Bludgeons and Dragons (Part 2): The Questionable Ones

Today’s post is by Chiara from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are sharing our passion and interest in the museum and its objects.

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


In the first instalment of Bludgeons and Dragons Chiara introduced the idea that colours have hidden meanings that influence our environment, behaviour, language and imagination.

The first part looked at the how the ancient symbolic system revolved around 3 poles, red was seen as the only true colour, symbolising fire and blood. This second part considers the other two poles – black and white …

Black and White: The questionable ones that carry the strongest symbols

Is white a colour? You might not agree and if so you are with the ancients.

The Romans did not even have a proper word for it and instead used words based on the quality of light, a distinction between matt ‘albus’ and bright ‘candidus’[Bryan Sitch Curator of Archaeology notes, “Albion – the Roman name for Britain – comes from the white cliffs of Dover.”

Maybe the colourless status assigned to white gave it stronger universal symbols like perfection, neutrality, life and death.

Wait … death is black! Yes, sometimes and in some cultures, but not always.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, the widows of kings dressed in white rather than black as the colour of mourning a tradition which still continues in Asia.

Chemically, pure black is really difficult to obtain. In painting, it has been employed only in small quantities which results in very expensive products such as calcined ivory which has a beautiful but expensive tint. As for those obtained with residues of fumes, they are neither dense nor stable.

The rarest colours in the Harvard pigment Library – Blacks

People all over the world have used the striking contrast between black and white, the lightest and the darkest, to pattern fabric and to adorn themselves for millennia. Below, left, is an example of bark cloth (masi) from Fiji on display in the Living Cultures gallery. The survival of textiles from the ancient world is limited, but material culture sometimes preserves at least the idea of textiles. Below, right is an example of Bronze Age pottery (c. 2500 BC) found at Yanik Tepe, in modern day Iran, the motifs on which suggest an imitation or remembrance of textiles.

Left, Bark cloth (masi) with stencilled pattern, from Fiji, before 1942 (No.: 0.6152/11) Right, pottery fragments from Yanik Tepe, Iran, with decoration inspired by textiles, c. 2500 BC (Nos.: 1982.130, 1982.134)

Black and white have both been associated with absence and nothingness. Robert Fludd, an occult philosopher of the early 17th Century, speculated on an empty nothingness, a “pre-universe” or “un-universe” as existing before the universe. He represents this with a simple black square.

Robert Fludd
Robert Fludd’s black square representing the nothingness that was prior to the universe, from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617) (Image: Wellcome Library)

In the late 19th century, it was in black and white that still pictures became moving pictures as people like Eadweard Muybridge began experiments with motion photography, such as the series of pictures of a horse’s gait (1878) that we have on display in our Nature’s Library gallery.

Images of Eadweard Muybridge‘s photography of the locomotion of animals. Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum

Michel Pastoureau traces the history of black’s status as a colour;

“In the beginning was black, Michel Pastoureau tells us. The archetypal color of darkness and death, black was associated in the early Christian period with hell and the devil but also with monastic virtue. In the medieval era, black became the habit of courtiers and a hallmark of royal luxury. Black took on new meanings for early modern Europeans as they began to print words and images in black and white, and to absorb Isaac Newton’s announcement that black was no color after all. During the romantic period, black was melancholy’s friend, while in the twentieth century black (and white) came to dominate art, print, photography, and film, and was finally restored to the status of a true color.” (From the synopsis of Michel Pastoureau’s 2008 book, “Black: The History of a color“)

Chiara Ludolini

Further Reading:
Michel Pastoreau (2005) Le petit livre des couleurs, Édition du Panama
Michel Pastoureau (2008) Black: The History of a color  (full book available on Academia)
The Public Domain Review – Black on Black

Look out for the next instalment in which Chiara takes a look at the colour blue.

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

Read more about art and colour at by the Visitor Team:
Bludgeons and Dragons (Part 1): A Rainbow in Jars
The Gods and Their Makers
Museum Inspires Pictures at an Exhibition


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