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!

Reuniting Rubens

For the first time in over 200 years, two landscape paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) have found themselves in the same room. Painted as a pair, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning parted ways in 1803, eventually ending up in the Wallace Collection and National Gallery, respectively. In partnership with VISITFLANDERS, the two paintings are temporarily on display at the Wallace Collection until 15th August 2021, after which they will separate once more. Attracting the likes of Jon Snow, who filmed his visit to the exhibition for Channel 4, the paintings have captured the attention of art lovers and tourists alike, providing what may be a once in a lifetime experience.

The name Rubens is usually associated with historical and mythological paintings, full of action and voluptuous women, rather than the idyllic landscapes shown at the Wallace Collection. Yet, landscape painting had intrigued Rubens since his youth and one of his first teachers specialised in the area. To succeed as an artist, Rubens needed to paint what his commissioners and buyers wanted. Landscape painting was not a respected theme where Rubens lived in Antwerp, so he focused on fleshy figures depicting historical moments in the typical Flemish Baroque tradition.

Towards the end of his career, Rubens moved away from the busy city lifestyle to devote himself to landscape painting. The majority of these Rubens produced as a hobby rather than for profit. Not many knew about the extent of his artistic talents until after he died in 1640.

In 1592, Rubens was serving as an emissary for the Spanish crown. At 53 years old and a widower, he longed to settle down in his homeland. Unlike many artists of his day, Rubens had a considerable amount of money, having worked for the Archdukes of the Spanish Netherlands, Charles I of England, Philip IV of Spain and Queen Marie de Medici of France. After completing his negotiations in England on behalf of Spain, Rubens returned home to Antwerp, where he married 16-year-old Hélène Fourment (1614-73).

Following his marriage, Rubens contented himself by painting his young wife and growing family, whilst spending time in his large garden. Rubens enjoyed painting for pleasure, unrestrained by commissions and deadlines. Throughout his career, Rubens was restricted to the preferences of his patrons and buyers, but in his retirement he had the freedom to choose his subject matter. His love of landscapes resurfaced and he longed for the countryside, away from the pressures of commercial and city life.

In 1635, Rubens purchased an eight-acre country estate in Elewijt, Flemish Brabant. The house, known as the Castle of Het Steen, cost Rubins 93,000 florins and gave him the right to the title of Lord of Het Steen. A three-hour ride (half an hour by car) took Rubens from his home in Antwerp to his “manorial residence with a large stone house and other fine buildings in the form of a castle.” It also had a garden, an orchard, a lake and extensive grassland. The family used the estate as their summer home, returning to the city during the autumn.

Built in the typical Flemish style, the manor house had gabled roofs, red-bricked walls and a crenellated tower. The latter has since been demolished, and the house has also undergone remodelling and renovation over the past centuries. Rubens captured the building as it looked during his day in the paintings, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning. 

The extensive views around Het Steen provided Rubens with the perfect backdrop for many landscape paintings. Although he had produced many landscapes before moving to the estate, his nephew Philip admitted Rubens made the purchase intending to study and paint the landscape. Rubens kept most of these artworks, displaying them at Het Steen. As a result, not many knew of the extent of his oeuvre until after his death.

“Having bought the seignory of Steen, between Brussels and Malines in the year 1630 [sic] he took great pleasure living there in solitude, in order to paint vividly and au naturel the surrounding mountains, plains, valleys and meadows, at the rising and setting of the sun, up to the horizon.” – Philip Rubens

After producing many landscapes, which explored composition, figure and animal placement, light and darkness, and so forth, Rubens finally painted his two most famous landscapes. The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning represent Rubens zenith of his achievements in landscape painting, evidenced by their sheer size and panoramic content.

A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning

In A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, usually shortened to Het Steen, the house is set to the far left, making the extensive open plains the main focus of the painting. The colours suggest it is late summer or early autumn on a sunny morning, although puddles and clouds hint at a recent rainstorm. Whilst the house is a faithful representation, Rubens elevated the view of the land between the foreground and the horizon to produce a continuous panoramic sweep.

On the left, a man drives a cart away from the house, carrying a woman and a trussed calf. Closer to the building is a group of people, which many believe represent Rubens’ family. In the foreground, a hunter and his dog hide behind a large tree stump, keeping a steady gaze on a bevy of partridges. This activity, combined with the altocumulus clouds, gives away the time of day, as does the cart, which is presumably on its way to market. In the distance, maids milk the cows in the pastures.

