“Two things are necessary for great achievement: a plan and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein
Best known for the musical West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein won seven Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards and sixteen Grammy Awards. He wrote many genres of music, including symphonic, orchestral, ballet, film and theatre music and was the first American-born conductor to lead a major American symphony orchestra. Aside from these achievements, Bernstein was a lifelong humanitarian. He supported civil rights, raised money for HIV and AIDS research, campaigned against the Vietnam War, and more.
Leonard Bernstein was born in Massachusetts on 25th August 1918 to Ukrainian-Jewish parents Jennie and Samuel Bernstein. His birth certificate states his name as Louis, which was his grandmother’s choice, but his parents preferred to call him Leonard. Bernstein legally changed his name to Leonard when he reached adulthood.
Bernstein began learning to play the piano at the age of 10. Whilst he showed considerable talent, Bernstein’s father tried to curb his enthusiasm for the piano by refusing to pay for music lessons. Undeterred, Bernstein began teaching basic piano techniques to other children to earn money to pay for his more advanced studies. Eventually, Bernstein’s father relented and started supporting his son’s music education.
In 1935, Bernstein enrolled on a music course at Harvard University, where he wrote his first voice and piano composition, Psalm 148. Based on the 148th Psalm in the Bible, which begins “Praise ye the Lord from the heavens”, Bernstein was inspired by the music he heard at the synagogue. He also wrote a dissertation called The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music, which demonstrated his support of civil rights. Bernstein graduated from Harvard in 1939.
After finishing his studies at Harvard, Bernstein enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied conducting, piano, orchestration, counterpoint and score reading. During the summer of 1940, Bernstein studied conducting with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951). Koussevitzky considered Bernstein one of his protégés and gave him a pair of cufflinks that Bernstein allegedly wore at every concert he conducted.
On completing his post-graduate studies, Bernstein moved to New York City, where he taught piano and singing lessons. He also played the piano for dance classes at Carnegie Hall. For extra income, Bernstein transcribed jazz and pop music under the pseudonym “Leonard Amber”. He chose this name because Bernstein is the German word for “amber”.
In 1942, Bernstein produced his first published work, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Bernstein conducted the piece, which lasts about ten minutes, at the Institute of Modern Art in Boston, where critics preferred the piano part over the clarinet. Following these reviews, Bernstein stopped writing for the clarinet for the next seven years.
Bernstein’s first major success in the music world came unexpectedly on 14th November 1943, when he stood in for Bruno Walter as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic. With not much time to prepare, Bernstein conducted the orchestra through pieces by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss and Robert Schumann and found himself on the front page of The New York Times the following day. The editorial declared, “It’s a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves,” and Bernstein’s fame quickly spread across the country. For the next two years, Bernstein became one of the most sought after conductors in the United States and Canada.
In January 1944, Bernstein premiered his first symphony, Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Following the story of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, the symphony features verses from the Book of Lamentations sung by a mezzo-soprano. It was rated the best American work of 1944 by the New York Music Critics’ Circle.
A few months after the premiere of Jeremiah, Bernstein’s first ballet collaboration, Fancy Free, was shown at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Bernstein wrote the score, and Jerome Robbins (1918-98) choreographed the dances to tell the story of three American sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York City during the Second World War. Following its success, Bernstein and Robbins chose to develop it into a musical called On the Town. It first appeared on Broadway in 1944 and became a film in 1949, starring Gene Kelly (1912-96), Frank Sinatra (1915-98), and Jules Munshin (1915-70) as the three sailors.
Bernstein flourished as a conductor during the latter half of the 1940s. From 1945 to 1947, Bernstein was the music director of the New York City Symphony orchestra. He also conducted performances abroad, such as the Czech Philharmonic in Prague and the 1946 European premiere of Fancy Free with the Ballet Theatre at the Royal Opera House in London.
In 1947, Bernstein flew to Israel to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv. He returned several times during his career for concerts, including recordings of his symphonies. In 1949, back in the United States, Bernstein made his first television debut as the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall for the first anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Bernstein completed his second symphony in 1949, titled The Age of Anxiety after W. H. Auden’s (1907-73) poem of the same name. Rather than conducting the premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein played the solo piano sections. The music has since been used for three ballets, the first choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
The 1950s were, without doubt, the busiest period of Bernstein’s career. In 1950, he composed music for a Broadway production of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and the following year composed the opera Trouble in Tahiti. Bernstein wrote the music and libretto while on his honeymoon with Felicia Montealegre (1922-78), who he married on 10th September 1951 and had three children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina.
In 1953, Bernstein wrote the music for Wonderful Town, a musical based on My Sister Eileen, a set of autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney (1911-72). The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Bernstein’s next work was the operetta-style musical Candide, based on the 1759 novella of the same name by Voltaire (1694-1778). Bernstein wrote the lyrics to a couple of songs, but the others were written by a selection of lyricists, including Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) and Lillian Hellman (1905-84). Bernstein also worked with Sondheim on his next project, West Side Story.
Sondheim and Bernstein worked alongside Jerome Robbins, who won the 1958 Tony Award for choreography, on a retelling of Shakespeare’sRomeo and Juliet, set in the 1950s. Robbins initially had the idea for a story in 1949 about a conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Unfortunately, the project, titled East Side Story, merely echoed similar anti-Semitic plays, so the musical was put on hold.
Arthur Laurents (1917-2011), who worked on the book for East Side Story, met with Bernstein a few years later and discussed taking another look at the musical. Bernstein suggested changing the families to Mexicans and Californians, but Laurents admitted he knew more about the rivalry between Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers. So, the musical was renamed West Side Story and moved to Harlem, New York. After persuading Sondheim and Robbins to come back on board, the production was soon underway.
On 26th September 1957, West Side Story premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. The Seattle Times noted Bernstein’s score blended “jazz, Latin rhythms, symphonic sweep and musical-comedy conventions in groundbreaking ways for Broadway.” Several popular songs feature in the musical, including Maria, Tonight, America, I Feel Pretty and Somewhere. In 1961, Jerome Robbin rechoreographed the dances for the film version, which won 10 Academy Awards, the most any musical film has won to date. In December 2021, a remake by Steven Spielberg (b. 1946) was released, starring Ansel Elgort (b.1994) and Rachel Zegler (b.2001) as the leading characters.
Whilst working on Candide and West Side Story, Bernstein simultaneously worked on other projects, including the score to the film On The Waterfront (1954). He also became the first American to appear at La Scala in Milan, where he conducted the likes of Maria Callas (1923-77) in the comic-opera Médée by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842).
In 1957, Bernstein became the music director of the New York Philharmonic, a position he kept until 1969 when he was appointed “Laureate Conductor”. During his time as director, Bernstein brought the Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic onto television screens for the first time. The concerts date to 1885 when conductor Theodore Thomas (1835-1905) established family-friendly weekend matinees. Bernstein made the concerts accessible to many more people by televising the concerts. The first concert aired on 18th January 1958 and continued until 1972.
Throughout the 1960s, Bernstein focused on working with the New York Philharmonic. He introduced lesser-played composers, particularly Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), an Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer. In 1960, Bernstein made the first commercial recording of Mahler’s 4th symphony and started giving a combination of concert performances and television talks about the composer. About Mahler’s work, Bernstein said he “showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equalled since.” Mahler’s widow, Alma (1879-1964), occasionally attended the rehearsals, much to Bernstein’s delight.
In 1961, Bernstein conducted at President John F. Kennedy’s (1917-63) pre-inaugural gala. Unfortunately, he also conducted a memorial concert following the President’s assassination in 1963. At the latter, the orchestra performed Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which has since become part of the Philharmonic’s repertoire for national mourning.
