created. God tells him he gave the donkey the salt flats as its natural habit where “It ranges the hills for its pasture and searches for any green thing.” Isaiah 15 records a prophecy against Moab. As a punishment, the land will be ruined, destroyed overnight. Verse 6 states, “The waters of Nimrim are dried up and the grass is withered; the vegetation is gone and nothing green is left.”

God reminds Ezekiel of His powers in Ezekiel 17:24: “All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.” Later, in chapter 20, God speaks via Ezekiel, revealing a prophecy against the South. Verse 47 says, “Say to the southern forest: Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it.”

Of course, the best place to find verses about destruction is in the book of Revelation. In the NIV, the word green only appears once in the book. It concerns the end of the world, thus a distinct lack of green. Revelation 8:7: “The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.”

In the Gospel of Luke, there is one example of a positive connotation of the colour green, yet used in a negative context. This occurs shortly before the crucifixion of Jesus when he tells the “Daughters of Jerusalem” not to weep for him but their children, predicting devastating times in the future. He ends this short speech with the line: “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31) The green tree in this riddle refers to Jesus himself, the Son of God, the one who came to Earth to save. If people are doing wicked things while he is alive, what will they do once he is dead?

Green plants are often used as an analogy in the Bible. Most commonly, it describes people or entire societies. In some instances, the metaphor talks about people flourishing or bouncing back after a disaster. On the other hand, some refer to the destruction of communities as a punishment for their sins.

  1. 2 Kings 19:26: Their people, drained of power, are dismayed and put to shame. They are like plants in the field, like tender green shoots, like grass sprouting on the roof, scorched before it grows up.
  2. Psalm 92:14: They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green
  3. Proverbs 11:28: Those who trust in their riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.
  4. Isaiah 37:27: Their people, drained of power, are dismayed and put to shame. They are like plants in the field, like tender green shoots, like grass sprouting on the roof, scorchedbefore it grows up.
  5. Jeremiah 17:8: They will be like a tree planted by the waterthat sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.
  6. Psalm 37:2: for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
  7. Psalm 58:9: Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.

There are, of course, many more instances of the colour green in other versions of the Bible, but they tend to refer to plants, grass or fields rather than anything of significance.

To be continued …


My blogs are available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

Until 3rd May 2020, the people of Britain have a final chance to see the glittering world heritage artefacts that were discovered in a tomb belonging to King Tutankhamun before they return to Egypt forever. With a new museum being built specifically for the treasures in Egypt, 150 of the total 5366 objects are gradually making their way around the world on their final tour. Following successes in Los Angeles and Paris, it is London’s turn to hold the once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the wonder and mystery of the boy king.

11

Tutankhamun was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who ruled at the end of the 18th dynasty (c. 1334 – 1325 BC). He took the throne at the tender age of nine after his father, Akhenaten (originally named Amenhotep IV) passed away. During Akhenaten’s reign, he had established an Aten cult, an ancient religion that deified the sun, dismissing other Egyptian gods. For this reason, the pharaoh renamed himself Akhenaten, meaning “effective for Aten.” He and his wife, known as “The Younger Lady”, named their son Tutankhaten, meaning “living image of Aten”. After Akhenaten’s death, the “boy king” dissolved the Aten cult and reinstated the cult of Amun, changing his name to Tutankhamun – “living image of Amun”. Amun is a major ancient Egyptian deity who may also be the equivalent of the Greek god Zeus.

When Tutankhamun became king, he married his half-sister Ankhesenpaaten, who subsequently changed her name to Ankhesenamun. Two mummified foetuses found in the same tomb as Tutankhamun suggests they had a couple of daughters, neither of whom survived. Data collected from the bodies reveals one was born prematurely at around 6 months of pregnancy, and the other was full term, however, suffered from Spina Bifidia, scoliosis and Sprengel’s deformity. Therefore, Tutankhamun, who died after a short reign of ten years, had no living heir.

