contributor.author: Jacqueline E. Jung

title.none: Pastoureau, Blue (Jacqueline E. Jung)

identifier.other: baj9928.0212.005 02.12.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jacqueline E. Jung, Middlebury College, jungjacq@aol.com

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Michel Pastoureau. Blue: The History of a Color. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Pp. 216. $35.00 0-691-09050-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.12.05

Michel Pastoureau. Blue: The History of a Color. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Pp. 216. $35.00 0-691-09050-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Jacqueline E. Jung
Middlebury College
jungjacq@aol.com

If only Michel Pastoureau's new book had been given a less sweeping title -- something like "Blue: Selected Moments in the History of Its Use, Especially in Textiles, in Parts of Western Europe" -- I would have happily offered it a more favorable review. There is much about this volume to commend it. The author is a prominent cultural historian whose publications cover a vast array of topics, from sigillography to heraldry to, more recently, color symbolism; his research on dyeing practices in medieval and early modern Europe is of the highest caliber, illuminating an otherwise understudied domain of medieval history. This volume, a translation of the French original published by Editions de Seuil in 2000, is splendidly produced, with glossy pages and gorgeous color plates, and the text is well served by the fluid translation of Markus I. Cruse, a historian of French medieval literature. Although it has the appearance of a coffee-table book, the volume's publication by Princeton University Press suggests that it will be useful to serious scholars as well as general readers. But while the text reads easily and is filled with fascinating anecdotes, anyone expecting a comprehensive or scholarly account of the "history of a color" will come away disappointed.

As the rich scholarly literature on color perception and symbolism -- much of which is cited in the bibliography, but very little of which is actually used -- makes plain, the study of color is fraught with complication. As P. explains in his brief methodological introduction, titled "Color Is Not Black and White," color is not just a "natural phenomenon" but also "a complex cultural construct that resists generalization and, indeed, analysis itself" (7). Contrasting himself with historians who neglect the changes wrought by time on the colors of ancient artifacts, those who seek historical attitudes toward color solely in texts rather than in "the images and the objects themselves" (8), and those who disregard the fundamental differences between modern and past perceptions of color, P. asserts that "the aim of this book is to examine all kinds of objects in order to consider the different facets of the history of color and to show how far beyond the artistic sphere this history reaches" (9). This, P. explains, involves "defin[ing] the chromatic sphere as it existed for past cultures, by taking into account all the elements that made up this sphere: names and definitions of colors, the chemistry of pigments and dyeing techniques, manners of dress and the social codes they express, color's place in daily life and material culture, rules and regulations pertaining to color, and the meanings given to it by the church, scientific theories, and art" (10). To this synchronic approach -- which may strike scholarly readers as problematic in its confident assumptions, first, that the past can be captured, as it were, "wie es eigentlich gewesen," and, second, that "all" the components of a culture can be definitively established and investigated -- P. tells us he will add a "diachronic perspective," tracking the changes in perceptions and uses of color throughout the history of "a single culture" (10). That P. understands all of Western civilization, "from the Neolithic period to the twentieth century" (11), as constituting "a single culture" gives a good indication of the degree of generalization that characterizes the ensuing account. From fragmentary and very selective evidence, he plots a surprisingly monolithic trajectory of the fortunes of blue in Western history, from what he sees as "lack of interest," "disdain," even "hatred" of blue in prehistoric, antique, and early medieval cultures, to its "discovery" in the twelfth century under Abbot Suger of St-Denis, and thence to its "triumph" in modern times as what clothing manufacturers and advertising pollsters have found to be the "favorite color" of Western people.

P. begins chapter 1, "An Uncommon Color: Prehistory to the Twelfth Century," by citing the lack of blue pigments in prehistoric cave paintings as evidence that "blue was not present...in the later Paleolithic period" (13). Such argumentation from silence is typical of the approach used throughout the book. P. asserts that because it was not frequently used in textile dyeing in this early period, and because it did not (as far as the material evidence enables us to know) have a place in a symbolic religious color code centered on red, white, and black, blue must have been "poorly adapted to transmitting ideas, evoking emotional or aesthetic responses, or organizing social codes" (14). Even when he offers evidence to the contrary, such as the widespread use of woad and indigo as dyes for especially fine cloths from biblical times through Greco-Roman antiquity, P. is too heavily invested in his narrative of blue's "birth" in twelfth-century Paris to take it seriously, instead fabricating circular arguments to prove his point. In prehistoric Europe, for example, where people had been dyeing fabrics blue with local woad for centuries, "the use of indigo [an Indian dye] remained rare..., not only due to its high price (because it came from far away), but also because blue tones were so little appreciated" (17).