Following JFK’s assassination, Bernstein composed his third symphony, Kaddish, and dedicated it to the late president. A Kaddish is a prayer that features in Jewish services for the dead. The symphony begins with an Aramaic recitation of the Kaddish before becoming a powerful narrative that confronts God, expresses anger and grief, and eventually starts to come to terms with the situation.
Realising he wanted more time to concentrate on composing music, Bernstein made the difficult decision to step down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, although he continued to conduct and tour with the orchestra. The decision gave Bernstein the opportunity to work with other orchestras, such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra.
In 1970, Bernstein wrote and narrated Beethoven’s Birthday: A Celebration in Vienna, an Emmy-winning television show to celebrate the composer’s 200th birthday. The show included brief performances of the opera Fidelio, Bernstein playing Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto, and Bernstein conducting the Ninth Symphony.
Bernstein’s composition work during the 1970s included a Mass commissioned by Jackie Kennedy (1929-94) and the score for the ballet Dybbuk. The Mass combined elements of musical theatre, jazz, gospel, folk, rock, and symphonic music. The libretto featured religious liturgy and Hebrew prayers, which the Catholic church criticised for having an anti-Vietnam War message.
In 1978, Bernstein’s wife passed away from lung cancer, prompting him to establish the Felicia Montealegre Bernstein Fund of Amnesty International USA. Two years earlier, Bernstein took part in an Amnesty International Benefit Concert in Munich, which fuelled in him a passion to help human rights activists. The fund helped raise money to help activists with limited access to resources.
Thirty-two years after the premiere of Bernstein’s opera Trouble in Tahiti, he produced its sequel, A Quiet Place. Although it did not receive as many accolades, Bernstein’s international fame prevented it from being a flop. By the 1980s, Bernstein was a celebrated composer and conductor and received invitations to attend and partake in concerts all over the world. On Christmas day in 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He reworded the lyrics of the Ode to Joy(An die Freude) chorus to Ode to Freedom(An die Freiheit), believing “Beethoven would have given us his blessing.”
In 1990, Bernstein founded the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan, with the conductor and pianist Michael Tilson Thomas (b. 1944). The festival aimed to educate people in the Pacific about classical music. By this time, Bernstein had developed lung cancer and knew he did not have long to live. He wanted to devote the remainder of his life to education. After receiving the Praemium Imperiale, a prize awarded by the Japan Arts Association for lifetime achievement in the arts, Bernstein used the prize money to establish The Bernstein Education Through the Arts (BETA) Fund, Inc.
Bernstein conducted his final concert on 19th August 1990 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, a music venue he often frequented during his career. His poor health was evident from the coughing fits he suffered on stage, yet he persevered to the very end before leaving during the standing ovation. Whilst this was Bernstein’s last concert, he did not officially retire from conducting until 9th October.
Five days after announcing his retirement, Bernstein passed away after suffering a heart attack brought on by the severity of his lung cancer. Years of smoking had caught up with him, and the United States mourned the loss of the 72-year-old man and his talents. Bernstein was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, next to his wife. A copy of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, opened to the Adagietto, was placed on his chest.
Whilst Bernstein’s musical achievements are widely known, particularly due to remakes of West Side Story, his political and social actions are often forgotten. His opera, Trouble in Tahiti, criticised upper-class American lifestyles, and he made it his mission to reveal that “American” music was a blend of many foreign influences.
During the 1940s, Bernstein joined various left-wing organisations, earning him a black mark against his name by the US State Department. Fortunately, this did not ruin his career, but many others involved suffered greatly. In the 1950s, Bernstein was accused of being a Communist, yet his musical talents surpassed these accusations, whether true or false.
Bernstein and his wife made the headlines in the 1970s when they hosted an event to raise money for the defence of several members of the Black Panther Party. The BPP was a Marxist-Leninist Black Power political that challenged police brutality, which ironically resulted in physical fights and deaths. Bernstein supported the BPP because it aimed to establish community health clinics for the treatment of diseases, such as sickle cell anaemia, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, the public ridiculed Bernstein’s support of a working-class organisation because he lived in a wealthy neighbourhood.
Whilst Bernstein and his wife appeared to have a happy life with their three children, letters published after Bernstein’s death reveal he was homosexual. Felicia wrote a letter to her husband saying, “You are a homosexual and may never change—you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?” Bernstein’s friends confirmed he conducted affairs with men, but Felicia appeared to accept this. When questioned, Arthur Laurents said Bernstein was “a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”
Bernstein loved his wife and family despite his sexuality. He only left Felicia once to live with another man but returned immediately after hearing about her lung cancer diagnosis. Bernstein nursed and cared for his wife until she passed away on 16th June 1978. He reportedly felt very guilty about her death, and his lifestyle became more excessive, but none of this showed in his professional life.
During his career, Bernstein wrote music for three ballets, three operas, nine musicals, and many orchestral, choral, vocal and piano pieces. He won a total of 16 Grammys, including Best Orchestral Performance (Mahler’s Symphony No. 9), Best Classical Album (Candide) and Best Contemporary Composition. In 1985, Bernstein won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
Bernstein tutored many composers, including John Mauceri (b. 1945), Marin Alsop (b. 1956) and Michael Tilson Thomas, who have worked with orchestras across the world. Unfortunately, he did not take on any students as composers, so his blends of jazz, Jewish music and theatre music remain unique to Bernstein.
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. I posted about the colours red, crimson, scarlet and green two weeks ago. Here are the remaining colours in the original series.
Blue is the third primary colour, along with red and yellow. The word comes from the Middle English bleu, which means shimmering or lustrous. Of the colours on the visible spectrum of light, blue has one of the shortest wavelengths. As a result, when sunlight passes through our atmosphere, the blue waves are scattered more widely than other colours, making the sky appear blue. It would take a scientist to explain this theory, but as Einstein said it was true, we can accept it as thus.
Apart from naturally occurring blues, blue was not used in art or referenced in literature until much later than the other colours. This is because it was much harder to produce a blue dye, and the minerals from which it was made were much more expensive, for example, indigo, lapis lazuli and azurite. No ancient cave paintings contain blue pigment. One of the earliest uses is thought to be on the funeral mask of King Tutankhamun (1323 BC).
The Ancient Egyptians associated the colour blue with the sky and divinity. They believed the god Amun could turn his skin blue to fly, invisible, across the sky. They also believed blue could protect against evil, which is why many people in the Mediterranean wear blue amulets to protect them from misfortune.
The Romans often used blue for decorations. The walls of Pompeii were reportedly decorated with frescoes of blue skies. Later, in the Byzantine era, blue was often used in churches, and the Virgin Mary was usually depicted in dark blue clothing in artworks. In Islam, blue is Muhammad’s favourite colour.
In the Middle Ages, blue became the colour of poor people who used poor-quality dyes made from the woad plant to colour their clothes. In the western world, blue did not appear in churches until the 1130s, when the Saint-Denis Basilica installed a cobalt coloured stained glass window. This colour became known as bleu de Saint-Denis. Although the Byzantine Empire had depicted Mary in blue, the western church did not take up this practice until the 12th century. Before that, the Virgin wore blacks, greys and greens.
King Louis IX of France (1214-70), now known as Saint Louis, was the first king to dress in blue. After this, many nobles followed suit. As a result, paintings of the legendary King Arthur show him dressed in blue. In the years to follow, blue became a sign of the wealthy and powerful in Europe.
During the Renaissance, merchants devised a way to produce blue dyes more cheaply. This led to several blue dye industries in cities across Europe. Eventually, blue pigments became widely available, and the colour began to appear regularly in paintings. By the 18th and 19th centuries, blue had become a popular colour amongst artists, particularly impressionists.