Tutankhamun’s cause of death remains a mystery to this very day. His skeleton reveals he was physically disabled with a deformity in his left foot, which, judging by the number of walking sticks in the tomb, meant he needed assistance walking. He had other health issues including a cleft palate, scoliosis and several strains of malaria, however, it is not thought that any of these problems killed him. Xrays revealed Tutankhamun had a compound left leg fracture, which given the lack of modern medicine and technology, could have left Tutankhamun dead within a week. How the Pharoah received this wound can only be speculated.

Screen Shot 2019-12-03 at 14.47.19

As items in the tomb reveal, Tutankhamun was also known by his throne name Nebkheperure. During his reign, he commissioned new statues of deities that had been destroyed whilst his father was on the throne and began to restore the old Egyptian order. This involved renouncing the god Aten, changing his and his wife’s name and reinstating Egypt’s polytheistic religion.

Given his age, Tutankhamun presumably did not rule alone and would have had advisers, such as Ay (a possible great uncle), who became Pharaoh after the boy king’s death. Nonetheless, Tutankhamun was praised for his successes, as evidenced by the gifts from other countries found in his tomb.

Tutankhamun’s history may be brief and open to speculation, however, none of this would have been known at all if his tomb had not been discovered almost 100 years ago. Ay died after a short reign of four years and was replaced by Horemheb, who had been promised the throne if Tutankhamun had no children. For reasons unbeknownst, Horemheb ordered Tutankhamun’s name be hacked out of all monuments, often replacing it with his name. Tutankhamun was literally written out of history and his name forgotten. It is thanks to an Englishman by the name of Howard Carter that Tutankhamun is the most famous of all Egypt’s pharaohs.

Howard Carter was a British archaeologist and Egyptologist who rose to worldwide fame after discovering the intact tomb of Tutankhamun. Carter was born in Kensington, London on 9th May 1874 and received artistic training from his father Samuel John Carter (1835–92). Howard was the youngest of eleven children and spent much of his childhood with his relatives in Norfolk. Whilst there, Howard frequently visited Didlington Hall, which contained a large collection of Egyptian antiques. Seeing that he had a keen interest in the subject, one of the hall’s owners sent 17-year-old Carter to Beni Hasan in Egypt with the Egypt Exploration Fund to help excavate the tombs in the area.

george_herbert2c_5th_earl_of_carnarvon2c_reading

Lord Carnarvon

During the 1890s, Carter helped to record the wall reliefs in the temple of Hatshepsut, the second historically-confirmed female ruler (1479-58 BC). At the end of the decade, he was appointed Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service and supervised several excavations at the ancient city of Thebes. He resigned from his position in 1905 due to arguments between Egyptian guards and French tourists. Fortunately, three years later, Carter met George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866 – 1923) who employed him to supervise the excavation of tombs opposite the city of Thebes.

In 1914, Lord Carnarvon got permission to dig in the Valley of Kings, where Egyptian pharaohs were buried between the 16th and 11th centuries BC. By then, knowledge of Tutankhamun’s existence had been unearthed in tombs of those who had died before him, i.e. in places Horemheb could not access to remove his name. Although World War One hindered the excavation work, Carter returned to the site in 1917, however, by 1922, Lord Carnarvon was dissatisfied with the lack of results.

hussein_abdel-rassoul_par_harry_burton_vers_19252c_vallc3a9e_des_rois

Hussein Abdel-Rassoul

Carter convinced Lord Carnarvon to let him carry on working in the Valley of Kings for one more year. He instructed his workers to clear some ancient huts and the surrounding rock debris, however, when he arrived on the site on 4th November 1922, no one was working. Earlier that day, the team’s water boy Hussein Abdel-Rassoul had discovered a stone that turned out to be the first step of a flight of stairs. Having waited for Carter’s arrival, they assisted him to dig out the rest of the steps until reaching a mud-plastered doorway stamped with hieroglyphics. Wanting his employer to be there when the tomb was opened, Carter refilled the earth they had dug and sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon who eventually arrived on 23rd November.

