Bludgeons and Dragons (Part 3): The Neglected Colour and its Revenge

Today’s post is by Chiara from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are each sharing our passion and interest in the museum and its objects. In the Bludgeons and Dragons story so far, Chiara’s has explored three of the most powerfully symbolic colours, red, black and white. Now our attention turns to blue

And, faience, the bright blue-green ceramic used by the ancient Egyptians, has been reproduced and re-worked in Zahed Taj-Eddin’s installation ‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth‘, currently on display at Manchester Museum. For more information on his exhibition, have a look at the Curator’s blog – Egypt at the Manchester Museum.

1st April – 30th June 2017 #MMShabtis

Blue: The Neglected Colour and its Revenge

Blue was a relative latecomer among colours used in art and decoration, as well as language and literature. It was also not used for dyeing fabric until long after red, ochre and purple. This is probably due to the perennial difficulty of making good blue dyes and pigments. And despite the fact that blue seems to be everywhere (the sky, the sea, etc.) the possibility of extracting and owning a blue pigment it is still considered to be artificial and engineered – effectively, humans had to invent the colour blue.

Therefore, in ancient times blue wasn’t considered a true colour and it did not have a specific role in social, religious and symbolic life. That is with the exception of Pharaonic Egypt, where some of the most valued minerals were turquoise and lapis lazuli. Egyptian archaeology has revealed a vast number of beautiful blue-green faience amulets and other objects manufactured to a recipe which involved grinding silica, lime, copper and alkali and heating it to 800 or 900°c that for a long while had been lost.

IMG_0183Faience ‘shabti’ figures on display in Ancient Worlds 3 – Exploring Objects, Manchester Museum.

As described in the Naturalis Historiae of Pliny the Elder, for the Ancient Greeks and subsequently, the Romans, the colour palette was based only on four primary colours – red, white, black and ochre yellow.

Analysis using the ‘Visible Luminescence’ technique, conducted on the Egyptian ‘Faiyum portraits’ from the Roman Period, confirms that blue was used only as a background colour and was not part of the painting of the portrait itself.

‘Faiyum Portrait’ (Acc. no. 5381), Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum (Image © Paul Cliff)

So even though the Romans imported Indigo (from India) and Egyptian Blue, and used the blue pigment in large amounts for decoration like wall paintings, blue was not a reputable colour. In fact, it has been attested that women with blue eyes were considered frivolous;

“In Rome, wearing blue was usually considered demeaning, eccentric, […] or a sign of mourning. Blue eyes were almost considered a disgrace. For women it meant a licentious character; on men, it was perceived as effeminate, barbaric or simply ridiculous.”

– Michel Pastoureau, 2011, p. 27

For men, wearing blue was a sign of ridicule because it was considered the colour of the barbarian. This was because ‘woad’ – a dye extracted from Isatis tinctoria, a plant of the Brassica family – was used to colour clothes worn by the ancient Britons, as recorded by Julius Caesar who wrote, “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem” – “All the Britons spot themselves with woad which produces a blue colour.” (Although vitro translates to both woad and to a type of blue glass that was popular among the Romans).

glass_1Roman glass on display in Ancient Worlds 3 – Exploring Objects, Manchester Museum.

Woad has a long association with East Anglia, the land of the Iceni and their leader Boudica. However, woad is a well-known antiseptic and it may have been used to help heal battle wounds – so maybe the ‘barbarians’ were far cleverer than the Romans believed!

As with white and black, we find an ambiguity and confusion in Latin and ancient Greek languages; there is simply no such word for the colour blue. Later, in Romantic languages, the term comes from the German ‘blau’.

Blue_3Processing the colour blue from woad plants (Image from:

Having been neglected for more than a thousand years, suddenly everything changed and blue became the colour of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The demand for woad grew dramatically during medieval times. Its cultivation became industrial, and made the fortune of regions such as Thuringia, Tuscany, Picardy and Toulouse. Cultivated intensively to produce those balls that in France are called coques, hence the name of Cockaigne (land of plenty). It was a true blue gold! It is calculated that 80% of the Amiens Cathedral, built in the thirteenth century, was paid for by pastel merchants.

The success of the woad industry led to conflict with the merchants of Robia (madder), the plant that produces the red dye, so much so that madder merchants in Strasbourg attempted to re-signify the colour blue by commissioning stained-glass windows and frescoes featuring blue devils and blue flames of Hell (Pastoureau, 2011, pg. 64).

hb_26.72.44The Land of Cockaigne, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1570. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

During the eighteenth century, blue became a favourite colour of Europeans. Around 1720, in Berlin, a pharmacist discovered by chance the famous Prussian Blue, which allowed painters and dyers to diversify the range of dark shades. Moreover, Europe started to import heavily from the West Indies and Central America the colour indigo, whose colouring power was stronger than the old woad and whose price was lower than the pigment imported from Asia. All protectionist laws went out of the window. The indigo of America meant the ruin of the blue dye industries in Toulouse and Amiens, as blue became fashionable in all areas.

Blue_5Indigo pigment (Image from:

Romanticism accentuated this trend; following Goethe’s Romantic hero Werther, young European men started to dress in blue, and the German Romantic poetry celebrates the worship of such a melancholic colour … and maybe there is still a trace in the lexicon with the word ‘blues’. In the English language the phrase “feeling blue” is linked to a custom amongst old sailing ships. If a ship loses her captain, she would fly blue flags when returning to home port. And for the Germans, to be “blue” (blau sein) is to be drunk. This derives from the ancient use of urine (which is produced copiously by the human body after drinking alcohol) in dyeing cloth blue with woad or indigo.

In 1850, came a garment made from a fabric that gave further impetus to the colour and its mass symbolism – denim. In San Francisco a Jewish tailor, Levi Strauss, designed what were to become iconic trousers; thick fabric dyed with indigo – blue jeans – the first working suit and what was to become the uniform of teenagers worldwide.

New developments and experiments have yielded new, if accidental, discoveries; in 2009, chemists at Oregon State University, looking at manganese oxide for some of its electronic properties, inadvertently birthed a new pigment – the catchily named “YInMn blue” – by heating manganese oxide, along with other chemicals, to over 1,200°C (2,000°F). The findings of the original study were published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Chiara Ludolini

Le petit livre des couleurs, Michel Pastoreau, Édition du Panama, 2005
Blue: The History of a color. Michel Pastoureau, 2011
Blue Wikipedia
Pigments trhough the Ages
Colore, Enciclopedia dell’arte antica

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

For more about art in the museum, have a look at some more posts from the Visitor Team:
Animal Kingdom – Two by Two
Bludgeons and Dragons (Part 1): A Rainbow in Jars
The Gods and Their Makers


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