In contemporary English, blue represents sadness, for example, “She was feeling blue.” Alternatively, blue can represent happiness or optimism, for instance, blue skies. On the other hand, in Germany, to be blue means to be drunk. Also, in Germany, a naïve person is said to look upon the world with a blue eye.
In Turkey and some parts of Asia, blue represents mourning. In China, blue is the colour of ghosts, torment and death. It is common in Chinese opera for the villain to wear blue face paint. In Thailand, the colour blue represents Friday.
Although some societies are trying to eradicate gender stereotypes, it is common to associate blue with boys and pink with girls. Yet, before the 1900s, it was the other way around. Blue was the colour for girls because it corresponded with the blue of the Virgin Mary’s clothes. Boys were pink due to its closeness to red, a masculine colour.
Many countries throughout the world use the colour blue on their flags. Countries include Scotland, Finland, Greece, Israel, Argentina, Uruguay, Estonia, Romania, Barbados, Russia, Serbia, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Thailand and the United Kingdom. In politics, blue represents the Conservative Party in the UK and the Democratic Party in the USA.
In Christianity, blue is associated with the Virgin Mary, although there is no evidence she wore this colour in the Bible. In Hinduism, many of the gods have blue skin, including Vishnu, the preserver of the world. In the Bible, the colour blue is mentioned several times, mostly in verses related to the Tabernacle. In Judaism, the colour blue represents God’s glory.
The colour blue first appears in Exodus 25:4, in which the Lord asks Moses to tell the Israelites to give him a gift of gold, silver and bronze; “blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair,” rams skins and so on. After this, between chapters 26 and 39, there are a further 33 mentions of the colour blue.
Exodus 26 contains God’s instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle. In the first verse, He requests ten linen curtains made from blue, purple and scarlet yarn, which have loops of blue material along the bottom (verse 4). Another curtain containing blue yarn is instructed in verse 31 and one more for the entrance to the tent in verse 36. Exodus 27 continues God’s instructions for the Tabernacle. The entrance to the courtyard of the tabernacle required “a curtain twenty cubits long, of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen.” (verse 16)
Exodus 28 records God’s wishes for the priestly garments. These include a breast piece, an ephod, a robe, a tunic and a sash, all made from gold and blue, and purple and scarlet yarn. The breast piece and ephod were tied together with a blue cord, and the robe was made entirely from blue cloth but decorated with balls of blue, purple and scarlet yarn. A blue cord attached a seal onto the priest’s turban, which read, “Holy to the Lord”.
Exodus 35 requests the Israelites to donate gold, silver and bronze, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen for the construction of the Tabernacle. The actual building of the Tabernacle commences in chapter 36. The Lord chose Bezalel, son of Uri, for the task of constructing the gold, silver and bronze elements, and Oholiab, son of Ahisamak, for the ability to teach others to work with the yarn and linen. The chapter goes on to record the production of the curtains mentioned earlier in the book.
Next, Exodus 38 records the construction of the courtyard, complete with a blue, purple and scarlet curtain for the entrance. Finally, Exodus 39 explains how the Israelites made priestly garments. The chapters are all rather repetitive, but they emphasise the importance of the colour blue, as well as purple and scarlet.
Blue continues to be important to the Israelites in the Book of Numbers. Chapter four records God’s instruction to Moses and Aaron to take a census of all the Levite clans. The Kohathite clan is responsible for covering the Tabernacle curtain with a “durable leather” and to “spread a cloth of solid blue over that and put the poles in place.” (verse 6). They are also instructed to lay a blue cloth over plates, dishes and bowls, the lampstand, the gold altar and any articles used for ministering in the sanctuary.
Finally, we move away from the Tabernacle when we reach Numbers 15:38: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel.’” The tassels, or tzitzit, are still worn by orthodox Jews today. There have been several opinions about the significance of this blue cord (tekhelet), including representing the noonday sky and that it is the colour of God’s glory.
The next mention of the colour blue occurs in 2 Chronicles. A large part of the book focuses on the construction of Solomon’s Temple. 2 Chronicles 2:7 states, “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.” These are the same colours (except crimson instead of scarlet) used for the Tabernacle.
A man named Huram-Abi was sent to work on the Temple by Hiram. He was “trained to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, stone and wood, and with purple and blue and crimson yarn and fine linen.” (verse 14) In the following chapter, a curtain of blue, purple and crimson yarn is recorded.
The next book of the Bible to feature the colour blue is Esther. Chapter one, which focuses on the deposition of Queen Vashti, also describes the citadel of Susa. Verse 6 tells us, “The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones.”
The book of Esther contains the story of Haman, the enemy of the Jews. By chapter 8, he has been defeated, and King Xerxes gives Queen Esther Haman’s estate. Mordecai was also rewarded by the king, and “When Mordecai left the king’s presence, he was wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold and a purple robe of fine linen. And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration.” (Esther 8:15)
The book of Jeremiah mentions the colour once. On this occasion, the blue does not reference God as it may have done in the curtains of the Tabernacle. Instead, in chapter ten, God warns the Israelites of the dangers of false gods and idols. He reports that skilled workers hammer gold and silver, then “What the craftsman and goldsmith have made is then dressed in blue and purple”. (Jeremiah 10:9) God tells them that he is the true God and any other god or idol will perish.
Ezekiel 23 talks about Assyrian warriors “clothed in blue, governors and commanders, all of them handsome young men, and mounted horsemen.” (verse 6) In this instance, the colour blue has moved away from representing God’s glory and become an indication of importance – similar, in a way, to Mordecai’s garments in the book of Esther.
Yet, Ezekiel 27 reveals that clothing yourself in blue fabric does not give you the same status as God. In a lament, God reminds the people of Tyre that “Fine embroidered linen from Egypt was your sail and served as your banner; your awnings were of blue and purple from the coasts of Elishah.” (verse 7) Yet, Tyre has now fallen. “In your marketplace they traded with you beautiful garments, blue fabric, embroidered work and multicoloured rugs with cords twisted and tightly knotted.” (verse 24) Still, Tyre was destroyed.
This leaves one final mention of the colour blue. “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.” (Revelation 9:17)
Except for the latter, all fifty-odd references to the colour blue relate to God, the service to God and godly living. The building of the Tabernacle and construction of the Temple occurred when blue dyes were harder to come across, so they were only used for something special, and what is more special than God? As time went on, people began to use the colour blue to signify their rank and importance, but God put them back in their place.
With this meaning in mind, it is clear why artists chose to use blue for Mary’s clothing in the Nativity Scene. She was chosen by God to be the mother of his son and is, therefore, important in his eyes.
Today, the colour blue has lost this sacredness. No one looks at blue paint, blue curtains, blue books or a blue football shirt and thinks of God. Fortunately, unlike the people of Tyre, we are not attempting to elevate ourselves to God’s level by using this colour. We use it because it is now readily available.
Purple is a secondary colour made by combining red and blue. The word was first used in English in the year 975 AD, although it was spelt purpul. Many shades get confused as purple, for example, violet and lilac, but purple has its place on the traditional colour wheel. The confusion arises from the term Tyrian purple, which ranged from crimson to bluish purple. To make things more confusing, each country tends to have a different definition of purple, resulting in a variety of shades. In France, purple is described as “a dark red, inclined toward violet,” and in German, the word Purpurrot means “purple-red”.
Confusion aside, it is generally agreed that purple is the colour of kings, nobles, priests and magistrates. This idea formed as early as 950 BC, and it is believed the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt wore purple, as did Alexander the Great. The Roman custom of wearing purple togas may have stemmed from this or may have been introduced by the Etruscans. An Etruscan tomb painting from the 4th century BC shows a nobleman wearing deep purple.