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”
– Howard Carter

Using a chisel he had been given by his grandmother when he was 17, with Lord Carnarvon and his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert (1901-80) in tow, Carter made a small hole in the top left-hand corner of the doorway through which he could peer with the aid of a candle. “Can you see anything?” Lord Carnarvon asked. To which Carter responded with the famous words, “Yes, wonderful things!” Carter had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, later designated with the serial number KV62 (King’s Valley 62).

For the next few months, Carter painstakingly catalogued the items in the antechamber of the tomb, eventually making his way through another door that led to the burial chamber. In there, he unearthed the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun and, therefore, the remains of the pharaoh’s body. Work was suspended for a month in 1923 due to arguments about who owned the discovered items: Carnarvon, who paid for the expedition, or the Egyptian authorities. After a month, Carter resumed work but Lord Carnarvon soon became fatally ill.

image070

Lord Carnarvon contracted blood poisoning from an infected insect bite on his cheek. As a result, he passed away in Cairo on 5th April 1923. Newspapers throughout the world were quick to pick up on the fact that Carnarvon’s facial infection resembled a wound on the cheek of Tutankhamun’s body – later confirmed to be caused by the excavation – and rumours of a curse surrounding the pharaoh’s cave spread like wildfire. Later deaths and mishaps involving some of the people who worked on the excavation were also linked to this fictitious curse. Even today, some Egyptologists feel the effects of the “curse” despite logic debunking the rumour.

Howard Carter, on the other hand, appeared immune to the supposed curse and continued to excavate and catalogue the items in the tomb. As well as the objects discovered in the passageway, there were four chambers full of “wonderful things”: the Antechamber, Burial Chamber, Treasury and Annex. Amongst the 5336 objects were items made from gold, silver, semiprecious stones, wood, ivory, linen and leather.

Despite being world-famous, Carter did not receive much recognition in his own country, however, in 1926 he received the Order of the Nile from King Fuad I of Egypt (1868-1936). Later, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Science by Yale University and honorary membership in the Real Academia de la Historia of Madrid.

Carter retired from archaeology after finishing with the tomb and began working as an agent for collectors and museums. He also published several books on Egyptology and delivered a series of lectures in Europe and America. Unfortunately, Carter developed Hodgkin’s Disease and passed away on 2nd March 1939 at the age of 64. Despite being world-famous for his discovery, very few people attended his funeral.

The majority of Carter’s finds are still in Egypt, however, the 150 items – at least 60 of which had never left Egypt before – currently in the Saatchi Gallery give a flavour of the type of objects found in the tomb. As can be expected, many of the items depict the boy king, celebrating his reign, such as a gilded wooden figure of Tutankhamun throwing a harpoon. Standing upon a papyrus raft, the pharoah appears ready to throw the weapon, presumably at a hippopotamus, which were widely hunted at the time. Hippos were a danger to human life and destroyed agricultural fields by flattening them with their heavy bodies. In Egyptian mythology, Seth, the god of chaos, often took the form of a hippo in the hopes of killing his brother Horus, however, he never succeeded.

A wooden statuette of Tutankhamun riding a leopard was placed in the tomb to aid him in the afterlife as he travelled to the next world. The netherworld was believed to be a dangerous place and the black leopard, associated with rebirth, was to guide and guard Tutankhamun on his journey. The statuette wears a tall white crown and holds a long staff, which symbolises authority, however, some people do not think the figure was originally intended to represent Tutankhamun. The statuette contains a few feminine qualities, including breasts, which suggests it was intended for a female king, for instance, Nefertiti. Dying so young, there had not been many preparations for Tutankhamun’s tomb, which may explain the appropriation of this object.