Whereas the Egyptians (discussed in one paragraph at 22-23) "attributed beneficent powers" to blue and believed blue things could "dispel evil and bring prosperity," the Greeks and Romans gave the color no such credit; the lack of a clear word for blue in ancient Greek and Latin languages leads P. to a lengthy excursus in which the question is posed, "Could the Greeks and Romans See Blue?" (23-27). The issue of linguistic terminology and its relation to perception is intriguing, but for a rigorous and thorough discussion one should still consult the studies by John Gage, which make plain how much more complicated the problem is than P. presents it to be (John Gage, Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction [Boston, 1993] and Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism [Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2000]. In Color and Culture, 18, we learn that P.'s contention that Greek and Roman painters relied only on black, white, red, and yellow pigments has long since been disproved by numerous ancient panels and papyri that include brilliant blues.) Whereas P. concludes that the absence of blue in the historical sources did not, as older generations of scholars would have it, mean that their physiological apparatus differed from ours, his conclusion that "social and ideological" factors were responsible is, in my view, no less shortsighted. In his account, the Greeks and Romans simply did not like blue: they were "indifferent to it -- if not downright hostile" (26). P. cites as evidence the horrified descriptions by Pliny, Caesar, and Tacitus of Germanic tribesmen covering their bodies and hair with woad before battle -- as if it were the hue that was offensive to the Roman commentators, and not the threatening behavior of the barbarian enemies.

P. goes on to examine ancient and medieval discussions of the rainbow, placing emphasis on the absence of blue in scientific treatises and concluding that even in the mid-thirteenth century (a century after Suger's "discovery" of blue), no one "described [the rainbow] as we do today or perceived in it the slightest trace of blue" (32); the vexed question as to whether descriptive vocabulary necessarily indicates perceptual experience remains, however, untouched. The discussion of scientific apprehensions of color would have been enriched considerably had P. made use of Christel Meier's encyclopedic study of medieval interpretations of gemstones, which offers extensive evidence for the appreciation of and interest in the color blue by scholarly commentators from the patristic era through the end of the Middle Ages (Christel Meier, Gemma Spiritalis: Methode und Gebrauch der Edelsteinallegorese vom fruehen Christentum bis ins 18. Jahrhundert, Muenstersche Mittelalter-Schriften 34 [Munich, 1977]).

The following section turns, rather abruptly, to what P. calls "The High Middle Ages [original: Le haut moyen age]: The Silence of Blue" (32-35), which addresses the central Middle Ages from the Merovingian period until the twelfth century. It is at this point -- for which, in comparison to antiquity, we have an abundance of material evidence -- that the artificiality of P.'s developmental narrative becomes most evident, at least to the eyes of this art historian. I was surprised to learn, for example, that "blue had little symbolic or aesthetic value in European culture of the high Middle Ages. At best it played a very minor role next to white, black, and red, which were the basic colors for all social and religious codes...Blue was nothing, or very little; it was even absent from the sky, which most authors and artists portrayed as white, red, or gold" (32). Even someone approaching this book with no background in medieval art, and thus unfamiliar with the blues generously employed in jewelry, wall paintings, mosaics, icons, and illuminated manuscripts throughout early medieval Europe and Byzantium, would find this statement perplexing; for there, occupying the entire facing page, we find a detail of the beautiful, star-studded, deep blue sky in the mosaic vault of the fifth-century mausoleum of Galla Placida in Ravenna (33, fig. 11), one of the most splendid (though by no means unusual) uses of blue in monumental medieval art. This is one of many instances in this book in which an illustration completely undercuts the argument; indeed, the caption informs us that "early Christian art preferred blue shades closer to black or violet [in mosaic work], frequently using them to evoke the cosmos or a figure's divinity." Even if this were true (and certainly the mosaic, with its range of blue and turquoise tones, suggests otherwise), how does this correspond to the supposed "non-existence" of blue in medieval thought and art? Another conflict between P.'s argument and the visual data occurs on the following page, where a paragraph about blue's absence from any "other cultural spheres that employ color, such as the naming of people and places, the liturgy, and various symbols" is accompanied by a set of images from an eleventh-century lectionary, wherein St. Benedict appears brandishing a liturgical book and wearing a bright blue habit - a deliberate and surely meaningful move on the part of the artist, who must have known that the Benedictine habit was black (34, fig. 12).