The Byzantine Empire continued to use purple as the imperial colour. In Western Europe, Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne, was buried in a purple shroud. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, the colour lost its imperial status and was replaced with scarlet.
Throughout the medieval and Renaissance eras, purple was phased out of royal clothing and cardinals were no longer allowed to wear the colour on the orders of Pope Paul II (1417-71). On the other hand, purple robes became the standard among students of divinity.
The colour purple regained its popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries. Paintings of Catherine the Great (1729-96) show her wearing a light purple dress, although some may call this mauve. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) wore a gown of a similar colour to the Royal Exhibition of 1862, which encouraged factories to produce purple dyes, making them readily available to everyone and not just royalty.
Purple became a popular choice of colour amongst Pre-Raphaelite artists, and it was said to be the favourite colour of the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). George VI (1895-1952) wore purple for his official portrait, and his daughter, Elizabeth II (b. 1926), used the colour on the invitations to her coronation.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Suffragettes adopted purple, white and green as the colours of women’s liberation. On a less positive note, in Nazi concentration camps, non-conformist religious groups were required to wear a purple triangle.
Purple is less naturally occurring than other colours, but there are a few animals described as purple. These include purple frogs, purple queenfish, purple sea urchins, purple herons, purple finches, purple honeycreepers and one of the colours of the imperial amazon parrot. The latter is the national bird of Dominica and appears on their flag, making it the only flag to contain the colour purple. Purple plants include hydrangeas, pansies, copper beech trees, irises, alfalfa, alpine asters, wisteria and lavender.
There are several “Purple Mountains” around the world, some of which are so named due to the colour of the rock, and others because of the shade the clouds form at dawn and dusk. These mountains can be found in Nanjing (China), Ireland, Wyoming, Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Colorado.
Although the colour purple had been phased out of imperial families, the British Royal Family continues to use the colour on ceremonial and special occasions. In Roman Catholic Liturgy, purple symbolises penitence, and priests may wear a purple stole when they hear a confession. They also wear a purple stole or chasuble during the periods of Lent and Advent.
In other traditions, purple is associated with vanity and extravagance. This is because it is a colour that attracts attention. It is a colour associated with the artificial and unconventional due to the infrequency of its appearance in nature. It was also the first colour to be synthesised.
In the past, purple was a sign of mourning in Britain. The first year after a death, mourners traditionally wore black, and in the second year, they wore purple. This may have stopped being common practice after Queen Victoria decided to wear black for the rest of her widowhood.
In China, purple represents awareness, physical and mental wellbeing, strength, and abundance. In some cases, it also symbolises luck. In Japan, it is the colour of wealth and privilege. On the Thai solar calendar, it is associated with Saturday. Grieving widows in Thailand wear purple as a sign of mourning.
The colour purple is also significant in the Bible. It appears roughly thirty times in the book of Exodus when describing the decoration of the tabernacle. The Israelites were instructed to make several curtains “twenty cubits long, of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen.” (Exodus 27:16)
Later, in the book of Numbers, the Kohathite tribe are instructed to “remove the ashes from the bronze altar and spread a purple cloth over it” (Numbers 4:13) every time the tabernacle is moved.
Purple also appears in the books of Esther and Jeremiah. The garden of the palace of Susa was decorated with blue linen and cords of white and purple. (Esther 1:6) When King Xerxes rewarded Mordecai after the death of Haman, Mordecai was dressed in royal garments of blue and a purple robe of fine linen. (Esther 8:15) In Jeremiah, we are told that people had started to dress in blue and purple, believing themselves to be as important as God, but God put them back in their place.
In the book of Judges, we are told that purple garments are the clothing of kings. In the book of Daniel, King Belshazzar announces that whoever interprets the strange writing on the wall will be awarded purple clothing.
Judges 8:26: The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels, not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels’ necks.
Daniel 5:7: The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”
Daniel 5:29: Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom.
The epilogue of Proverbs 31 tells of the wife of a noble character. The chapter tells us she is worth more than rubies and should be honoured. She provides for her husband and looks after her household. She makes sure there is always something for her family to eat, but also, “she is clothed in fine linen and purple,” (Proverbs 31:22), a noble, respected colour.
On the other hand, the poem in Lamentations 4 reveals that wearing purple does not equate to godly status. The colour does not protect people from God’s wrath or entitle them to sin without punishment. “Those brought up in royal purple now lie on ash heaps.” (Lamentations 4:5) These self-important people, clothed in royal colours, have become the victims of God’s anger.
The most noteworthy use of purple occurs in two of the Gospels, Mark and John. Although purple is a royal colour, it is used negatively in these books. After Jesus was arrested, he was crowned with thorns and mocked for being the “King of the Jews.” What is often missed out of this story is the purple robe in which they dress him.
Mark 15:17: They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him.
Mark 15:20: And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
John 19:2: The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe
John 19:5: When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
Purple was the colour of kings, the colour of important people, but the Romans used the colour as a way to mock and torment Jesus.
Purple is also mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, however, not in relation to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” (Luke 16:19) This is the opening line of one of Jesus’ teachings. A beggar named Lazarus died outside the rich man’s home. Later, the rich man died, but in the afterlife, or Hades, as the NIV states, the rich man notices Lazarus has been honoured with a place next to Abraham. When questioning why he did not also receive this honour, the rich man was told, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” (Luke 16:25) This is an example of the colour purple representing extravagance and vanity.
There are four more mentions of the colour purple in the Bible. They each indicate someone’s wealth and status, but only one has positive connotations:
Acts 16:14: One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.
Revelations 17:4: 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.
Revelation 18:12: 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
Revelation 18:16: Woe! Woe to you, great city,dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet,and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!
Overall, the colour purple is symbolic of God. Although bad things happened to some people who wore purple, it is not the colour that was the cause but their actions. Purple is a colour that represents royalty, wealth and nobility, but unless we put God first, it does not matter what we wear.
Some may argue that black is not a colour, but Wikipedia describes it as the darkest colour. It is an achromatic colour, which means it has no colour hue. White and grey are two other achromatic colours. Symbolically, black is used to represent darkness, but there are several other meanings associated with the colour.
Black was the first colour used in cave paintings. Palaeolithic cave paintings produced between 18,000 and 17,000 years ago used charcoal or burnt bones to produce the colour black. The ancient Latin and Greek words for black also translate as “to burn”.
The Ancient Egyptians believed black was the colour of fertility due to the colour of the soil that had once been flooded by the River Nile. The Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, associated black with death and the underworld because they believed the waters of the River Acheron, that separated Hades from the living world, were black.
Initially, in Ancient Rome, craftsmen and artisans wore the colour black, but by the second century, the colour had been adopted by Roman magistrates when attending funeral ceremonies. Thus, black became a symbol of death and mourning.
By the 12th century, black was the traditional colour of Benedictine monks as a sign of humility and penitence. Yet, two centuries later, the meaning of black changed once again. Due to more expensive processes of producing black dyes, the colour became common amongst the wealthy and signified their importance and position in society. This change spread from Italy to France, eventually reaching England during the reign of Richard II (1367-1400). By the end of the 16th century, almost all monarchs and royal courts in Europe wore black.
Although black was the colour worn by members of the Catholic clergy, it later became the colour of the Protestant Reformation and the English Puritans. John Calvin (1509-64), amongst other Protestant theologians, denounced the richly coloured interiors of Catholic churches, claiming they represented luxury and sin. Ironically, around the same period, the colour became associated with witchcraft and the devil. People feared that the devil would appear at midnight during a ceremony known as Black Mass or Black Sabbath in the form of a goat, dog, wolf or bear, accompanied by black creatures, such as cats or snakes.