The Rainbow Landscape

Het Steen sits in the far distance in The Rainbow Landscape, which provides a view of the estate from the other side of the fields. Once again, Rubens raised the level of the viewpoint to encompass the many topographical features. The scene in this painting takes place later in the day after farmhands have already had time to create two haystacks. Yet, the cart carrying more hay in the left-hand corner suggests their workday is far from over. Some art historians propose Rubens based the appearance of the cart driver on his likeness, although it is unlikely he ever contributed to the farm work.

The cart driver greets two milkmaids, one who is balancing a pitcher on her head. Their smiling faces suggest happy workers, which compliments the idyllic landscape. Meanwhile, a herdsman goes about his work, herding cows along a path beside the stream, contrasting with the lively ducks playing in the water. Both the ducks and cows are similar to those in other paintings by Rubens, suggesting he did not paint them from life but memory or imagination.

Whilst there is a lot of activity in the lower half of the painting, it is the sky that captures the viewer’s attention. Spanning the width of the landscape is a double-arced rainbow, which is an unusual feature in artworks from this era. Artists were discouraged from depicting rainbows because their fleeting appearances were difficult to portray accurately. Rubens attempt is impressive, yet it is not true to nature. He chose not to represent its full-colour spectrum, obscuring sections with clouds instead.

The rainbow hints at the recent storm, whose dark clouds are still visible in the distance. The phenomenon also had religious connotations, symbolising God’s divine blessing. In the Bible (Genesis 9:11-15), God made a covenant with his people, promising never to flood the world again. This promise followed the well-known story of Noah’s Ark.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. (Genesis 9:12-15, NIV)

Art historians believe Rubens produced Het Steen and The Rainbow Landscape to be displayed together because they are linked by their subject matter, scale, size and composition. The English landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837) agreed, saying some years after the two paintings were separated: “When pictures painted as companions are separated, the purchaser of one, without being aware of it, is sometimes buying only half a picture. Companion pictures should never be parted…”

Both paintings have similar motifs, such as milkmaids, wagons, cows and fowl. These, along with the inclusion of the manor house, albeit almost unnoticeable in The Rainbow Landscape, suggests the landscapes depicts the same area from different perspectives. Although the paintings represent different times of day, when hung together, they complete a cycle of a late summer’s day.

Another connection between the two paintings is the way Rubens constructed the landscapes. Using X-radiography and infra-red reflectography, the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection have discovered that Rubens produced the paintings in three stages. Rubens began both compositions on a medium-sized panel, upon which he depicted the middle ground leading to the horizon. Rubens then added or commissioned someone to add extensions to the bottom and sides of the panel. Upon these, he extended the landscapes, making them more panoramic. A final extension to the top, bottom and sides, gave the landscapes a dimension of 136 cm x 236 cm (54 in x 93 in).

Careful analysis of the two paintings has revealed images below the top layer of paint, which indicates Rubens developed the composition gradually. Unlike his commissioned work, Rubens did not need to rush and had no deadline. X-rays show Rubens included a seated milkmaid and herdsman on the original panel of The Rainbow Landscape but painted over them after extending the boards. A half-rainbow decorated the sky, which tells us Rubens always intended to include it in the landscape. After increasing the size of the work, Rubens repainted the trees and added the herdsmen and cattle by a river. The ducks, horses and wagon joined the scene after the final extension.

With more space above the horizon to play with, Rubens expanded the rainbow to sweep across the sky. Although it remained a double-arced rainbow, only a section of the second arc is visible in the top right-hand corner. Rubens added touches of blue, pink and yellow to the trees, river and ground to suggest a reflection of the rainbow, although, in reality, the rainbow would make no such impression.

The construction of A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning has similar paint handling and attention to detail as its companion. During the first stage of the painting, Rubens filled the space with open pastures interspersed with trees. As the boards grew, so did the landscape, incorporating a bridge, stream, tree trunk and hunter. Only in the final stage did Rubens paint the house and add the other figures and cart to the composition.