Other statues of the pharaoh depict him with a walking stick, alluding to his deformed foot. The number of walking sticks found in the tomb suggests Tutankhamun was reliant upon them to move around. Despite this disability, Tutankhamun was always depicted as an important, respect-worthy king. Even the damaged colossal quartzite statue that closes the exhibition demonstrates his importance. This dramatic statue was not found inside the tomb but may have once stood at Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple. This is one of the objects destroyed by Horemheb, who carved his name across the belt where Tutankhamun’s name would once have been.

Hidden amongst the treasures were objects that Tutankhamun may have used in his lifetime, as well as the walking sticks. Over seventy bows and four hundred arrows were buried with the king, some of which had been used and others that were just for show. The bow was a key weapon in Egyptian times and there were always expert archers in their armed forces. The varying sizes of the bows suggest Tutankhamun was taught to shoot from a very young age. There were also early forms of the boomerang, which were thrown at birds to knock them out of the sky.

The more elaborate bows were made from gilded wood and inlaid with coloured glass and calcite. Gold wire and sheet gold also ornamented the weapons and Tutankhamun’s throne name, Nebkheperure was inscribed in a band of gold on a few of the bows.

Some objects, such as a gilded wooden fan, contained carved images depicting Tutankhamun’s great achievements, albeit fictional ones. Being as disabled as his skeleton suggests, it is unlikely Tutankhamun shot arrows at ostriches from his fast-moving carriage. This scene is shown on one side of the fan, which was once fitted with the ostrich feathers from the animal the king had killed. On the other side, the image shows the king returning with the dead ostriches. It may be true that he shot them himself, but whether the event was as energetic as the artist suggests is uncertain.

wooden-ceremonial-shield-with-king-as-sphinx-trampling-on-nubian-enemies-credit-img-678x1024

A ceremonial shield was discovered in the Annex of the tomb, which portrayed Tutankhamun as a sphinx: a human-headed lion. Due to the elaborate design, this shield would not have been suitable in battle but would have been present at ceremonial or ritual occasions. The Egyptian sphinx was a benevolent being with ferocious strength, which is how Egypt wished to view its kings. On the shield, the sphinx/Tutankhamun tramples on a couple of Nubians, an ethnolinguistic group of Africans, as an expression of the Egyptian view that the world belonged to the pharaoh.

Other elements on the shield include a fan, similar to the ostrich fan, which emphasises Tutankhamun’s royal title; a winged sun disk that protectively stretches over the king; and a falcon, representing Montu, the god of war.

The Egyptian gods were an important aspect of both life and death, therefore, it was unsurprising that Carter found many references to them in Tutankhamun’s tomb. There were over 2000 deities in the Egyptian pantheon, some whose names are still recognised today: Isis, Osiris, Horus, Ra, Hathor, Thoth and so on. Some gods were only worshipped in particular areas, however, others were worshipped throughout Egypt. Horus was one of these and appeared in Tutankhamun’s tomb in several different forms.

In one figure, Horus was depicted as a hawk with a sun disc on its head. In another, he was the half-bird half-human Herwer (Horus the Elder). Horus was a powerful sun god, sometimes referred to as Horakhty (Horus of the Two Horizons) and Horemakhet (Horus in the Horizon). He was the son of Isis and Osiris, therefore also called Harsiesis (Horus, Son of Isis) and Harpocrates (Horus the Child). Egyptian mythology states Osiris, the heir to the throne, was murdered by his brother Seth but was briefly resurrected by Isis during which time they conceived a son. Osiris eventually travelled to the netherworld to reign as king of the dead, whilst Isis endeavoured to keep their son Horus out of his uncle’s clutches. When Horus grew up, he battled against Seth and emerged victorious, taking his rightful place on the throne. Due to this story, Horus was sometimes used as a symbol of the king, which explains why he was prominent in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

In total, the tomb contained hundreds of figurines, many of them intended to help Tutankhamun in the afterlife. The netherworld resembled the living world, including fields, farms and towns, therefore, the dead were buried with shabtis (servant figures) that would activate in the afterlife and accomplish any unpleasant task the deceased faced. Buried with Tutankhamun was an enormous workforce that provided a servant for every day of the year as well as an overseer for every ten workers and a supervisor for every three overseers.

