Bible By Colour – Part 2

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

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

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.

Black

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.

White

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.”
Angel of the Annunciation (Gabriel) – Titian

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.


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The Virgin of the Rocks

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The 500th anniversary year of Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) death has come to an end but not before the National Gallery jumped on the bandwagon and ended the year with the exhibition Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece. Unlike the Queen’s Gallery, which focused on Leonardo’s life, and the British Library, which displayed examples of his notebooks, the National Gallery chose to focus on just one of the artist’s paintings: The Virgin of the Rocks.

The exhibition was split into four sections, each exploring a different aspect. Firstly, by reading quotes from Leonardo’s notebooks in a mirror (he always wrote backwards) visitors learnt about his fascination with rocks and landscapes, which feature in the background of many of his works. Secondly, visitors were introduced to a mock-modern studio, which revealed the secrets that science and conservation have revealed about The Virgin of the Rocks, for example, the colours used and the discarded composition hidden under the paint. The third room allowed visitors to experiment with shadows, discovering the dramatic effects light has on an object. Finally, visitors came face to face with the original painting, hanging on the wall of an imagined chapel to contemplate how the masterpiece looked in its original setting.

The Virgin of the Rocks, sometimes known as Madonna of the Rocks, is the title of two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. They both depict the same scene: the Madonna and Child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel in a rocky setting; however, there are a few significant differences, for example, the direction of the angel’s gaze. The original version, or at least the version considered to be the eldest, hangs in the Louvre in Paris, the other, hangs in the National Gallery and was the subject of the Leonardo exhibition.

Leonardo was commissioned to paint The Virgin of the Rocks shortly after his move to Milan in the early 1480s. Having established his painting career in Florence, Leonardo had moved to search for new opportunities, which he found at the church of S. Francesco Grande. On 25th April 1483, Prior Bartolomeo Scoreline contracted Leonardo to produce painted panels for the new altarpiece in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception that was attached to the church. Leonardo was contracted as the “master” of the project with brothers Ambrogio and Evangelista de Predis as his assistants.

The artists were instructed on the colours and subject of the paintings. The central panel was to be of the Virgin Mary and Christ child with two prophets, perhaps David and Isaiah, surrounded by angels. Another panel was to show the Virgin Mary with God the panels to the side of the main painting were to contain angelic musicians. The job was to be completed by 8th December 1483, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.

As can be seen when looking at both versions of the painting, Leonardo did not stick to the instructions. Only one angel is present in the scene and there are no prophets except for the child John the Baptist. The church was not happy with the work Leonardo had produced by the completion deadline, therefore, he continued to work on it for a further five years until they were satisfied. Unfortunately, there was a dispute over payment so Leonardo, whether from spite or the need for money, sold the painting, which has eventually found itself in the Louvre. Leonardo was allowed to begin a second version, which was installed in the chapel in 1508.

The subject of the two paintings, which was not what the church had originally requested, is the adoration of the Christ child by the infant John the Baptist. Although it depicts Biblical characters, the scene is not an event that features in the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew reports that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was warned by an angel in a dream about King Herod the Great who had ordered that “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” were to be killed. (Matthew 2:16 ESV) Therefore, Joseph fled to Egypt with his wife and Jesus.

Several non-Biblical stories explain the flight to Egypt in more detail. One such story claims John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was also staying with his family in Bethlehem where the Massacre of the Innocents was about to take place. Whilst the Holy Family made their way to Egypt after the angel’s warning, John the Baptist was escorted there by the Archangel Uriel, where he met his aunt and cousin on the road. It is this scene that Leonardo painted, therefore, it is assumed the angel he depicted is Uriel. Similar stories, however, claim the angel was Gabriel.

It is not certain whose idea it was to deviate from the original contract but Leonardo had just come from Florence, whose patron saint was John the Baptist. Many religious artworks produced in Renaissance Florence involved the Christ child with John the Baptist, therefore, it may have only been natural for Leonardo to include the future preacher in his painting.