Unlike The Rainbow Landscape, which developed gradually with the expansion of the boards, the painting of Het Steen changed dramatically in the final stages. During the first two stages of the painting process, the composition was typical of Rubens’ landscapes, revealing idyllic farmland and a peaceful environment. When he began the painting, he had no intention of including his house, yet it became a key feature during the latter stages. This element, with the suggestion of the building in the background of The Rainbow Landscape, is what convinces many art historians that the paintings belong together.

Shortly after Rubens died in 1640, the two paintings appeared in a sales catalogue with 312 other works of art from his collection. A version of the catalogue translated for Charles I describes the landscapes as “A great landschap after the life, with little figures in’t uppon a board,” (Het Steen) and “A great landschap where it raines with little Cowes in it” (The Rainbow Landscape). Since they were listed one after the other suggests Rubens’ family intended them to stay together, which they did for many years.

In 1691, both paintings hung in the palace of Juan Gaspar Enríquez de Cabrera, the 10th Admiral of Castile (1625-91) in Madrid, after which they appeared in Genoa in the early 18th century. Records state they belonged to a Genoese banker to the Spanish Crown, Bartolomeo Saluzzo (1651-1705), who bequeathed his art collection to his sons. Constantino Balbi (1676-1741) purchased the landscapes in 1706 and hung them in the Palazzo Balbi. In 1802, art dealers William Buchanan (1777-1864) and Arthur Champernowne (1767-1819) purchased the paintings and brought them to London, where they were displayed at an Oxdenden Street gallery. They quickly became the talking point of the artistic circle in the capital.

Despite attempts to sell the two landscapes as a pair, Buchanan and Champernowne were unsuccessful. Instead, they sold Het Steen to Lady Margaret Beaumont for £1500 in 1803. Little did they know the paintings would not appear in the same room again until 2020. Lady Margaret gave the artwork as a present to her husband Sir George, who pronounced it the “finest landscape I believe [Rubens] ever painted.” On his death in 1823, George Beaumont bequeathed Het Steen and other paintings in his collection to the National Gallery.

In 1815, Champernowne sold The Rainbow Landscape to art collector George Watson-Taylor (1771-1841), who, in turn, sold it to Horatio Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1783-1858) for 2,600 guineas. Walpole hung the painting in the Principle Dining Room at Wolterton Hall in Norfolk, where many people admired it. Allegedly, George IV (1762-1830) attempted to purchase the painting from Walpole shortly before his death in 1830. The landscape remained in Lord Orford’s possession until he decided to sell it in 1856.

Sir Charles Eastlake (1793-1865), the first Director of the National Gallery, attended Lord Orford’s sale intending to reunite Rubens’ landscapes. Unfortunately, one of the wealthiest collectors in Europe, Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-70), was also in attendance and outbid the director. Lord Hertford paid £4,550 for The Rainbow Landscape, which he hung in his London residence, Manchester House. After his death, his son Sir Richard Wallace (1818-90) inherited the house and its contents, thus becoming the new owner of the painting. Wallace extended the house to create a large gallery where he installed the landscape and other notable paintings. After his death, the collection was bequeathed to the nation. The house opened to the public as the Wallace Collection, and The Rainbow Landscape has hung here ever since.

Thanks to the collaboration between the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection, the public have once again been able to view both landscapes in the same room. Unfortunately, the exhibition is ending soon, and the paintings will separate once more. There is speculation that Rubens’ two great landscapes may be reunited permanently in the future. Hopefully, we will not need to wait 200 years to make this a reality.

It is a shame that the exhibition coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer people than expected have visited the Wallace Collection to see the two landscapes in situ. Yet, the display made the national news, proving that the story of two landscape paintings, reunited, at last, has touched the hearts of thousands of people.

Het Steen, now known as Elewijt Castle or Rubenskasteel, still stands. It was briefly used as a prison in 1792 before being abandoned. In 1955, the current owner restored the building, although the tower seen in Rubens’ painting was unsalvageable.

RUBENS: REUNITING THE GREAT LANDSCAPES is open until 15th August 2021 at the Wallace Collection, London. Tickets are free with a suggested donation of £5.


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!