Each shabti was unique, for example, one was painted to resemble the king, whereas another looked more like the Nubian mercenaries that served in the Egyptian army. The costumes were rather elaborate for servants but it identified them as belonging to Tutankhamun. Some of the wooden figures wore painted gold clothing, complete with royal symbols and hieroglyphs.

Many of the items left in the tomb were to assist Tutankhamun in the afterlife. Boxes full of food, including meat and fruit were left with the body so that the dead would not starve on their journey. Some of the comestibles, such as herbs and seeds, may have been some form of medication, insinuating Tutankhamun had been a rather sickly person. It appears not even death would cure the king of his ailments.

The foodstuffs were preserved in nondescript boxes, however, Carter also discovered many decorated ones. On the floor of the Treasury was a wooden cartouche box decorated with ivory and ebony symbols. Rather than writing Tutankhamun’s birth name, the craftsman has used symbols to represent the Pharoah. For example, two loaves of bread and a quail chick spell out Tut, and a reed leaf, a game board and a water sign represent Amun, the god who Tutankhamun revered.

Not all the boxes were specifically made to place in a tomb, for example, the semi-circular box found in the Antechamber. Wear and tear suggest the box may have been used during Tutankhamun’s lifetime, for example, to transport written papyrus documents from place to place. Not only was it not intended for the tomb, but it also was not made for Tutankhamun either. Although Tutankhamun’s name has been added to the box, the original inscription gave the names of his predecessor Ankhkheperure and his half-sister Meritaten.

Tutankhamun’s wealth and status were clear from the amount of gold, silver and jewels discovered in his tomb. Hundreds of jewellery items were found in boxes in the Treasury, many which may have been gifted, worn by the pharaoh, or left in the tomb for protection in the afterlife. Every piece of jewellery was symbolic in some way, for instance, a lapis lazuli beetle, which represented the sun god.

A vulture represented the deity Nekhbet, the patron goddess of Upper Egypt where Tutankhamun reigned. The pendant is ornately decorated with gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise and coloured glass befitting of a king. In each of the bird’s claws is a tiny necklace containing the king’s throne name, proving it was made specifically for Tutankhamun.

Another bird used in jewellery was a falcon with upswept wings. Typically, bird pendants have their heads turned to one side, but in one version the bird faces forward as though looking at the viewer. A carnelian round sun upon the falcon’s head suggests it is representative of Horus and the bird also carried two pendants in its talons, also indicative of the sun.

“A man dies twice — once when the last breath leaves his body, and again when his name is spoken for the last time.” (Paraphrased)

When Horemheb became pharaoh and tried to write Tutankhamun out of history, he was also trying to cause Tutankhamun’s second death. The ancient Egyptian’s believed a man died when his soul left his body but was still considered alive as long as his name was spoken. Due to Howard Carter’s discovery of the missing tomb, Horemheb’s plan was thwarted. Tutankhamun is now the most famous of all the pharaohs and, if the size of the crowds queueing to see the exhibition is anything to go by, his name will never be forgotten. Thanks to Carter and the world’s continued interest, Tutankhamun has been made immortal.

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh attracted over 1.4 million visitors when it was displayed in France. The London exhibition is expected to reach similar records, which is no surprise considering Tutankhamun’s fame and the fact that this is the final opportunity to see the artefacts outside of Egypt. As well as seeing 150 objects, visitors can opt to take part in a Virtual Reality experience in which they dive into a computer-generated version of Tutankhamun’s tomb and have a look around.

Adult tickets are priced between £24.50 and £28.50 and are selling fast, so do not delay booking your timed entry. Due to popularity, the gallery is operating on a timed entry system and it may take up to thirty minutes to get through security. The average length of stay is 90 minutes.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Splendours of the Subcontinent

For over 400 years, Britain has had connections with the Indian subcontinent, beginning with the East India Company in 1600. After the trading company was dissolved in 1858, two-thirds of the subcontinent became part of the British Raj, a union of the London India Office, the British Indian Government and Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Through this connection, Britain became the owners of many Indian works of art, paintings and manuscripts, which are still part of the Royal Collection today.

