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Renaissance Color Myths

There are many false perceptions in relation to the renaissance and use of color. Often our perception of a color today was not the same as it was in times past. Colors steeped in tradition have changed over time. For example, the wedding dress was not always white. For that matter the wedding dress is not white in every culture even now. The colors pink, purple, and blue seem to fuel the majority of controversy when it comes to colors in the Renaissance. It is said that pink was not a color used in garments in the renaissance. Some will have you think that only servants wore blue. Others profess that purple is a color forbidden to be worn by anyone not of royal blood.

Pink is often toted as never having been worn or used in fabrics during the renaissance period. This is not the case. The Japanese crushed cherry blossoms to make beautiful pinks for kimonos. The painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, c1533 (see bottom of page) further collaborates this as a falsehood. In the painting, one of the male subjects is wearing a pink shirt. One might argue that the shirt was red and the pigment merely faded over time. That might be the case but highly unlikely given the red cloth on the table next to him is still obviously red.

Some say the color blue was only worn by servants. It is highly unlikely anyone would accuse Queen Elizabeth I, the Queen of England, of being a servant. In a miniature painted with the title An Elizabethan Maundy engraved in its frame and attributed to Levina Teerlinc, c.1565, Queen Elizabeth I and many other ladies are seen wearing blue dresses. Further Elizabethan clothing laws state that “…King, queen, and Prince, mayors and other head officers of any towns corporate, Barons of the Five Ports, except velvet, damask, [or] satin of the color crimson, violet, purple, blue.” Thus, they may wear blue except in those fabrics.

Another color myth is that purple may only be worn by royalty. Feeding this myth is a decree by Queen Elizabeth in 1507 that “None shall wear in his apparel cloth of gold or silver tissued, silk of color purple under the degree of an earl, except Knights of the Garter in their purple mantles only”. That said perhaps we should call it more of a misunderstanding or mistranslation than a myth. The color we call purple today is a wonderful blend in varying degrees of red and blue. The color purple of question in the renaissance was actually called Tyrian purple. Tyrian purple, according to Pliny the Elder in his writings Natural History, was actually “... the Tyrian hue ... is considered of the best quality when it has exactly the colour of clotted blood, and is of a blackish hue to the sight, but of a shining appearance when held up to the light; hence it is that we find Homer speaking of "purple blood."”

Color, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The Ambassadors, 1533




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