Ólafur Elíasson: In Real Life

your_uncertain_shaddow_crop_eliasson

Olafur Eliasson Your uncertain shadow (colour) 2010

Until 5th January 2020, Tate Modern invites you to become more aware of your senses in an exhibition that focuses on experience. Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson has spent the past thirty years creating a broad body of work, which includes sculpture, photography and installation. By using a variety of materials from metal and cardboard to water and moss, Eliasson explores how people view the world around them whilst also emphasising his concern about nature and climate change, and experimenting with geometric shapes.

Ólafur Elíasson was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1967 to Icelandic Parents Elías Hjörleifsson and Ingibjörg Olafsdorrir. After his parents split up when he was eight years old, Elíasson spent the majority of his time in Denmark with his mother and step-father and his summers with his father in Iceland. His experiences in Iceland, particularly the effects climate change are having on the landscape, have inspired many of his artworks.

Elíasson took part in his first public exhibition at the age of 15, where he displayed landscape drawings and paintings in a small gallery in Denmark. Between 1989 and 1995, he studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, during which time he was awarded the opportunity to travel to New York to work as a studio assistant for the artist Christian Eckhart. In 1993, he had his first solo exhibition in Cologne then, after receiving his degree, Elíasson moved to Berlin where he set up his studio.

In 1996, Elíasson teamed up with Einar Thorsteinn (1942-2015), an Icelandic artist with an interest in geometric shapes and structures. Together, using Thorsteinn’s knowledge of geometry and space and Elíasson’s artistic skill, they worked on several projects. Tate Modern displays around 450 models, prototypes and geometric studies in a giant glass case at the beginning of the exhibition. They have been made from a variety of materials, including copper wire, cardboard, paper, wood, foam and rubber. One model had even been constructed with Lego.

img_mda101667_1600px

Your Spiral View, 2002

Whilst all these models in the first room are only prototypes and ideas, there is a completed work later in the exhibition. Made from stainless steel mirrors, Your Spiral View (2002) is a short tunnel that visitors are welcome to walk through. The geometric shape of the construction obscures the reflection in the mirrors making it impossible to recognise yourself as you walk through the tunnel. Instead of seeing themselves, visitors are met with a kaleidoscope of colour and light.

Elíasson has collaborated with other people for many projects. As well as Thorsteinn, he has worked with architects Sebastian Behmann, Cedric Price (1934-2003), Kjetil Thorsen (b.1958), the novelist Svend Åge Madsen (b.1939) and the landscapist Gunther Vogt. Each person brings something unique to the project, whether it be practical ideas, imagination or an alternative opinion. In his studio, Studio Olafur Eliasson, Elíasson employs over thirty architects, engineers, craftsmen and artist assistants to research and work together on installations, sculptures and large scale commissions.

As well as producing art, Elíasson is a professor at the Berlin Univeristy of the Arts. He has won prizes, such as the Nykredit Architecture Prize (2004), Eckersberg Medal (2004), Prince Eugen Medal (2005), Joan Miró Prize (2007), a Quadriga award (2010) and the Mies van der Rohe Award (2013). Elíasson even had the honour of welcoming the President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (b.1943) to his studio in 2014 as part of the President’s state visit to Germany.

Elíasson’s most recent achievement was being appointed a Goodwill Ambassador earlier this year by the United Nations Development Programme. He aims to advocate for action on climate change and sustainability and emphasises the need to stay positive about the future: “I also think it’s important not to lose sight of what is actually going quite well. There is reason for hope. I believe in hope as such and I’m generally a positive person. And when you think about it: it has never been better to be a young African girl, for instance.” Elíasson lives in Hellerup, Denmark, from which he commutes to his studio in Berlin, with his wife Marianne Krogh Jensen and their adopted children from Ethiopia.

The Model Room leads on to a selection of Elíasson’s early works produced during the 1990s. Visitors are greeted by an entire wall covered in Scandinavian reindeer lichen, a replica of Moss Wall, which Elíasson first created in 1994. Held together with wood and wire, the installation brings unexpected material from the wild outside to the controlled indoor space. Visitors are also drawn to Window Projection, which Elíasson made at art school. A bright light shines the silhouette of a window onto a white wall and not many people can resist making shadow puppets, thus adding to the artwork.

Elíasson uses light in simple ways, for instance, a single spotlight in a darkened room. Titled Wannabee, visitors complete the artwork by standing under the light and posing while their friends take photographs. In a corner, I grew up in solitude and silence consists of a single white candle on a round mirror. Without using any form of electricity, the candle uses the mirror to reflect its light further than a single flame could manage.