During the Industrial Revolution, black became associated with the colour of dirt, coal and smog. In literature, it became the colour of melancholy, and in politics, the colour of anarchism. In the 20th century, it was adopted by fascism and intellectual and social rebellion. On the other hand, it had an alternative meaning in fashion. Black became the colour of evening dress for men, and Coco Chanel popularized the little black dress.
The Black Power movement and the slogan “Black is Beautiful” fought for equal rights for African Americans during the 1950s. In the 1990s, the Black Standard became the banner of many Islamic extremists groups. Black is also associated with subcultures, such as Goths.
Today, the colour black has different meanings all over the world. In China, it represents water, which is one of their five fundamental elements. It also represents the direction north, which is symbolised by a black tortoise. In Japan, black means mystery, the night, the supernatural, the invisible and death. A black belt in Japanese martial arts symbolises experience. In Indonesia, black represents demons, disaster and the left hand.
In Islam, Muhammad’s soldiers carried a black banner, hence, the Black Standard of some Islamic groups. In Hinduism, the goddess of time and change is called Kali, which means “the black one”. According to mythology, she destroys anger and passion.
With so many variants on the meaning of the colour black, what does it represent in the Bible? In Christian mythology, black was the colour of the universe before God created light. Occasionally, the devil is known as “the prince of darkness”, a term that was used in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The colour black appears less than twenty times in the Bible, and, on some occasions, the NIV translates the word as “dark” or “darkness”. These Bible verses tend to refer to famines, wars and sorrow. An example of this is Job 30:30: “My skin grows black and peels”. Job is lamenting his fate and refers to “blackness” many times throughout the book; however, it is only in reference to the colour of his skin as a result of lack of nourishment that he uses the word “black”.
The colour black also represents the deceitful treatment of Job’s friends, although the NIV quotes “darkness”. Similarly, black or darkness symbolises God’s judgement and punishment of sins. A handful of times, black horses were used as a symbol of sorrow and famine. In Zechariah 6, four chariots are pulled by different coloured horses. Each travels in a different direction, the black one going north, i.e. Babylon, where punishment will be given out. Verses involving black horses include:
Zechariah 6:2: The first chariot had red horses, the second black.
Zechariah 6:6: The one with the black horses is going toward the north country, the one with the white horses toward the west, and the one with the dappled horses toward the south.
Revelation 6:5: When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand.
Another symbol of God’s judgement is the darkening of the sky.
Deuteronomy 4:11: You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness.
1 Kings 18:45: Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel.
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.
In the latter example, the black sun would result in total darkness, like the universe before God created light. It is an absence of God.
Not all references to the colour black have negative connotations. In some instances, black represents good health. Whilst, yellow hair in a wound was a sign of uncleanliness or leprosy, a black hair, i.e. a natural coloured hair, gave the afflicted a clean bill of health. “If, however, the sore is unchanged so far as the priest can see, and if black hair has grown in it, the affected person is healed. They are clean, and the priest shall pronounce them clean.” (Leviticus 13:37)
If a wound contains no black hair, the priests were instructed to isolate the person in case an illness developed. “But if, when the priest examines the sore, it does not seem to be more than skin deep and there is no black hair in it, then the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days.” (Leviticus 13:31) Deuteronomy 14:12-13 states the same virtually word for word.
There are many black animals in the world, including, bears, spiders, snakes, panthers and birds. Two black birds are listed as unclean animals that the Israelites were unable to eat. “These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite.” (Leviticus 11:13-14) Another black bird is mentioned in Song of Songs as a simile to describe the hair colour of “the beloved”. (Song of Songs 5:11)
A final mention of black hair occurs during the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus warns people not to break an oath or even make an oath in the first place. “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” It is wrong to swear things on heaven for it belongs to God. Jesus also instructs people to not swear by their head. “And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.” (Matthew 5:36)
So, what does black represent in the Bible? Most examples relate to sin, judgement and “dark times”. There is no getting away from the fact that black has negative connotations. On the other hand, the other verses show that not all black things are bad. There are naturally occurring black things in the world that have not come about due to sin, for example, ravens and hair. We must not be quick to judge something by its colour; we should not be so black and white (pardon the pun) about the world. This way of thinking can debunk many thoughts, ideas and stereotypes about the world, for instance, assumptions about a Goth’s choice of clothing, and no one should ever be judged by their skin colour.
Like black, white is an achromatic colour. The word derives from the same roots as “bright” and “light”, which describe the colour white. Along with black, white was one of the first colours used in cave paintings. Palaeolithic artists used chalk or calcite to produce white markings.
In Ancient Egypt, white was connected with the goddess Isis who, according to myth, resurrected her dead husband. The priestesses of Isis dressed only in white linen, and Egyptians used the same material to wrap mummies. In Ancient Greece, white represented life and nourishment, particularly concerning a mother’s milk. The Ancient Greeks and other civilisations also saw white as a counterpart to black in terms of light and darkness.
In Ancient Roman, Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and family, was said to wear white linen robes. Thus, white became a symbol of purity, loyalty and chastity. White was also worn at ceremonial occasions by Roman citizens between the ages of 14 and 18. A man who wished to be elected to public office wore a white toga known as a toga candida. This is from where the word candidate originates.
The early Christian church adopted the Roman concept of white representing purity and virtue. Priests were expected to wear white during mass, and it became the colour of the Cistercian Order and the official colour worn by the Pope. Similarly, in the secular world, a white unicorn was used as a symbol of purity, chastity and grace. Legend said only a virgin could capture a unicorn.
Whereas black is the traditional colour of mourning today, before the 16th century, widows commonly wore white. Later, in the 18th century, white became a fashionable colour for both men and ladies. White wigs and stockings became a typical part of male dress for the upper classes. There was also an unwritten rule that all underwear and bed linen must be white. These items were washed more than others, so more likely to fade and wear out.
According to science, we see the colour white when an object reflects all light and colour wavelengths. Snow is white because the ice reflects the sunlight. Clouds are white because the water droplets do not absorb any wavelengths. The White Cliffs of Dover are white because they are made of limestone, which reflects lights. White beaches occur when the sand is made up of limestone or quartz particles, from which light is reflected.
Many animals use the colour of their skin, fur or feathers as a means of camouflage. White animals are particularly good at hiding in the winter when the land is covered in snow. White animals include ermine, stoats, polar bears, the Beluga whale, and white doves. The latter have become an international symbol of peace.
There are many interpretations of the meaning and symbolism of the colour white. In Western cultures, white usually represents innocence and purity. It is also associated with beginnings and is why babies and children are usually baptised wearing white. Queen Elizabeth II wears white at the opening of each British Parliament session. Debutantes wear white at their first ball. White has been the traditional colour of wedding dresses since the 19th century.
White is a sign of cleanliness. Objects to be kept clean are typically white, for example, dishes, refrigerators, toilets, sinks, bed linen, towels, doctors’ coats and chefs’ outfits. White can also mean peace or surrender. Originating during the Hundred Years’ War, a white flag is used to request a truce or indicate surrender.
In the Bible, white is also a symbol of purity, innocence, honesty and cleanliness; but there are other meanings. One repeated representation is illness, particularly concerning skin disease. When someone is ill, they usually look pale or white, particularly in the hands and face. Verses that refer to this idea include:
Exodus 4:6: Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.
Leviticus 13:4: If the shiny spot on the skin is white but does not appear to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest is to isolate the affected person for seven days.
Leviticus 13:10-26: (10) The priest is to examine them, and if there is a white swelling in the skin that has turned the hair white and if there is raw flesh in the swelling… (13) the priest is to examine them, and if the disease has covered their whole body, he shall pronounce them clean. Since it has all turned white, they are clean… (16-17) If the raw flesh changes and turns white, they must go to the priest. The priest is to examine them, and if the sores have turned white, the priest shall pronounce the affected person clean; then they will be clean… (19-21) and in the place where the boil was, a white swelling or reddish-white spot appears, they must present themselves to the priest. The priest is to examine it, and if it appears to be more than skin deep and the hair in it has turned white, the priest shall pronounce that person unclean. It is a defiling skin disease that has broken out where the boil was. But if, when the priest examines it, there is no white hair in it and it is not more than skin deep and has faded, then the priest is to isolate them for seven days.
