Red: A Brief History

Red, the color that so often symbolized the color of fertility or of Christ’s blood, is one of the first colors to be used by artists.

It is an extravagant color. Red is one of the primary colors along with blue and yellow. It encompasses a range of emotions: Seduction, passion, violence, fertility, joy, love, and so on. The hues of these colors can be dark as burgundy wine or can be laced with hints of orange.

Western cultures often associate it with love and that of the clergy. The Roman Catholic Cardinals wear a vivid red cassock from which the bright red shade gets the name Cardinal. (Granted the actual color they wear is scarlet).

His Favorites by Andrea Landini

In many eastern countries red is worn by brides. It is viewed as a symbol of fertility and luck. Hong Bao (also known as Lai See) is a gift of money tucked away in a red envelope that signals luck, happiness, and blessings to those to whom it is gifted.

Our ancestors painted cave walls with early shades of red from Ochre dating back more than fifty thousand years. Red Ochre gets its red color from Hematite. Red dyes were created by crushing scaled bugs on the Kerme trees in Neolithic times.

cave art Bhimbetka, India

Red was seen as a sign of life and health in Egypt and a color of chaos and destruction. Red pigments were often found in the rich clays of Egypt. Red Ochre makes another appearance as cosmetics for women.

If we turn to Rome, we can see a broad spectrum of reds. Red was the color of Mars, the god of war. Much like the Greeks, Romans used an assortment of red shades for various reasons such as dyes for clothes, makeup, hair, and so on. If you look at the frescos of Pompeii you can see the rich assortments of reds, such as Cinnabar.

(Photo: Pompeii Tours)

Cinnabar was held with such high regard that the cost to import it from Spain was astronomical. Not only was it highly regarded, but it was also extremely toxic. The compound elements of Cinnabar are Mercury(II) Sulfide.

Those who mined this mineral were often slaves and prisoners.

Cinnabar also made waves in Asian art, such as in China where carved lacquer or Qidiao was a highly regarded art form. Cinnabar was a popular color of choice for these pieces. Sap from a resin tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum, or the Chinese lacquer tree) is mixed with materials, such as cinnabar. A wood base is coated with sap (the number of layers varies) and allowed to dye. It is then carved. There are fewer than twenty-five master artisans who practice this method.

Photo: MoMA

In Japan, the gates of Shinto temples are marked with vermillion gates called Torri. These gates are believed to deter evil spirits and danger. Some are made from wood or stone.

The torii of Itsukushima Shrine

In the Americas, red was just as popular. In Mayan culture, red represented the sun and sacrifice. Incans believed that the color symbolized conquest and blood. Aztecs saw red as the color of the rising sun. Many cultures used cochineal bugs to dye textiles various shades of red (even purples as well). It even dates back to the second century. Cochineal bugs colonize prickly pear cactuses native to Mexico, Central, and South America. The females are often the ones picked as they contain a greater level of carminic acid, the acid that gives us shades of red. To harvest, they are dried and the carminic acid that produces the color is extracted. A mordant, a substance that helps to bond the dye, is added. This could be salt or alum. Andean dyers of Peru are skilled workers who keep the traditions of using cochineal and chapi (a red-orange shade) alive.

(Source: University of Illinois)

The Yoruba people of west Africa (areas such as Nigeria, Tongo, and so on) refer to reds and shades similar to red as pupa. It contains any color that can be used to describe it as hot or temperamental. Someone with a pupa personality can be deemed as dangerous or hot-headed. Deities, or orisa, who act aggressive or dangerous are often paired with pupa.

Yoruban priestess inituation (photo: PBS)

In medieval times a form of synthetic vermilion was wildly expensive. It was first produced in China and found it’s fame in Europe by Arab Alchemists. It was also highly toxic.

Red dominated as a color of power in Europe. Louis XIV was often noted to wear scarlet heels. Heels were common at the time for men. Cochineal makes another appearance due to Europe’s tromping around the Americas. Red also showed to be a color of divinity, as seen earlier with Cardinals. The Virgin Mary is often depicted in red robes during the renaissance. It was popular amongst kings to show their connection to the idea of their divine right to rule. Queen Elizabeth often wore extravagant red dresses.

Madonna and child by Raphael.

Other reds began to come into the swing as time passed. Cadmium red, for example, was a favorite of artist Henri Matisse. He loved the brightness of the color. It bloomed in fashion as well in Louboutin’s classic and iconic red-bottom heels.

Death, power, divinity, love, and war. Red can be paired with feelings of hate and of happiness. It is the color that often evokes the strongest of reactions. It’s eye-catching and seductive. There’s little surprise in its popularity throughout history.

What do you think? Drop a comment below and let me know, I’d love to hear it.

Have a Monday everyone!


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