Some of the manuscripts and artworks were given as diplomatic gifts to the British Sovereign, whereas, others were given to individual British officers visiting the subcontinent. Queen Victoria was the recipient of many of these offerings, as was King George V (1865-1936) in the 20th century.

Recently, the Royal Collection showed off the brilliance of its Indian collection of art in an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Splendours of the Subcontinent introduced the public to past relations with the Indian subcontinent and the style of art unique to Asia. Split into two halves, the exhibition examines Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts and explores A Prince’s Tour of India. The latter reveals the diplomatic tour Queen Victoria’s eldest son took around the subcontinent, covering 21 regions and culminating in hundreds of artworks.

 

A PRINCE’S TOUR OF INDIA 1875-6

On 8th November 1875, Albert Edward (1841-1910), the Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – arrived in Bombay, starting off his four-month tour of the subcontinent. Travelling by boat, rail, or even elephant, the Prince visited over 90 Indian rulers or maharajas, presenting them with British jewellery, books and gifts and receiving local gifts of art in return.

628671-1472571731

Peacock barge inkstand 1870-76

The first object in the exhibition is an impressive peacock barge inkstand made of gold and decorated with rubies, sapphires, diamonds and pearls. This was given to Prince Albert as a memento of his trip down the River Ganges on one of the state barges that it replicates. Complete with oars, an anchor, flagpole and mast, the stand separates into nineteen pieces, revealing two inkwells, a pair of scissors, a penknife and two pen nibs.

The prow of the barge represents the state bird of India, the Indian peafowl or peacock, with its tail spread and inlaid with sapphires and diamonds.  On the opposite side, the stern takes the form of the head of a Makara, a dragon-like mythological creature associated with Hinduism. Birds and flowers decorate the deck and the mast is engraved with a dedication to the Prince of Wales, making it a personalised gift from Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (1855-1931), the Maharaja of Benares.

Most of the gifts that Prince Albert received had been carefully thought out by the Indian rulers to ensure that they showed off the range of techniques and skills of their craftsmen as well as reflect the regions he visited. They expressed the culture and customs of the Indian population, which was becoming popular amongst Europeans at the time, since the 1851 Great Exhibition in London where Indian artwork was greatly admired.

A typical gift for royalty at the time was weaponry, particularly ceremonial swords and daggers. Presented by Ali Murad Khan I Talpur, Amir of Khairpur, Prince Albert received a foot-long sword made of fine watered crucible steel. This material gives the blade a unique rippled water-like pattern typical of bladesmiths in Iran, where it was most likely produced. The hilt, however, is more European in style and may even have been welded by a European metalworker. The hilt was engraved with a leaf-like pattern, decorated with diamonds, rubies and pearls, and finished off with a silk tassel that remarkably still remains attached to the pommel after 150 years. The scabbard is wooden, covered in deep-blue velvet with golden mounts and jewels arranged to look like flowers.

Royal CollectionThe Prince received a large number of swords, daggers and knives from all over the Indian subcontinent. This was probably of no surprise to him since he would also have been presenting gifts of this nature to the rulers he met. There were, however, a few more unusual presents.

Whilst in Jaipur, Prince Albert was presented with a silver astrolabe inscribed with the coordinates for Greenwich, the British centre of time-keeping. An astrolabe is a scientific instrument that can identify stars and planets as well as be used to navigate.

The significance of this gift was its connection to the city of Jaipur. Although astrolabes had been introduced to South Asia as early as the 14th century, it was during the reign of Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur (1688–1743) that the instrument became highly valued. The Maharaja was a keen astronomer, which led to the development of five observatories, one situated in Jaipur itself.