Leviticus 13:38-43: (38-39) When a man or woman has white spots on the skin, the priest is to examine them, and if the spots are dull white, it is a harmless rash that has broken out on the skin; they are clean… (42-43) But if he has a reddish-white sore on his bald head or forehead, it is a defiling disease breaking out on his head or forehead. The priest is to examine him, and if the swollen sore on his head or forehead is reddish-white like a defiling skin disease.
Numbers 12:10: When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous—it became as white as snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease.
2 Kings 5:27: Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.
Joel 1:7: It has laid waste my vines and ruined my fig trees. It has stripped off their bark and thrown it away, leaving their branches white.
The example from Joel talks about plants rather than humans. Joel speaks about a plague of locusts that have destroyed his vines and fig trees, stripping them of their bark. The inner layers of many trees are white, as mentioned in the book of Genesis: “Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches.” (Genesis 30:37)
Sometimes, the writers of the Bible used the colour white to describe something’s appearance. In these cases, they may not contain hidden meanings but rather a way of helping the reader picture the scene.
Genesis 49:12: His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth white from milk.
Exodus 16:31: The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.
Leviticus 11:18: the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey
Deuteronomy 14:16: the little owl, the great owl, the white owl
Judges 5:10: You who ride on white donkeys, sitting on your saddle blankets, and you who walk along the road.
There are many examples of white as a symbol of purity. A couple of these refer to the repentance of sin, for example:
Ecclesiastes 9:8: Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil.
Isaiah 1:18: “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.”
Other references to white as a symbol of purity appear in verses about Jesus, particularly after his resurrection or during his transfiguration.
Matthew 17:2: There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.
Matthew 28:3: His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.
Mark 9:3: His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.
Mark 16:5: As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
John 20:12: and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
Acts 1:10: They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.
In the Book of Esther, the gardens of the palace of Susa contained white hangings and, later, Mordecai was clothed in blue and white. This also refers to purity as well as peace.
Esther 1:6: The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones.
Esther 8:15: When Mordecai left the king’s presence, he was wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold and a purple robe of fine linen. And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration.
The remaining examples of the colour white all relate to prophesy. White horses symbolise truth and righteousness. The other prophetic uses of the colour likely refer to similar things, although scholars have debated at length over their exact meaning. The majority appear in the book of Revelation.
Daniel 7:9: As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool.
Zechariah 1:8: 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 6:3: the third white, and the fourth dappled—all of them powerful.
Revelation 1:14: The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.
Revelation 2:17: Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
Revelation 3:4-5: Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.
Revelation 3:18: I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Revelation 4:4: Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.
Revelation 6:2: I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
Revelation 7:9: After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
Revelation 7:13-14: Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Revelation 14:14: I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand.
Revelation 19:14: The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.
Revelation 20:11: Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.
So ends the brief introduction to The Importance of Colours in the Bible.
The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City is one of the most visited chapels in the world due to its impressive fresco paintings by the Renaissance painter Michelangelo Buonarroti (1474-1564). In 1505 Pope Julius II (1443-1513) asked Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, which at 68ft high was a daunting task. Initially, Michelangelo refused. He wanted to be known as a sculptor rather than a painter but eventually agreed to the job in 1508. For four years, Michelangelo stood on high platforms, painting the ceiling above his head with Biblical scenes and characters. After completion, Michelangelo happily returned to his sculptures, only returning to the chapel to paint a fresco above the altar in 1536.
For a limited time, people in London can see a life-sized, close-up of Michelangelo’s paintings. Those who have visited the Sistine Chapel will know that it is impossible to study the ceiling in detail because of the height of the building. This unique exhibition brings copies of the paintings down to ground level, where visitors can appreciate them for their unique features and grandeur. Located at the Cannon Factory near Tottenham Hale, London, the COVID-safe experience provides a never-before-seen perspective of Michelangelo’s timeless masterpieces.
The central section of the ceiling is made up of nine paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Genesis. Whilst they are not in chronological order, the paintings are grouped into three themes: Creation, Downfall, and Fate of Humanity. The exhibition positioned the paintings in the order they appear when entering the chapel, meaning the Book of Genesis appears to read backwards. Some historians suggest Michelangelo chose to paint them in this order to symbolise a return to a state of grace as people approach the altar.
The first three ceiling panels closest to the entrance of the chapel (and exhibition) tell the story of Noah, from the sixth to ninth chapters of Genesis. Noah was the 10th and final patriarch of the Bible before the Great Flood. God wanted to return the Earth to “its pre-creation state of watery chaos and then remake it in a reversal of creation.” All except Noah and his family were corrupt and violent, so God instructed Noah to build an Ark to save themselves and two of every animal from the oncoming deluge.
The scene nearest the door depicts Noah after the flood. According to Genesis 9, Noah grew drunk on the wine produced from the newly cultivated vines. As a result, he passed out and exposed his nakedness. Two of his sons, Shem and Japheth, discreetly covered their father with a cloak to protect his modesty. Ham, the third son, mocked his father instead. When Noah found out about this, he cursed Ham, saying that Ham’s descendants would serve Shem and Japheth’s descendants forever. Some Christian theologians interpret Ham’s mockery of Noah as a projection of the mockery of Jesus in the New Testament.
The second panel concerning Noah depicts the Great Flood, which is the largest punishment God inflicted on man. After instructing Noah to build an Ark, God sent 40 days of rain to flood the earth, destroying all life in the process. Michelangelo’s painting illustrates the onset of the flood. Noah’s ark is floating away in the background, where a single white dove sits in one of the hatches. Noah later sent out the dove to search for land, and it returned holding an olive branch. Since then, the dove has symbolised peace and hope. While Noah and his family sail away, the people in the foreground frantically search in vain for shelter as the flood levels rise.
The third scene comes chronologically after the flood but before the drunkenness of Noah. When Noah and his family eventually found land, the first thing Noah did was build an altar and sacrifice some of the animals to the Lord. Seeing this, God said, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” Christian Theologians suggest all three panels forecast events of the New Testament – the mockery of Christ (Noah’s drunkenness), baptism (Great Flood), and Christ’s death on the cross (Noah’s sacrifice).
The second group of paintings tell the story of Adam and Eve, from their creation until their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. When approaching the middle of the chapel from the entrance, the first panel is the last chronologically and combines two scenes: the fall of man and the expulsion from paradise. On the left-hand side, Eve reaches up to take the fruit of knowledge from the serpent. When God created the first man and woman, He told them they could eat the fruit of any trees, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. By accepting the fruit from the serpent, depicted as Lilith, Eve is going against God’s will. According to Genesis 3, Eve gave some of the fruit to Adam, but in Michelangelo’s depiction, Adam reached out to take the fruit from the tree. Most Western Christian artists use an apple tree to symbolise the forbidden fruit, but Michelangelo chose a fig tree instead.
On the right-hand side, the archangel Michael expels Adam and Eve from Eden. His sword represents the flaming sword that prevented the couple from returning to the garden. Michael is not mentioned in the account in Genesis, but Michelangelo included the angel to emphasise the man and woman were banished from the presence of God. Adam and Eve were forced to fend for themselves and eventually die in the wilderness.
