When Nero, emperor of Rome during the first century, got tired of looking at the gory, bloody gladiator fights, he would avert his eyes to his jewelry and stare at the green in the emeralds. Romans were fans of green naming the word: veridis. In the chariot races, the Blues represented the stables of the senatorial patricians while the Greens were the stables of “the people”.
For the Hellenistic Greeks, green as becoming a color in its own right was more complicated. The ancient Greeks had names for the colors: white (leukos), black (melanos), and red (erthros) but not for green. The reason being that they thought colors of nature did not need to be signaled out and given a name. Secondly, a true color is a manufactured color. To mix a color like blue and yellow to create green is bad kharma. Otherwise , in the words of First century AD Plutarch:
“mixing produces conflict, blending pigments is deflowering…”
Bright Earth, Philip Ball, page 19
Although, these ancient Greek artists were not opposed to glazing translucent colors over opaque ones to make a variety of tones, it was
acceptable to mix black or white into another color. This practice of “glazing” continued into the Renaissance. Greens were created by glazing yellow over blue. One of the early pigments was from the organic compound malachite. Later in time, malachite green was replaced by a very poisonous emerald. Poisonous greens have an infamous history. Legend says that Napoleon Bonaparte died while in exile from being poisoned by the arsenic fumes of the painted green walls. Eventually, in 1859, a safer green was manufactured called “veridian”, a hydrated chromic oxide. Veridian was adored by the Impressionists especially Cezanne.
Before 1000 AD , the color green must work for its acceptance and status as a single, honest color. To explore this, it helps to understand the sense of morality given to colors in the Middle Ages. For the most part, green was considered to be bad and dishonest by Catholic saints, Roman officials , and later by Protestant reformers. First of all, although green was used abundantly in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, there was very little mention of colors in the Bible and particularly green. Colors were identified with matter. Like gold is a color and the shiny metal gold. The Hebrews had a word for green: “yereq”. But for the Church fathers, green signified vegetation!
In the 13th century , Pope Innocent III codified the colors used in the Catholic liturgical mass. In this treatise on the mass, Pope Innocent III
included green as a liturgical color. No longer was green considered bad but became symbolically to mean the color of hope, life, abundance as in the green fields and forests of nature. Prior to this liturgical ordering, green meant sickness as when the human body turns green with disease. The “people” accepted this new status for green, ranking green higher than yellow, blue, or purple. For that matter, blue was even rarer than green to be found in the Bible if at all.
When the Germans in the 5th century, introduced and tested new dying methods for making clothes, the industry brought new colors to the people. Clothing on one side was a monochrome color of either white, red, or yellow ; and on the other side , there were vivid combinations of blue, green, and yellow. The Romans tended toward yellow-green, which in Latin is “galbinus“. Since the Germans knew the superior cloth dying techniques, their sense of color pervaded. Charlemagne wore green and red signifying his political power. The Vikings wore green tunics, as the Germanic green was equivalent to the Scandinavian green worn by these pirates. These northern European dyers found their greens from the natural order. Ferns, plantains, oak leaves and even birch bark were used for green dye. However the green dye was very unstable and not very vivid. This instability led to green’s tarnished reputation as a color.
Like the Bible, green was rarely mentioned in the Q’uran if at all.
Muhammed though favored green especially in fabrics. Upon his
death in 632 AD, green became the color of his family. This status was only a political one, not a sacred one. Various dynasties had their own symbolic color like the Abbasids’ color was black; the Almoravids were white; and Almohads were red. During the crusades, the Christians wore red and white, while Islam adopted green as a unifying color, This green became symbolic for paradise, happiness, water, sky, and hope.
By the 1000’s and 1200’s, green was very popular. The color was valued as a middle color with a soothing effect. Green emeralds were pulverized to make an eye balm. Competition between blue and green
furthered cemented the use and significance of green. Although not very evident in the heraldry of the European Middle Ages, green was symbolic of youthfulness, love and chivalry. The “orchard motif” popularized during this Romanesque period employed green generously. The orchard was the place for courtly romances, usually including an enclosed garden space with a gate. The orchard was thought of as a place of rest, harmony, and relaxation: a place full of trees, vineyard,meadow flowers, magical and mythical beasts like unicorns and phoenixes and what better color to use to paint or embroider this paradise than green!
Green, the History of Color, Michel Pastoureau ,Princeton University Press,2014
Bright Earth, Art and the Invention of Color,Philip Ball, The University of Chicago Press,2001
The Artist’s Magazine, June 2017,Vol.34 #5, “Brushing Up” by Michael C.Johnson, article: Going Green