The following section, "The Birth of Liturgical Colors" (35-40), moves away from blue itself toward a delineation of the symbolic interpretations medieval writers gave to colored vestments in the liturgy; these display an undeniable concentration on red, white, black, green, violet, and gold, and one does indeed wonder why blue plays no part. P.'s suggestion that the liturgical "schema had been codified too early in history to assign a role to blue" begs the question why would blue not have been assigned a role early on and flies in the face of his earlier criticism of scholars who viewed the relative diversity of color terminology and use as corresponding with the level of advancement of a given culture (25). Certainly the absence of blue in liturgical symbolism need not stem from what, in the next section, is deemed clerical "chromophobia"; the criticism by Bernard of Clairvaux and other "enemies of opulence" (47) was targeted at any form of distracting and expensive luxury in the church, not only at the color blue. P. draws the interesting connection in the section titled "Pro- and Anti-Color Prelates" between the rise of blue in church interiors (especially in stained glass) and the theological debates over the nature of light. Citing the influence of Pseudo-Dionysian light mysticism on Abbot Suger, he contends that "the union of blue and gold that became so prevalent in Western art...had its origins in the twelfth-century desire to evoke divine light and presence" (44). This is an enticing suggestion, and one that Suger's many fans will want to believe -- but what of that pesky fifth-century Galla Placida mosaic, in which blue and gold tesserae also conjoin to suggest a dazzlingly luminous heaven? The image is too beautiful to be forgotten so quickly, and it is a shame that P. seems to have expected his readers to do so. He goes on to state that "the close connection between blue shades and the backgrounds of images [in stained glass] was part of a new theology of light whose roots went back to the late Carolingian period...but that did not fully develop until the first half of the twelfth century" (41). If we turn back to the previous chapter, however, we find reproductions of an Egyptian fresco showing a diminutive figure against a vibrant blue background (20, fig. 6), a reconstruction drawing in which blue backgrounds frame the statues of the Parthenon pediment (23, fig. 8), and a mural from the Villa Livia at Pompeii in which a lush garden is set against a glorious blue sky (28-29, fig. 10). In each case -- where the culture in question was supposedly "indifferent" or "hostile" to blue -- a caption tells us that blue served "only" as background, and thus could not have been considered important. In what respect do the blue backgrounds for the red-, yellow-, green-, purple-, and white-clad figures on the St-Denis windows manifest new, more positive attitudes toward blue?

P. never addresses this problem; throwing to the wind all the visual evidence he has shown thus far, he presents the twelfth century as a revolutionary turning point in the history of blue. The language he uses to open the next chapter, titled "A New Color: The Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century," leaves no room for ambiguity. Although he now -- thankfully -- admits that blue was "not completely absent" from art before the twelfth century, P. insists that until that point "it remained a marginal color, its symbolic value miniscule compared to that of red, white, and black...Then suddenly, in just a few decades, everything changes -- blue is 'discovered' and attains a prominent place in painting, heraldry, and clothing" (50). Such heightened rhetoric alone might cause academic readers to take pause; and, indeed, the evidence P. goes on to adduce does little to substantiate this strange contention. P. begins his account of the "discovery" of blue with images of the Virgin Mary. Here he argues, inexplicably, that from the twelfth century onward her conventional blue garments no longer signify her "mourning," as they did in previous centuries, because they now appear so much "brighter and clearer" (51). To bolster this point, he includes illustrations of the famous stained-glass image of the Virgin from Chartres Cathedral (52, fig. 23; the figure is shown only from the waist up), an Annunciation by Lorenzo di Credi of ca. 1495-1500 (49, fig. 19), and a highly cropped view of the very late fourteenth-century Wilton Diptych (52, fig. 24, also used on the cover). I can only hope that it was the original publisher and not the author himself who chose to caption the late Gothic and Renaissance works as if they were examples of twelfth-century art. For the Lorenzo piece, we read: "Beginning in the twelfth century, the improved status of blue was made most evident by its prominence in images of the Virgin Mary" (49); for the Wilton Diptych: "In the late twelfth century, when blue had become the chief color of the Virgin, painters sought to display their virtuosity by producing subtle and rich shades that evoked both the folds of fabric and the sanctity of the subject" (52). Such inappropriate selection of visual evidence (why not use twelfth-century images of the Virgin, of which there are so many?) and disingenuous captioning - not to mention the gratuitous and unacknowledged cropping of images - are symptomatic of a disregard for scholarly rigor that all too frequently makes this volume difficult to take seriously as an academic contribution.