These early works reveal Elíasson’s interest in nature and weather, for instance, the perpetual “rain” running down the Regenfenster (Rain Window). Incorporated into an actual window of Tate Modern, visitors do what many people do on a rainy day – watch as the droplets travel from top to bottom. Many of the nature-based installations are based on the artist’s observations in Iceland. Wave machine, for example, replicates the gentle movements of Icelandic waters.

74673190_10217815403128211_1098889514648076288_n

Beauty, 1993

Beauty (1993) combines nature and illumination to produce a fine sheet of rain in the centre of a darkened room. Most people consider rain to be an inconvenience, however, Elíasson appreciates the beauty it can create.

“A rainbow is an alliance: solar gleam, errant cloud, waterdrops in motion, captivated human, changed world.”

The light shining on the falling water produces a rainbow effect. By studying nature and the rainbow phenomenon, Elíasson has artificially produced his own, which, as he said himself, captivates the human mind. Visitors stand around either staring in awe or taking photos in a hushed environment. Yet, if they think Beauty is amazing, they will soon be blown away when they find Din Blinde Passager (Your Blind Passenger) around the corner.

Imagine the thickest fog you have ever seen then multiply it by ten; there you have Din blinde passager. The installation is a 39-metre long room filled with artificial fog and it is only possible to see 1.5 metres ahead. Made from water-soluble fog fluid containing non-toxic polyols (a type of sweetener), Elíasson recreates a spooky natural phenomenon that warps the surrounding world – or even makes it disappear entirely.

Walking through Din Blinde passager is an adventure like none other. It relies on trust – trust in the artist, trust in those around you, and trust that nothing is hiding in the fog. Fluorescent lamps change the colour of the white fog along the way, heightening the experience. Whilst the fog turns everyone into a “blind passenger”, the changes in colour help visitors gradually make their way through the passage.

Installations such as this evoke the question “what is art?” Usually, art is something visible, regardless as to whether it appeals to the viewer. Elíasson’s interpretation of art, however, relies on experience just as much as sight, or more so in this case. He makes people aware of themselves, their bodies and the people around them. Without the fog, people would walk from one side of the room to the other without passing a single thought about what they were doing, yet, in the fog, people are far more aware.

img_0773-1

In real life 2019

From the gloom of the fog, visitors emerge into a room full of colourful reflections. Elíasson has been fascinated with kaleidoscopes since the mid-1990s, which coincided with his love of geometric shapes. He continues to explore these ideas in his recent work In Real Life, which lights up the room with multiple reflections of fractured colours. Made from aluminium, the large sphere is fitted with colour-effect filter glass and hangs from the ceiling. Inside, an LED light shines the green, yellow, orange, red, pink and cyan shades onto the walls, ceilings and anyone in the vicinity. Without the light, the sphere would hang alone, purposeless, however, with the light, it expends its energy, dissolving the boundaries between artwork, location and spectator.

Continuing along the kaleidoscope theme, Elíasson incorporates the outside world into his art in Your Planetary Window (2019), which distorts the view from the second floor of Tate Modern. Geometric mirrors reflect the London scene whilst breaking it into many fragments, almost as though someone has smashed the world into sharp fragments.

Elíasson endeavours to incorporate the outside world in many of his artworks. Being particularly concerned about the rate of climate change, he uses his creativity to make people aware of the state of the world. Intended as a call for action against the climate change emergency, Elíasson often uses glacial ice in his work. Some may recall seeing several blocks of ice outside Tate Britain in 2018. These were blocks that had been fished out of of the water surrounding Greenland and brought to London so that thousands of people could see the damage the warmer climate is causing the Arctic. Greenland loses between 200 to 300 tonnes of glacial ice every year and, like these ice blocks that gradually melted in London temperatures, they can never be reclaimed.

One of Elíasson’s recent artworks, The presence of absence pavilion (2019), illustrates the loss of the glaciers. A bronze cast shows the shape made by a block of ice that has now inevitably melted. This is the space created through the loss of one block of ice; imagine the size of the space if all the glaciers melted. This is something Elíasson has gradually documented over the past twenty years through a series of photographs he took in Iceland.