In the centre of the chapel ceiling is a panel depicting the creation of Eve. Due to its position, the composition is smaller than the rest of the scenes from Genesis. Using inspiration from paintings by other Italian artists, Michelangelo portrayed Adam in a deep sleep, whilst Eve stands up and reaches towards her God and creator, who Michelangelo represents as an elderly man. According to Genesis 2:21-22, “God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”
The third scene in the Adam and Eve story is perhaps the most famous painting in the Sistine chapel and art history. Once again, God is depicted as an elderly man, who reaches out to touch Adam to impart the spark of life. Surrounding God are twelve figures about whose identities are often argued. The woman under God’s left arm is generally accepted as Eve due to her resemblance to Eve in Michelangelo’s other paintings and her gaze toward Adam.
Christian theologians have analysed The Creation of Adam in great depth. As a sculptor, Michelangelo was familiar with human anatomy. When discussing the painting in a medical journal, someone pointed out that the proportions of Adam’s torso were slightly off to encompass an extra rib – the rib God later used to create Eve. Others suggest the red cloak surrounding God represents the human womb and the twelve figures, the future human race. Another medical hypothesis concerns the shape of God’s head in comparison to Adam’s smoother brow. The shape of the head Michelangelo gave God is more anatomically accurate to house a brain. This means Adam, who had not yet eaten from the tree of knowledge, did not have a fully formed brain.
The last three scenes before reaching the altar come from the first chapter of Genesis, during which God created the world in six days. In the first painting, Michelangelo depicts God breaking through the background to represent the separation of the waters from the heavens – the second day of creation. The movement of God’s body and his outstretched hands suggest His elemental powers and strength.
The next scene illustrates days three and four of creation. On the left, God faces away from the viewer, pointing His hand towards some green plants. On the third day, God created dry land and commanded, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” On the right, God’s outstretched arms point towards the sun and moon, which He placed in the sky on the fourth day “to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” The way Michelangelo paints God’s robe and hair suggest God is moving at speed across the sky.
Despite being the last scene displayed on the ceiling, the final painting depicts the first stage of the creation narrative. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’.” Michelangelo depicts God from below amidst swirling black and white clouds to demonstrate the separation of night and day. Some theologians liken the image to the Last Judgement, with the light representing God’s chosen people and the dark, the condemned.
As well as the nine scenes from Genesis, the Sistine Chapel ceiling contains pendentives (triangular sections) featuring figures from the Bible and mythology. Twelve of these are categorised as prophetic figures, twelve people who prophesied the coming of a Messiah. Seven are male prophets from the Bible, and the remaining five are female prophetesses or Sibyls from classical mythology.
Above the altar sits Jonah, a reluctant prophet famously swallowed by a large fish. Some Bible scholars believe the Book of Jonah is fictional, but whether it is a story or not, Jonah is considered a foreshadowing of Christ. Between the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection, He spent three days in the tomb. This is the same length of time that Jonah spent in the belly of the fish. Michelangelo includes the image of a large fish beside the sitting figure of Jonah, although it does not look large enough to swallow a man whole.
The prophet Jeremiah sits on the left side of the altar with his head bowed in anguished meditation. Known as the “weeping prophet”, Jeremiah was called by God to proclaim Jerusalem’s coming destruction. According to Jewish tradition, Jeremiah wrote the Book of Jeremiah, the Books of Kings and the Book of Lamentations. The latter is a collection of his laments for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Michelangelo captures Jeremiah’s emotional pain and reflects the same emotions in the two figures standing behind the prophet. It is suggested that Jeremiah is a self-portrait of Michelangelo lamenting his fate as a painter when he would rather earn a reputation as a sculptor.
Michelangelo depicts the prophet Ezekiel as an elderly man. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, but he also spoke of the restoration of the land of Israel. The figure of Ezekiel twists in his seat to look at a smaller figure, who is pointing upwards, either towards God or at the painting of the fall of man. Art historians suggest Ezekiel’s open hand demonstrates his amazement and readiness to receive a message from God.
Joel is also represented as an elderly man. The prophet is only mentioned once by name in the Hebrew Bible, in the introduction to the Book of Joel. No one knows for sure when Joel lived and what events he witnessed. In his writings, Joel told people to repent of their sins and promised their safety on “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Michelangelo painted Joel with his brow furrowed as he concentrates on his words of wisdom. Some believe Michelangelo based the prophet’s face on the Italian architect Donato Bramante (1445-1514), who helped Michelangelo design the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican.
Sitting above the entrance to the chapel is the prophet Zechariah, who proclaimed, “Behold, your King is coming to you … Lowly and riding on a donkey…”(Zechariah 9:9). This prophesied the entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, which is celebrated annually on Palm Sunday. His position over the door is symbolic of the entrance the Pope enters in the Palm Sunday procession. Traditionally, Zechariah is portrayed as a young man, but Michelangelo chose to depict him in his old age. This helps to emphasise Zechariah’s profound prophetic abilities.
Isaiah is portrayed as a younger figure who has just been disturbed from his reading by two small figures. Each painting of the prophets features two figures that may represent the conveyors of God’s message. Isaiah foretold the death of the coming Messiah. Many of his prophecies are repeated in the New Testament, particularly concerning the death and resurrection of the “Suffering Servant”. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
Even younger in appearance is Daniel, who spent many years working as a scribe for King Nebuchadnezzar (642-562 BC). The open book on Daniel’s lap may reference his career or allude to his ability to interpret dreams. Michelangelo used scrolls and books to highlight the prophets’ intellect, but Daniel is the only one who appears to be writing, as though recording his interpretations and prophecies for future generations. Unlike Jonah, whose famous encounter with a giant fish is documented in the painting, there is no reference to Daniel’s experience in the lion’s den, where he was thrown after disobeying the rule that forbade prayer.
Michelangelo included five Sibyls from classical mythology to emphasise the Messiah came for both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). The Persian Sibyl, also known as the Babylonian, Hebrew or Egyptian Sibyl, may have authored the Sibylline Oracle, although some scholars believe the Persian Sibil was more than one person. Michelangelo alluded to this theory by portraying the Sibyl with a book in her hands. The Sibylline Oracles contained information about pagan mythology and Old Testament events, including the Garden of Eden, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Fragments surviving from the 7th century AD also contain details about the Roman Empire and early Christian writings.
The Erythraean Sibyl came from modern-day Turkey, where she prophesied the coming of the Messiah through an acrostic, which read “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior, Cross” in Greek. The Sibyl forecast other events in the life of Jesus, and St. Augustine (354-430), the bishop of Hippo, referenced her prophecies in his book The City of God. Michelangelo acknowledged the Sibyl’s wisdom by portraying her reading a book. He also depicted divine enlightenment by including a small figure lighting an oil lamp above her head.
The Delphic Sibyl looks up from her scroll with a slightly worried look upon her face, as though she has just envisioned an unpleasant future event. The Delphic Sibyl predated the Trojan War (11th century BC) and made several prophecies about events written about in classical mythology. She also foresaw that the Messiah would be mocked with a crown of thorns.
Michelangelo depicted the Cumaean Sibyl as an elderly lady. She presided over a Greek colony located near Naples, Italy. According to the poet Ovid, she lived for at least 1000 years. Ovid claimed the god Apollo offered her longevity in exchange for her virginity. She agreed, and taking a handful of sand, asked to live for as many years as the grains she held. Unfortunately, eternal youth did not come as part of the bargain. During her long life, the Cumaean Sibyl foretold the coming of a Messiah.
The Libyan Sibyl may not have mentioned Christ directly when presiding over the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert, but the Church has interpreted many of her prophesies as connected to the Messiah. For instance, she foretold the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.” The ancient Greeks claimed the Libyan Sibyl, sometimes known as Phemonoe, was the daughter of the Greek god Zeus, and Lamia, a daughter of Poseidon, god of the sea. According to Plutarch (46-119 AD), she also told Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) that he was a divine individual and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt.
