BLUE: The inside storyBefore the 12th century, blue was not a colour. It was not used in ancient cave paintings or rock art, nor was it used when the first dyeing techniques appeared, about 4 millennia BC. This despite the fact that blue is present in natural elements that go back to the earth's formation. Blue had no place in social life, religion or art.
Many Victorian researchers have wondered if the people of antiquity could even see the colour blue, since ancient languages have no word for it.
Red, white and black were the basic colours of ancient cultures. Blue, yellow and green served no function on a social or symbolic level.
The classic Greek authors used the word kyaneos, which meant a dark colour: it could be violet or black or brown. For the Romans, blue was the barbarians' colour: the Celts and Germans dyed their faces blue to terrify their opponents.
In the High Middle Ages, red was the colour of the nobility, while the dull blue of woad was the colour of servants and lower ranks.
In the 8th century, the Church started to use gold and bright colours for liturgical vestments. Ecclesiastical texts of the time discuss the meaning and symbolism of up to 12 colours, but blue is not among them.
Blue was, however, not completely absent from art: it was used in early Christian mosaics and illumination, but its use was marginal.
In the 12th century, blue was suddenly "discovered" and within a few decades attained a prominent place in painting, heraldry and clothing. Previously, the Virgin Mary was always clad in dark colours: black, grey, violet, dark red or dark green. Now her clothing became blue: initially a dark blue, which gradually tended to become brighter and clearer, because luminosity was a form of divine illumination. The growing cult of the Virgin assured the success of this limpid blue, and it quickly spread to other areas of the arts, like glass and enamel.
Heraldry, too, reflected blue's new status. Around 1200, blue appears in only 5% of coats of arms: by the 15th century, that number had increased to 40%.
The new vogue for blue was given an important boost by the kings of France, who chose gold fleurs de lis on a "royal" blue background as their coat of arms.
The wearing of blue garments by the upper classes was helped by the discovery of indigo as a dye. It produces a deep, solid blue that saturates silk, wool and cotton fabrics without requiring a mordant. This was far superior to the duller blue of woad, which was prone to fading.
By the end of the Middle Ages, blue had become the colour of kings, while red remained the colour of the papacy.
In modern times, blue in all its different shades, is the most common colour for Western dress. Since opinion polls started in 1890, blue has remained the favourite colour of adults in Western Europe and the US: over 50% choose it. Green is next at 20%, followed by white and red at 8% each.
Other cultures have other preferences: Latin America prefers red, in Japan white comes first and in African cultures it seems that the actual colour is not as important as whether it is dull or shiny, smooth or rough.
Interestingly, children of all cultures prefer red to any other colour.
Find out a lot more about the fascinating history of Blue when you read "Blue, the History of a Color" by Michel Pastoureau: in this little article I haven't even scratched the surface of this interesting and informative book with its beautiful illustrations.