An intriguing gift, one that must have appealed to any children visiting the exhibition, was a set of eleven brass military figures. The Prince is thought to have received them whilst visiting Madras during the second month of his tour. They were originally part of a much larger set commissioned by the Raja of Peddapuram, Timma Razu (d.1796) but, after his death, the figures were separated, with many ending up in personal collections in both India and Britain. The figures reveal the many people and animals that made up the Indian military.

The majority of gifts the Prince received contained a remarkable amount of jewels and gemstones. In order to magnify their beauty, Indian craftsmen backed the stones with reflective foil, which enhanced their colour. The framework of the items was generally gold, either 22 or 24 carats. This showed the wealth and opulence of the rulers at the time.

Prince Albert received a lot of jewellery on his trip, however, the item the Royal Collection focused on was a piece he bought himself. Purchased from a peddler or boxwallah in Trichinopoly, the Prince of Wales presented his mother, Queen Victoria with a gold bangle on 24th May 1876 for her 57th birthday. “I received a number of lovely things. Arthur gave me a charming old Spanish fan from Seville & Bertie 2 beautiful Indian bracelets from Trinchinopoli & Jeypore.” [sic] (Queen Victoria’s journal)

The bangle looks rather large and heavy, made from gold and fashioned to look like the heads of several Makara (dragons). The two largest heads have been given rubies for eyes and a ruby-topped screw holds the hinged bracelet together. It is similar in style to that of Rococo, which had been introduced to Europe during the 18th century.

Many of the gifts, including jewellery, were purpose-made presents to welcome the Prince of Wales to India. One example is a red glass scallop-edged brooch decorated with a gold portrait of the Prince and Princess of Wales. This was presented to the future king by Ranjit Singh, Raja of Ratlam, along with a matching necklace.

Other presents the Prince brought home with him included a number of ornate address cases – boxes or pouches to keep the written welcome address he received at each location. Another box he was presented with was a small opium box, a traditional item in central India where the drug was harvested. The golden design was produced in a similar manner to the brooch received in Ratlam, however, this time it depicted Krishna, one of the Hindu gods.

Prince Albert departed from India on 13th March 1876, loaded down with the hundreds of gifts he had received. Knowing they were of extraordinary quality and design, he felt it right that the objects should be admired by the British public. Shortly after his return, the gifts went on display at the Indian Museum in South Kensington (now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum) where they were viewed by 30,000 in the first week. It is estimated that a total of 2.5 million people saw the gifts in Britain, with thousands more seeing them on tour in Copenhagen and Paris. The funds raised from the exhibitions were used to aid the construction of Aberdeen Art Gallery in Scotland.

FOUR CENTURIES OF SOUTH ASIAN PAINTINGS AND MANUSCRIPTS

Whereas the former half of the exhibition focused on objects accumulated in a four-month period, the second section spanned 400 years. Through the works of art collected by the British and Royal Family, a story about the relations with the subcontinent can be pieced together. The subcontinent, or South Asia, encompasses the area of five modern-day countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, however, at the time, it was usually referred to as India.

Many of the South Asian paintings and manuscripts in the Royal Collection date from the seventeenth century when the Mughals, a Muslim, Persian-speaking dynasty, were an Empire richer and stronger than any in Europe and ruled over the majority of the Indian subcontinent. Throughout their reign, they had contact with British monarchs, including Elizabeth I and Charles I but their Golden Age would not last forever.

Royal Collection Trust

The Public Reception of John Low (1788-1880) by Nasir-ud-Din Haidar, King of Oudh, 4 March 1834

The last Mughal emperor, Alamgir II died in 1707, sparking wars of succession and foreign invasion. At the same time, Britain’s East India Company was gaining fortune and strength, and, in 1765, the Empire surrendered the region of Bengal to the company. From here on, it was not long before the trading company’s power spread throughout South Asia.