In each corner of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a triangular pendentive depicting Biblical stories associated with the salvation of Israel. These are four examples of the more violent ways the People of Israel were saved from their enemies and sinful ways. One illustrated the story of The Brazen Serpent as told in Numbers 21:4–9. Moses had rescued the Israelites from Egypt, but it was a long journey to the Promised Land. They began to complain and turn against God, saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” As punishment, God sent venomous snakes to attack and kill many of the Israelites. Michelangelo depicted the Israelites’ frantic battle with the serpents. In the background, he included an image of a bronze serpent on a pole. To save the Israelites’, God instructed Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” This spectacle, whilst violent, taught the Israelites to trust and obey Moses and the Lord.
Another pendentive illustrates three scenes from the Book of Esther. Rather than telling the story chronologically from left to right, Michelangelo placed the final scene in the middle of the triangle. Esther was the wife of a Persian king who did not know that she came from a Jewish background. The king’s chief vizier, Haman the Agagite, hated the Jews and proposed a massacre to rid Persia of all people of Jewish descent. Haman particularly hated Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, who refused to bow down to the vizier. As a result, Haman persuaded the king to have Mordecai hanged. This part of the narrative is illustrated on the righthand side of the painting. Mordecai begged Esther to intervene by talking to the king, which she is seen doing on the lefthand side. Realising Haman’s plan would also result in Esther’s death, the king hanged Haman instead, as shown in the centre of the pendentive. Thus, the people of Israel were saved from death.
Michelangelo’s painting of David and Goliath only illustrates one scene: Goliath’s death. David, an unlikely hero, defeated the giant warrior of the Philistine army with a slingshot, which ended the war between the Israelites and the Philistines. According to the Book of Samuel, chapter 17, after David knocked Goliath out, he “took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.” Michelangelo’s interpretation is slightly different, with Goliath trying to scramble to his feet while David methodically carries out his task in the name of the Lord. David appears much stronger than the little shepherd boy written about in the Bible and more like the powerful king he later became.
The fourth story comes from the apocryphal Book of Judith, which is not included in most Bibles. Judith was a Jewish woman living in Bethulia around 600 BC. At the time, the city was under attack by King Nebuchadnezzar’s army, led by the Assyrian general, Holofernes. To protect her city and the Israelites who lived there, Judith tricked her way into the enemy encampment where she seduced and intoxicated Holofernes. While he lay in a drunken stupor, Judith cut off his head. Michelangelo’s painting shows Judith and her maid carrying the severed head out of the tent where the headless body of Holofernes remains sprawled on the bed. Having lost their leader, the army dispersed, and the Israelites were saved.
In between the paintings of prophets and Sibyls are eight spandrels (triangular spaces) featuring small families. These are known collectively as the Ancestors of Christ. Whilst Michelangelo labelled each one with a name from the genealogy of Christ mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it is not clear which figure in each artwork is the named individual. Some suggest the ancestor is the child because the scenes are reminiscent of paintings of the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The woman or mother in each spandrel is more noticeable than the man or father, which also reflects the order of importance within the Holy Family, at least within the Catholic faith.
It is generally accepted that both Jesus’ parents descended from King David, whose father was Jesse, also known as Ishai. Jesse is one of the eight ancestors Michelangelo chose to depict. Jesse was a descendant of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. Another ancestor is Asa, the third King of Judah and the fifth king of the House of David, who ruled between 913 and 873 BC. Michelangelo also portrayed Asa’s father, Rehoboam, the grandson of King David. Rehoboam became king after the death of his father, King Solomon. He ruled between 932 and 915 BC, during which the kingdom was divided into northern and southern tribes.
Josiah became King of Judah in 640 BC at the age of eight following the assassination of his father, Amon. Josiah was killed in 609 BC during a battle against the Egyptians. According to 2 Chronicles 35:25, the prophet Jeremiah lamented for Josiah, although there is no mention of the king in the Book of Lamentations. There are other connections between Jesus’ ancestors and the prophets, such as Ezechias, also known as Hezekiah, who often consulted the prophet Isaiah for advice. During Ezechias’ reign as King of Judah between 752 and 687 BC, he witnessed the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (722 BC) and the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, the king of the Neo-Assyrians (701 BC).
Jeremiah stated that no offspring of “Coniah” would sit on the throne of Judah. Scholars assume the prophet meant King Jeconiah, who was taken into captivity in Babylon. His grandson, Zerubbabel was one of the first Jews who returned from this exile and began rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Michelangelo may have chosen to depict Zerubbabel because the Sistine Chapel bore a resemblance to the Temple in size and dimensions. The other two ancestors Michelangelo chose were Uzziah and Salmon. Uzziah was the tenth king of Judah who often sought the advice of the prophet Zechariah. Salmon, on the other hand, was the great-great-grandfather of David. He was the father of Boaz and potentially the husband of Rahab, who famously assisted the Israelites in capturing the city of Jericho.
Twenty-five years after completing the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a reluctant Michelangelo returned to paint the altar wall. He began painting in 1536, by which time Michelangelo was in his early sixties. Despite his age, Michelangelo spent five years painting 390 individual figures to depict the last judgement and second coming of Christ. According to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, Christ will appear and judge the living and dead. The “chosen” people will enter heaven to live eternally with God, and the sinners will be sent to the fires of Hell.
In the centre of the fresco is Christ, whose crucifixion wounds are still visible. His face is turned towards the damned, who are destined for Hell. His mother, the Virgin Mary, stands on his right with her face turned towards the Saved. Positioned around Christ are some of His disciples, such as Peter, who holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Opposite Peter is John the Baptist, recognised by his animal skin cape.
Some of the disciples are recognisable from their attributes or deaths. Saint Thomas, for instance, holds a carpenter’s square, referencing his profession. Saint Bartholomew, on the other hand, holds his old skin, alluding to being skinned alive. Some believe the face on the skin is a self-portrait of Michelangelo.
Michelangelo included a group of angels on clouds. Seven are blowing trumpets, as mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Other angels hold books in which to record the names of the Saved and Damned. Rather than depicting Satan, Michelangelo turned to Classical mythology for his representation of Hell. Charon, the ferryman of Hades, transports the Damned across the river to Hell, where they are received by King Minos, a judge of the Underworld.
In the bottom left corner, the resurrected dead arise from their graves and float up towards the angels and Heaven. Some of the Damned struggle against the devils who pull them towards Hell and others are paralyzed with horror.
On completion, Catholics were divided over the suitability of the painting. Whilst The Last Judgement often appeared in churches, it was unusual to see it over the altar. Others took offence at the nudity of the figures and accused Michelangelo of being insensitive to proper decorum. The Vatican council quickly hired the Mannerist painter Daniele da Volterra (1509-66) to paint discrete drapery over the exposed genitalia. These additions were added after the original paint had dried, so fifteen of them were easy to remove during restoration work between 1990 and 1994. Today, the fresco is a combination of Michelangelo’s intended design and Volterra’s alterations.
Whilst it is no replacement for the real thing, the Sistine Chapel exhibition allows people to look at each section of the ceiling in detail and learn about the history and Biblical significance of each figure and scene. At a time when travel is uncertain due to COVID-19, the exhibition brings the Sistine Chapel to those who cannot visit the Vatican. London is one of the first cities to host Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition and Londoners only have until 2nd January 2022 to visit before it jets off to another location around the world. Cities currently on the waiting list include Madrid, Paris, Lisbon, Sydney, Singapore, New York and São Paulo. Book now to avoid disappointment.
Tickets are available online starting at £11 per adult and £8 per child. Whilst it is open to children, some paintings contain nudity which may be unsuitable for younger visitors.