Bludgeons and Dragons (Part 1): A Rainbow in Jars

Today’s post is by Chiara from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are not experts, but we are people with a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. We each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about the collections at Manchester Museum, please visit the Curators’ blogs.


The museum is filled with objects and animals, each with distinctive features, and sometimes it is their colour which give them their unique identity. The Bludgeons and Dragons series takes a look at the way we use and think about colour, and how this is reflected in the collection at Manchester Museum. In this first part Chiara looks at the colour red 

Bludgeons and Dragons: A Rainbow in Jars

What is your favourite colour? The million-dollar question. You may say red, green or blue – or maybe more specifically, Coquelicot red or Mikado yellow. Whatever your answer, it’s clear that there are a multitude of colours. And over time colour has become a subject of collection, study, language and theory.

We are surrounded by them and yet normally, we don’t pay them much attention. But colours are not irrelevant. They convey codes, taboos and prejudices which we obey without even knowing why. They have hidden meanings that influence our environment, our behaviour, our language and our imagination.

So, how much do we know about them? Where do they come from? How have we used them in history and what do we actually communicate through them?

The Supremacy of Red

Despite what we believe today, in antiquity only red was considered a true colour. The ancient symbolic system revolved around three poles; White represented the colourless, black roughly representing the dirt, and red – the only colour worthy of the name. So, since the beginning in the Western World, the supremacy of red imposed itself.

The colour red prevailed ubiquitously throughout history because it refers to two major elements – fire and blood.

Paleolithic art, as early as c. 30,000 BC used red, obtained from red ochre – a natural earth pigment.

Chauvet Caves in the Ardèche region of France, discovered in 1994 (Images available from

Plaster casts of decorated bone and antler objects, showing traced of red ochre colouring. Rediscovering Neanderthals exhibition, Manchester Museum.

Neolithic societies continued to used red ochre, but were also beginning to use ‘Madder’ – a dye obtained from the roots of the Rubia plant.

Egyptian ‘D-ware’ vessels (c. 3,500 BC) made from marl clay with red ochre decorations. Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum

The Romans were famed for the use of Tyrian red (known as purpura in Latin from which we get the word purple), extracted from the Murex, a rare sea snail found in the Mediterranean. The dye was collected by “milking” the snails or collecting and crushing them. It took twelve thousand snails to make no more than 1.4 g of pure dye and its usage was therefore reserved for the Emperor and governors.

Smelly murex (Chicoreus cnissodus). No.: EE.8150, Natures Library, Manchester Museum

In the Middle Ages, dyers, having lost the Roman formula (because the Murex was almost extinct) replaced it with Red Kermes, a dye extracted from dried female Coccus Ilicis, a common insect in the Mediterranean. The extraction of this pigment was laborious and the manufacturing expensive but the red obtained was bright and durable which made it a ‘must have’ for the wealthy. As for the peasants, they resorted to the cheaper Madder which has a less brilliant hue.

One thing you might not know is that until the Nineteenth Century… no matter if you were peasant or noble, the wedding dress was usually red. Why? Simply because on the wedding day it was the custom to wear the most beautiful clothes and, at the time, the most beautiful and rich garments were red (the most consistently successful colour for dyers). However, there was also a strong ambivalence to the colour red – for a long time, prostitutes were forced to wear a red garment and as is still prevalent today, a red lantern was placed at the door of the brothel. The colour red highlights the two sides of love – the divine and the carnal.

 RedThe rarest colours in the Harvard pigment Library – Reds. Photo: © Peter Vanderwarker.

Chiara Ludolini

Look out for the next part of Chiara’s Bludgeons and Dragons series, where she looks at black and white – the questionable ones that carry the strongest symbols…

Le petit livre des couleurs, Michel Pastoreau, Édition du Panama, 2005

For more about the museum’s collections, please visit the curators’ blogs –

Read more about art and representation from the Visitor Team:
Being Human # 4: Signs and Symbols
Venture Arts Venture Out
Art and the Modern Museum


5 thoughts on “Bludgeons and Dragons (Part 1): A Rainbow in Jars

  1. Nice to see exhibits from Rediscovering Neanderthals exhibition now in the last week of its run before Natural History Museum comes to de-install its loans. In addition there’s the colour red associated with the god Mars and the planet and that military tunics in the ancient world were often dyed red with madder, Also the symbolic significance of red enamel on Iron Age sword hilts and scabbards.

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