This is a pity, because the sections involving P's main areas of expertise -- heraldry and textiles -- are sure to be of interest to scholars of the Middle Ages. For example, the section on heraldry ("What Coats of Arms Reveal," 55-60) provides compelling evidence for the rise of blue as a sign of personal and familial identification in the later Middle Ages. Between around 1200 and 1400, we learn, the use of blue in coats of arms increased drastically, from 5 to 30 percent (56). At the same time, blue appeared increasingly as a costume element for both living and literary monarchs, a shift that P. connects to new dyeing techniques developed in the thirteenth century, which made rich blues both more stable and more accessible. The following sections, "Dyers in Blue and Dyers in Red" (63-72), "The Taboo Against Mixing Colors" (72-75) and "Recipe Collections" (75-80), provide a fascinating account of this technical change from the point of view of those who actually got their hands dirty: the dyers responsible for churning out blue fabrics for their wealthy clients (about whom we learn, unfortunately, very little), all the while facing the wrath of their red-cloth-making competitors. These sections are the strongest and most convincing of the chapter -- I would argue even of the book -- dealing as they do with concrete situations and drawing on solid documentary evidence (including many unpublished contracts and guild statutes) rather than unsubstantiated generalizations. Because, for the most part, P.'s interest here is more in the social history of colors - not only blue, but also red and green - than in producing a unidirectional narrative, we see, for the first time, colors emerge in a complex and highly charged social atmosphere, in which it is not just a question of "people" liking or not liking a given color, but rather of specific communities using colors in different ways and under varying contingent circumstances.

P. concludes this chapter, in the final section titled "A New Color Hierarchy," by explicitly posing the questions that will have been vexing any careful reader by this point: namely, whether the rise of blue in heraldry and clothing was caused by its new symbolic and religious status, or whether its new symbolic status accrued because of developments in dyeing technology and the greater accessibility of the color. Alas, P. does not posit a solution, offering instead the vague conclusion that "the rise of blue was...the expression of important changes in the social order, systems of thought, and modes of perception" (81). Whereas in earlier symbolic systems, the red-white-black triad had sufficed to express the needs of society, the increased complexity of twelfth-century society demanded a diversification of symbolically meaningful colors: "More colors were needed to classify, oppose, and establish hierarchies, because a more complex society was forming" (83). Aside from its rather surprising reductivism -- and its contradiction of P.'s earlier rejection of arguments that "people of technically and intellectually 'evolved' societies...would be able to perceive...a broader range of colors that would those of 'primitive' or ancient cultures" (25) -- this conclusion still leaves us hanging as to what function blue played in this expansion process, especially as P. has never explained the symbolic meanings that medieval people associated with it.

Despite P.'s claim to embrace "all" aspects of culture in tracing the history of blue, one aspect that is conspicuously absent is its use in painting -- a point to which Michael Baxandall devoted much attention in his seminal book Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (2nd ed., Oxford, 1988), never cited here. No one approaching the history of color though P.'s book would ever know the tremendous value Renaissance painters and their clients placed on blue (except, perhaps, from the illustrations used for the discussion of the twelfth century!), since the third chapter, "A Moral Color: The Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Century," makes no mention of Italy at all. The bulk of the chapter concentrates on the disappearance of blue (and other bright colors) in northern European clothing and painting during and after the Reformation in favor of somber blacks and neutral tones, and this evidence is used to draw universalizing conclusions about early modern attitudes toward color. After an extended discussion of the black clothing preferred by Protestant theologians, P. sums up: "For many centuries...the moralistic discourse on art and color in Europe was marked by a striking continuity. From its origins in Cistercian art in the twelfth century to grisaille miniatures and the anticolor movements of the early Reformation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to Calvinist and Jansenist painting in the seventeenth century, the same idea was repeated over and over: color is luxury, artifice, and illusion" (107). What is bothersome about this -- and similar statements throughout the book -- is its lack of acknowledgement of the numerous competing discourses about color, its unexplained silencing of the many voices that praised the beauty of colors and neglect of the hands that lavished panels with sparkling pigments. If the book had not promised to offer us "the history of a color," such a fragmented approach -- in this case, bringing together those fleeting cultural moments in which color was eschewed on principle -- would hardly be problematic, but I fear that general readers -- of which there will surely be many, with a book so beautiful -- will come away from this chapter with a very narrow view indeed of early modern approaches to color.

