Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After

Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After

Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After

Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After


Color has been a subject of heated debate for as long as anyone can remember. Is it an innate part of material objects or a trick of perception and light? Is it merely superficial and decorative, or does it reveal deeper meaning? Is it the manifestation of divine presence on Earth or evidence of Satan's cunning? This debate captured the medieval imagination and influenced every aspect of life in the Middle Ages -- an era that was truly obsessed with color.

Unlike the drab images popularized in films and television programs, parades of vibrant color were on display at every level of medieval European society. Not only did clothing sport gaudy and often clashing colors, but food, statues, animals, and even hair and beards flaunted the most brazen coloration. Yet not everyone revered color; many believed it to be an ephemeral, worldly deception and a symptom of immorality. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, perceptions of color gradually became emblematic of broader cultural issues. Black and blue -- which were primarily associated with asceticism, sorrow, and humility -- became the colors of choice for royalty and the urban aristocracy, while bright, flashy colors came to be associated with the devil -- who, it was believed, had painted the world in tempting hues to lure humanity into sin and away from the path to eternal salvation. As a result, every God-fearing person began to avoid colorful displays, choosing instead more somber shades, a preference still seen today in the blacks and dark blues of evening wear and business attire.

Colors Demonic and Divine ranges over painting, fashion, poetry, heraldry, religion, and history to tell the story of medieval attitudes toward color and the profound and pervasive influence they still have on modern society.


This treatment of medieval colors and their continuing influence in our day is based on a booklet published in 1994, Kleuren van de Middeleeuwen (Colors of the Middle Ages), that I was asked to write for a Dutch event called [Science Week.] Since then the subject has continued to haunt me and has been the source of several subsequent publications, such as the article [De onweerstaanbare opkomst van de ontkleuring] (The relentless progress of decoloration), included in my 1999 book Tegen de barbarij (Against barbarism). The result of my sustained interest in the subject lies before you: a greatly expanded, corrected, and up-to-date version of the original work. To my delight, a number of illustrations, which could not be included in the earlier version, have been added to the present volume.

In the past few years, acquaintances and strangers alike have supplied me with all kinds of useful information about color. In particular, the ideas of Peter Brusse, J. C. Groenewegen (of the Sikkens Foundation in Sassenheim in the Netherlands), W. P. F. van Hoogen, and Marieke van Oostrom have been a great source of inspiration for which I am especially grateful.

I strongly urge everyone to take an interest in color. Color continues to touch every facet of human existence, as it has since time immemorial. Take note of color, and you will never find yourself on a deadend track, for there will always be interesting side paths to tempt you.

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