Color In The Middle Ages: What Did It Mean And How Was It Used?


The Middle Ages have a reputation for being a dark time. In reality, it was quite the opposite ; We owe this topic, first, to the Enlightenment, which tried to disparage this period by considering it the prototype of the Old Regime; on the other, to the multitude of films and novels that paint the medieval era as a world without color.

As historians Javier Traité and Consuelo Sanz de Bremond say in their book The Smell of the Middle Ages (see bibliography), the old films of the 1950s, made in colossal Technicolor, have much more to do with the real thing. essence of the Middle Ages than more recent films (for example, The Name of the Rose, from 1982) that paint it as a place of eternal darkness. And, for the medieval people, color was the essence of beauty and it connected them directly with God, so their entire world was impregnated with tones, the more vivid and cheerful, the better. Let’s see it.

Color in the Middle Ages: matter or light?

Although it may seem like an absurd discussion to us, for medieval men and women it was of crucial importance. Because the vision of color as something linked to sin or, on the contrary, as something closely linked to God and, therefore, a direct bridge between divinity and his creation, depended on the answer. Does it sound strange to you? We explain ourselves below.

Color as a theological discussion

Although the first Fathers of the Church did not view with very good eyes the profuse use of color, both in temples and in clothing, since they considered it the fruit of vanity and, therefore, of sin, this idea was qualified with time. To talk about the theology of color we will base ourselves on the exceptional study by Michel Pastoureau, A symbolic history of the Western Middle Ages (see bibliography) which, in its chapter related to color (Birth of a world in black and white. The Church and color: from the origins to the Reformation), offers a magnificent overview, duly analyzed, of how human sensitivity towards color evolved, from the first Christian centuries to the advent of the Lutheran Reformation.

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Although the Fathers of the Church usually write against color, this idea changed over time. Isidore of Seville (6th century) already tells us that the etymology of the word “color” is none other than “heat”, from which it follows that the chromatic tones of the world participate in fire and, therefore, in light. divine. Etymologies aside (Isidore’s inventive capacity in this regard is known), this only proves that, even at the beginning of Christianity, some of these fathers did see color as something good.

We must look for the starting point of this medieval theological discussion about color in its duality: is color matter or light? If it is the former, it directly participates in earthly things, which is why it is linked to sin. If you participate in the second, you participate in God, since God is light. In this dichotomy, so curious for us humans of the 21st century, we find the key to understanding the medieval debate about color.


Color as a source of beauty

After the Council of Nicaea (8th century), color penetrated the Christian temple in profusion. An era had just ended in which, especially in the Byzantine East, iconoclasm was very present, that is, the elimination of figurative forms in the church. And, although color is not something figurative, the debate is still related to it. Is it morally acceptable for the Christian temple to be filled with shapes and colors?

We must think that the first Christians greatly promoted the anchorite lifestyle, in which only the basics of living prevailed. In this sense, color is ornament, something futile that draws attention away from true faith. This was believed by Bernard of Clairvaux already in the 12th century, who, by promoting the Cistercian reform, sought to distance the monks from any hint of unnecessary adornment. Bernardo’s “phobia” towards iconography in temples and monasteries is well known, as well as his monumental aversion towards colors.

However, we can consider chromoclastic opinions such as those of Bernard of Clairvaux as absolutely secondary in the medieval aesthetic panorama. Generally, the Middle Ages love color. We see it in the churches, absolutely painted in every corner (the “Middle Ages with naked stone” thing is another myth), in the people’s clothes, in the altarpieces and in the polychrome sculptures. Color is a source of beauty, because it emanates from light and, therefore, from God. And there is no other way to praise God than through the profusion of color.

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This is how Abbot Suger, of the Abbey of Saint-Denis, sees it, who turns his temple into a praise of divinity through chromatic tones. Nothing is beautiful enough to praise God, and the church and the monastery become an exaltation of bright and clear color. It is not surprising, then, that Bernard of Clairvaux and his Cistercians maintained a bitter fight with Suger and his acolytes the Cluniacs, whom they accused of being vain and superficial.


What is “beautiful” color for medieval people?

But this medieval inclination to color was very different from ours. Again following Pastoureau, we can affirm that medieval color, to be “beautiful”, must be pure, vivid, without gradations. In reality, what is beautiful is the “idea” of that color. Thus, the red that will be beautiful will be the “red among reds”, and this appreciation does not allow stages of any kind. In chivalric novels, the lips of the beloved are “red” and that’s it, not maroon, not even a little pink, not even close to violet. For color to truly be an emanation of God, it must be pure, without fissures.

This is clearly reflected in medieval paintings and polychromes. The colors that are applied in the frescoes or on wood are strident, bright; They do not have any gradation. Medieval iconography does not need stages of color, since it does not seek a “natural” color, but rather the “idea” of this color. The plastic representations, therefore, are not an imitation of reality, as those of later centuries would be, but rather they are an ideal embodied in the support. Medieval art does not put relevance in the how, but in the what.

And, of course, this conception also translates into clothing, where there are no gradations either. Yellow doublets are yellow; the tights red, red; violet tights are violet. The more advanced the Middle Ages, the more bizarre mishmashes we find in costumes, both male and female. Because yes, the idea that “men dress dark” is something that was born with the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century. Dressing dark was something unthinkable for medieval man; first, because there were no adequate tinting techniques to create a beautiful black (this was achieved later, in the 15th century) and, second, because this was considerably removed from the concept of beauty of the human being of the Middle Ages.

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We cannot expand here on everything concerning medieval color. Yes, we wanted to outline a small summary so that the reader is clear about several things: one, that the Middle Ages was anything but a “dark age”, since color was the basis of the aesthetics of beauty, and beauty was related to God.

Two, that medieval sensitivity towards color was very different from ours, since pure tones were preferred (what we could call “gaudy” today). And three, that this extraordinary sensitivity towards chromaticism was reflected in buildings, plastic arts and clothing, and even in literature, which is full of chromatic descriptions. In the Middle Ages, well, wherever you looked, there was color.

In reality, and as the cited chapter of Pastoureau’s book concludes, the “dark ages” begin in the 15th century and coincide more or less with the Protestant Reformation. The two facts that we mentioned above come together here: first, the appearance of new dye technologies that allow a much more finished and perfect black (the famous “Austrian black”, which was first made fashionable by the court of Burgundy and, later, , Charles V and his heirs).

And second, that Luther and his followers, in their attempt to distance themselves from the superficiality of the Roman Church, condemned color from the beginning of the Reformation. Thus, a change in sensitivity occurs that will be very evident in the clothing and art of the Protestant countries of northern Europe and the flowery baroque language that is produced in the southern countries. Thus, the Catholic Baroque represents, in a certain way, a return to the Middle Ages.