Both paintings contain the same subject matter and similar background of rocks and distant mountains. The Christ child sits on the right of the painting, being supported by the angel, raising his hand as a sign of Benediction towards his cousin. John, on the opposite side of the painting, kneels with his hands together as though in prayer, whilst gazing at Jesus. This, however, is where the similarities end.

The figures in the second painting are slightly larger than the original and everything is more defined. In the first, the angel’s hand is raised as though pointing at John, whereas in the second, he rests his hand on his lap. The pointing angel also looks out towards the viewer, almost as though it is saying, “Look, it is John!” Leonardo’s second angel, on the other hand, looks down in a contemplative manner. Other notable differences include the halos, which are omited in the first painting, and the cross held by John, which only features in the second.

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A study of the fall of light on a face, about 1488

The style of the second painting appears to be remarkably different from the former. The sharpness of the outlines is one thing but there is also a lot of attention to shadow and shade. Notebooks belonging to Leonardo reveal he approached his paintings in a scientific way. Being a polymath, Leonardo was interested in the natural world and human anatomy, therefore, paid great attention to detail. He was aware of the effects light had on an image. When lit from above, shadows fall in a different direction to when lit from below, which can create a vastly different appearance. In the first painting, there is a distinct lack of shadow, however, it features heavily in the second.

The effect of contrasting light and shadow in art is known as chiaroscuro, which is derived from the Latin words for clear/bright and dark/obscure. The term was first used during the Renaissance period, coinciding with Leonardo’s career. Since it was a new idea, Leonardo may not have been educated in chiaroscuro painting but rather developed the style himself. This could explain the difference in style between version one and two, however, some people also suggest the second was painted by someone else under Leonardo’s instruction.

The rocky background blocks out a lot of the natural light, the only daylight coming through a small gap to the left of Mary. As a result, the opposite corner is in shadow and only parts of the four figures are lit by the light. Rather than making it difficult to view the characters, the gloomy light creates an unnatural illumination, which highlights and emphasises their features.

Another technique Leonardo used is sfumato, which means “shaded off”. This is a method for softening the transition between colours and tones, making parts of the painting appear out of focus. It is also useful when painting backgrounds, mimicking an area beyond what the human eye can see. Leonardo described sfumato as blending colours, without the use of lines or borders “in the manner of smoke”.

Leonardo used sfumato around the edges of delicate forms, such as the Virgin Mary’s facial features. Rather than drawing the nose, eyes and mouth with stark outlines, Leonardo made them seem to emerge gradually from the darkness. By using graduated smoky tones, the figures appear three-dimensional.

Leonardo also used sfumato in the background where the tips of the mountain reached the sky, creating the illusion that the land continues on further than the eye can see. Just as he had studied how the light fell on the human figures, Leonardo concentrated on the shadows on the rocks that framed the light source, making the background as interesting to look at as the figures in the foreground.

As well as being a prolific painter and biologist, Leonardo had a lifelong passion for the natural world. Many of his surviving sketches feature his observations of nature, including rivers, rock formations, trees and plants, including a star-of-Bethlehem, which features in the foreground of Virgin of the Rocks. The majority of these drawings were observations of the areas he lived or travelled through. It may be due to this fascination that Leonardo used a dramatic rock formation for the background of both versions of the painting. It certainly does not represent the Egyptian deserts of the land to which the Holy Family fled.

Although the rock formation is a natural landscape, it creates an other-worldly landscape when placed behind the Virgin Mary. The broken rocks thrust upwards from the ground and downwards from the roof of a cave, creating energy that contrasts with the peaceful meeting of John and Jesus as well as the calm water between the rocks and the mountains in the distance.

The landscape feels primaeval, as though it had remained untouched since God created it thousands of years before Christ’s birth. The presence of the Holy Family makes the environment come alive, plants blooming beneath John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Although one plant appears to be a star-of-Bethlehem, the other plants have been invented by Leonardo.

Whilst The Virgin of the Rocks (second version) is impressive to look at, science and technology have revealed hidden details that create a mystery about the painting and commission. Many paintings have underdrawings, showing the preliminary sketches of the artist before they began applying paint to the canvas. When conservators examined The Virgin of the Rocks in 2005 for the underdrawing, they were surprised to find a different sketch to the final composition.