One of the first artworks in this half of the exhibition was an oil painting by A Dufay de Casanova (active 1829-37) of the King of Awah on an elephant near the banks of the Gumti River on his way to meet East India Company Resident, Colonel John Low (1788–1880). Although this was not an artwork produced by natives of South Asia, it helps to put into context the events that tied Britain with India.

The manuscripts acquired from the Mughal Empire were all written by hand and many were also illuminated with delicate paintings. The majority were written in Persian, therefore, read from right to left as opposed to European books. The Royal Collection displayed manuscripts that contained lyrical poetry, many by the poet Hafiz of Shiraz (1325-90). These were written with the intention of being sung and were often performed in Mughal courts.

Illuminations or illustrations were produced with brush and ink on discoloured paper, for example, the miniature of a chameleon on a branch by Ustad Mansur (active c. 1600-20), the leading animal painter in one of the Mughal courts. The image is scientifically precise and, although small, is full of intricate detail, such as the minute scales along the body.

Interestingly, on display were artworks that resembled typical religious paintings from Europe. At times, the Quran and the Bible merge together, featuring the same characters but with slightly varying stories. Take, for example, the quote, “And also We made the son of Mary and his mother a sign to mankind, and gave them a shelter on a peaceful hillside watered by a fresh spring.” (Quran 23:50) Mary and Jesus are important in the Christian world as well as in Islam, therefore, it is unsurprising to see them in Islamic art. What is unexpected, however, is the artists’ decisions to copy western artworks, for instance, the reinterpretation by a Mughal artist of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) engraving of the Virgin and Child (Madonna by the Tree, 1513). Unfortunately, the gallery did little to shed light on the artists’ intentions.

During the Georgian era, the British royal family received many letters and manuscripts from the Indian subcontinent. One of these was the impressive chronicle Padshahnama or Book of Emperors, which had been produced around 1656. Commissioned by the fifth Mughal emperor Shah-Jahan (1591-1666), the book is a propagandist celebration of his dynasty, with the objective of emphasising his politics and ideologies.

As those who were lucky enough to be at the gallery at the appointed time for the talk about the Padshahnama will know, the manuscript was once bound together as a book, only taken apart 25 years ago for conservation purposes. This made displaying individual sheets much easier in this exhibition because they could be framed and placed at eye level around the room.

Containing 44 illustrations in total, the Book of Emperors was completed by fourteen different court painters, however, the South Asian style of painting is consistent throughout. Each painting reveals a significant event during the reign of Emperor Shah-Jahan, for example, his coronation and his involvement with a lion hunt conducted on elephant-back.

It is almost impossible to remember everything that was displayed at the Queen’s Gallery exhibition due to the sheer size of the collection of work from the Indian subcontinent. Some objects and artworks stick in the mind more than others, for instance, the Miniature Holy Quran scroll that unravels to reveal all 114 chapters on the thin, narrow surface. This is thought to have been a gift to George IV in 1828 from Nawab of the Carnatic.

Other artworks include books, photographs, paintings and more manuscripts, particularly ones that focus on the Hindu religion that was and is so predominant in India. These tell various stories involving the many gods worshipped in Hinduism, for example, the avatars of Vishnu in the epic text Bhagavata Purana.

It is easy to forget the relations with Southern Asia that the British had in the past. When imagining works in the Royal Collection, people think of paintings of Kings and Queens or famous artworks purchased throughout Europe. The amount of art from South Asia is absolutely phenomenal and opens up a whole new world with foreign customs and beliefs.

Splendours of the Subcontinent allowed visitors to see into the lives of other people whose traditions seem exotic and fascinating in comparison to our daily experiences. This groundbreaking exhibition revealed a different part of British history as well as the history of India and their style and method of craftsmanship.

Although the exhibition has come to an end, Splendours of the Subcontinent revealed how vast the Royal Collection is and it entices us to discover what else it has hidden behind closed doors. Future exhibitions can be eagerly awaited and are unlikely to disappoint the British public and tourists in London.

My blogs are available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!