The final chapter, "The Favorite Color: The Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century," is equally selective in the material presented. Again, the emphasis is on blue as worn; P. traces the explosion of the market for indigo dyes in the eighteenth century, as more and more upper-class Europeans, in emulation of Romantic heroes such as Goethe's Werther, demanded blue garments as the perfect expression of lovelorn melancholy or dreamlike reverie. (Again, I was puzzled here by the choice of illustrative material: planted in a long discussion of Werther's famous blue jacket we find a 1776 etching by Daniel Chodowiecki in which Werther's jacket is depicted as yellow [136, fig. 69].) The bulk of the chapter (141-60) is devoted to explaining the role of blue in French military and political symbolism, from its use in soldiers' uniforms to its inclusion in the French flag. This is followed by a interesting short history of blue jeans, though P. confines discussion of color to the rather obvious statement that the pants designed by Levi Strauss "were all blue in the 1870s, because their denim cotton was dyed with indigo" -- we never learn why indigo was preferred to, say, the natural color of the cotton, or to brown or black. This question arises especially forcefully at the end of the section, when P. suggests that jeans be regarded as a "Protestant garment...because they correspond so perfectly to the dress code promoted by the Protestant values discussed earlier: simplicity, chromatic austerity, and uniformity" (169). This may be so -- but again, P. seems to expect his readers to have forgotten that the Protestant aesthetic described at length in the previous chapter was based precisely on a rejection of the blues that we so readily don.

P. ends the chapter by pointing out blue's current role as the "favorite color" of Western people; although he provides quite specific numbers ("more than half of people polled in Western Europe and the United States indicate that blue is their favorite color. Next come green [a little under 20 percent], white and red [8 percent each], and the other colors far behind" [170]), he does not give us the sources of these polls or any information as to their purposes. This leads to an all too brief foray into attitudes toward colors in the non-Western world, where color preferences and the values assigned to colors differ drastically (as in Japan, where most people prefer white, and areas of sub-Saharan Africa, where colors are often described in tactile terms such as soft or hard). Alas, we are left only with a series of unanswered questions ("what is a dry color? A sad color? A mute color? Such questions take us far from blue, red, yellow, and green" [176]), and the visual evidence for non-Western blues is relegated to the very back of the book (even into the notes).

P. wraps up his book with a short epilogue, "Blue Today," which at once proceeds logically from the visual material and contradicts the developmental narrative of the text. Now we learn that, "contrary to what one might think," the current "pronounced taste for blue is not the expression of particularly strong symbolic impulses or motives. One even has the impression that blue is so popular because it is less symbolically 'marked' than other colors (notably red, green, white, or black" (180). So ubiquitous is blue today in the realm of material culture -- in clothing, advertising, and political symbolism -- that it packs no punch; we generally agree on its beauty and surround ourselves with it without giving it much thought. The very popularity of blue attests to its innocuousness, and, according to P., is "probably an expression of its relatively weak symbolic potential" (180). Here, then, P. acknowledges precisely what he had refused to consider in his discussion of ancient attitudes: that lack of specific symbolic significance does not equal lack of interest in or appreciation of the color. Certainly our ability to love blue for its decorative potential is not diminished by our disinterest in assigning it a fixed and static meaning; why should it have been so for people of antiquity and the early Middle Ages? Thus the text ends by confirming (seemingly unwittingly) what the visual evidence has shown us all along: that blue, in all its myriad shades -- consistently used as the background for frescos, mosaics, and stained glass, preferred in the clothing of the socially elevated, admired for its apotropaic powers - has always been loved for its beauty, not its meaning. In the end, this revelation of the continuity in Western perceptions and uses of blue, asserted far more eloquently in images than words, is the book's most valuable contribution.