Infrared reflectography (IRR) revealed Leonardo had begun a drawing of the Virgin Mary then abandoned it. A detailed eye could be seen on the scans but little was thought of it at the time other than the artist had not been happy and started again.

More recently, the painting has been examined again with new technologies and more details have been discovered. Macro X-ray fluorescence scanning showed up elements under the painting that had been drawn in a material that contained zinc. This showed up an alternative composition of the angel and Christ child. With wings slightly open, the angel appears to be looking tenderly down at the baby, holding him in a tight embrace.

Hyperspectral imaging (HSI) provided clearer images of the angel and baby, revealing that the Christ child’s arm is raised. Whether Jesus was interacting with the angel or reaching for his mother or John is unclear.

When examining the rest of the painting, an entirely different scene was revealed. The angel appears to be holding the Christ child on his lap, who is reaching out for his mother. Rather than sitting comfortably as she is in the finished version, Mary is on her knees in mid-movement, facing her son with one arm thrown out and the other on her chest as though in adoration. John the Baptist does not appear at all.

No one knows why Leonardo changed his original composition so drastically. Perhaps there was an intervention from the church who may have wanted Leonardo to paint a replica of the first painting. Nonetheless, this second version is by no means a reproduction. The use of lighting and attention to detail shows Leonardo had conducted more research into optics and human physiology, resulting in a more realistic interpretation of the Holy Family.

There may be more hidden under the painted layers of The Virgin of the Rocks, however, until technology is enhanced further, there is no way of knowing. Unfortunately, it is 500 years since the artist died, therefore, it is impossible to answer the many questions these revelations provoke.

Using lights and animation, the National Gallery recreated how Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks would have looked in its original setting. Today, Leonardo’s work hangs as a stand-alone painting in the gallery, however, it was originally made to be inserted into a pre-existing sculpted altarpiece, carved by Giacomo del Maino (1469-1505), in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Over the following centuries, the altar was modified several times and eventually dismantled in 1780. The chapel in which the altar stood had also been demolished, and the rest of the church was torn down by Napoleon (1769-1821) to make way for barracks in 1806.

Following the dismantling of the altar, the Scottish painter and antiquarian Gavin Hamilton (1723-98) purchased Leonardo’s painting and brought it to England. Two paintings of angels that featured on the altar, although not painted by Leonardo, were also sold, however, the rest of the altarpiece is now lost.

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The Contract

Some evidence remains that helps us picture what the chapel once looked like. The commission for a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin can be traced to the spring of 1475 when the Franciscan friar and theologian Stefano da Oleggio proposed the idea during one of his sermons. Italian painters Francesco Zavattari (active 1417-1453) and Giorgio della Chiesa were commissioned to paint the decorative touches to the dome of the chapel, which included stars and the images of God, seraphim and the four Evangelists.

The contract states that the chosen sculptor of the altar had previously produced altarpieces in other churches in places such as Ponte, Sernio, Morbegno and Ardenno to the north of Milan. It is likely the church requested something similar from the sculptor.

As well as the paintings, Leonardo and his two assistants were contracted to paint and guild the entire altarpiece. In total, sixteen items were included in the contract. A statue of “Our Lady” was to have an outer coat of gold and ultramarine blue brocade and a dress of gold and crimson. The seraphim were to be painted red, but the other angels were to be decorated “in the Greek manner, painted in oils.” The place where the Christ child lay was to be painted to resemble a straw basket. “All the faces, hands and legs that are bare should be painted in oil to perfection.”

It is from the description of the contract and the existing examples of altarpieces from other churches in the area that the National Gallery managed to recreate an interactive version of the altar at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in the Church of San Francesco Grande in Milan. Of course, no one can ever be certain how it looked but to see The Virgin of the Rocks in situ was a breathtaking experience.

Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece has been extended until 26th January 2020, therefore, there is one week remaining in which to view The Virgin of the Rocks in a unique setting. Tickets are £18 and it is recommended that a timed ticket is purchased in advance of the visit.


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