Travelling back and forth between his parents’ homes, Elíasson spent a lot of time in Iceland. Over the years, he has witnessed first-hand the destruction of the glaciers due to global warming. In 1999, Elíasson photographed the receding glaciers across Iceland. In these images, it is possible to see where the ice had once been, however, they are not as shocking as the photographs taken this year. Elíasson returned to the same sites as his earlier photographs and recorded what the glaciers look like now. Displayed next to each other in the gallery, the changes to the landscape are obvious. Hoping to stir the emotions of the viewer, Elíasson is emphasising the importance of acting now before it is too late.

Around one-third of the exhibits rely on an audience to make the artwork complete. This is part of Elíasson’s attempt to make people more aware of themselves and their surroundings. Used in advertising for the exhibition, Your Uncertain Shadow (colour) proved to be popular with the majority of visitors. Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide (HMI) lamps light up the far wall of one of the rooms, which everyone must walk in front of to reach the next section. Rather than a simple shadow showing up on the wall when someone blocks the light source, four shadows appear instead, each one a different colour. Green, orange, blue and magenta human shapes are reflected on the wall, overlapping each other to create a rainbow of colours.

Seeing a shadow is not a new thing, they appear wherever there is a light source. Seeing multiple shadows in different colours, however, has a vastly different effect. Just as humans are captivated by rainbows in the sky, visitors spend several minutes making shapes on the wall, fully aware of their bodies. The presence of other people in the room is also taken into consideration as their shadows merge into others, making their way from one doorway to the next.

How do we live together? That is what one room-sized exhibit asks. There is no answer but, if the behaviour of the visitors is anything to go by, it may have something to do with staring at the ceiling. A foil mirror stretches from corner to corner of the ceiling, reflecting everything on the ground below. A black stainless steel upside-down arch joins the floor to the ceiling, creating the illusion of a full circle in the mirror. There is no explanation; there are no instructions, yet everyone stares at their reflection. Some people go as far as lying on the floor, meditatively staring up at the ceiling.

Big Bang Fountain is equally ambiguous in meaning. Every couple of seconds, water gushes out of a hole in the centre of a table, however, it can only be viewed for a split second at a time – blink and you miss it. The pitch-black room is lit with a quick flash from a strobe light, briefly revealing the fountain to the viewer. The quickness of the flash makes the fountain appear to be stationary, taking on a different shape each time. The experience is unique to each individual; whilst there may be several people in the room, each person views the fountain from a different angle, therefore, the shape the water forms in the brief flash of light is different for everybody.

The final room of the exhibition, the “expanded studio”, reveals Elíasson’s thought processes behind the artworks. As well as producing art, Elíasson’s studio has expanded by collaborating with other professionals to produce public sculptures, work on architectural projects, choreograph dances, and publish a cookbook. His architectural studio, known as Studio Other Space, focuses on addressing issues the world is facing today, for instance, climate change.

A room-length pin-board shows the research, ideas and goals of the studio. Replicating the boards in the real studio, Elíasson shares images, articles, newspaper clippings, and random thoughts organised in alphabetical order around keywords, for instance, Rainbow, Trust and Uncertainty.

A couple of videos explain a few of the recent projects undertaken by Studio Other Space. In 2012, Elíasson launched Little Suns, a project to raise awareness of the importance of access to clean energy. Elíasson and his studio designed solar-powered lamps and have distributed more than 800,000 of them around the world. Little Suns provides light to places off the electricity grid and cuts down the use of fossil fuels.

To end the exhibition, The Structural evolution project, first staged in 2001, allows visitors to collaborate by building, adding to and rebuilding structures and shapes from Zometool sticks and connectors. Similar to children’s construction toys, the project allows everyone of all ages to be creative, work alone or together and enjoy the process.

If the artwork in the exhibition is not enough, there are a couple of installations elsewhere in the Tate grounds. This includes a waterfall, lights that make everything appear monochrome, an electric fan dangerously swinging from the ceiling and a geometrical sphere called Stardust Particle. Elíasson’s studio has also teamed up with Tate Eats to provide soups, salads, bread and cakes based on the studio’s cookbook.

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is due to close on 5th January 2020, so make sure you visit soon. Tickets are £18 for adults, £5 for 12-18 years olds and free for under 12s.
#OlafurEliasson


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!