Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Liturgical Colours

A good green can be made by taking copper placing it in a sealed crock with strong vinegar and burying it in a dung heap for some months, the dung supplies a constant heat source which speeds up the chemical reaction. This what my icon painters directory tells me is the best way of producing green. Of course green can be obtained from vegetable sources but in tends to be fugitive.
Most colours come from minerals, mainly clays and are in the range of yellows, browns and reds, even a rather pale blue, you just need to spend a great deal deal of time grinding.
Blue could be made by grinding lapis lazuli from Afghanistan but it was more expensive than gold.
Mineral colours are fine for painting because they are held in suspension but for dying cloth you need the colour to penetrate the fabric therefore it needs to be totally soluble. Therefore vegetable dyes tended to be used, the problem is that they tend to fade. What was available tended to determine liturgical colours.
Black was a natural colour, black wool came from black sheep or goats, it could also be obtained from, squid or octopus, or vegetable galls though it would have tended to be black red/green/blue rather than a solid black. Black ink was used in thimblefuls, black dye needed to be used by the barrelful.
White came from the natural colour of the fabric, and from removing colour, bleaching, the problem with white was keeping it clean. Any decoration would tend to be bleached by cleaning it. It was literally a non-colour.
Greens were made from verdigris, as in the process above, but also from lichens and other vegetable sources.
Red was more problematic, its source was either the crushed cochineal beatle, which gave a deep red that was quite colour fast and bright, or else from the madder root, which gave a deep pinkish red but tended to fade over time.
Urine, either animal or human, gave various reasonably fast colours ranging from pale yellow to orange or even an orangey-red, by feeding animal on various food stuffs the colour coul be changed.
A sort of purple/red could be produced by beets, it could be brightened by mixing it with urine or lichen, but I think the deep purple of the modern beetroot wasn't widely available.
Blue was widely available but it tended to be rather dark, the colour of jeans, from woad or later indigo, it was used in the Sarum Rite for clergy dress; "blue cloth" was a major English export.
Blue, yellow, green, russet, brown vestments seem to have been common vestment colours in the dissolution records of monasteries and churches.
The ancient precious royal colours of royal blue or purple made from crushed and fermented molluscs or deep red from the cochineel beatle were very expensive, it wasn't until the industrial revolution that these colours could be produced cheaply, bright purple seems to have been the most difficult, as opposed to muddy violet.
The liturgical colour white until the 15th century, at least, was unlikely to have been plain white, an alb could be bleached, a chasuble or other vestment would have to be stripped of its decoration before it was cleaned, hence it would be more likely to be a pale version of another colour. Its preciousness came from the care to keep it pristine. Black was much easier to deeal with, it simply didn't show soot and sweat and grime. Hence its use for Requiems and mourning, it was cheap and easily cared for.
In the East white was used for the same purpose but devoid of decoration, untreated cloth or simply bleached.
All this is really to say that the rubric for Requiem Masses calls for either black or purple, or white to be used. I have always presumed white was for Asian communities where white is the traditional colour of mourning, it is not "festal" white but dull and unembellished rather like the unbleached Lenten array of Sarum use.

dyed yarn


NBW said...

I found this post fascinating. I've always wondered how they colored fabrics back then. Thank you for the post, Father.

Gladiatrix said...

I think you are correct about black woollen garments, Father Ray, but as I understand it one of the 'eyebrow raisers' in the recent production of The Hollow Crown was the extensive use of black and grey materials for a late medieval setting. Black dye was difficult and expensive to produce, thus it tended only to be seen on special occasions rather than as everyday wear.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Gladiatrix, yes, deep solid black was difficult, dying unbleached linen which is brown with woad would produce a very dark colour.
The process was often giving several "coats" between dryings, eventually I suspect all dye-pots would end up sort of blackish brown.
I think a troop of blackfriars or black monks would be fifty shades of black.

gemoftheocean said...

Great post -- IIRC from my reading the Blessed Mother was often dressed in Blue precisely because blue was an expensive and precious color to produce.

gemoftheocean said...

Oh, one thing about blacks -- they can actually be quite tricky. When I was taking a historical costume class our instructor mentioned how difficult blacks can be - particularly matching black. They either have a green or red undercast, which can be noticed as the garment fades or comes under strong lights and if you are building costumes it's best to make sure they come from the same manufacturer/dye lot. I'm not sure if the same applied in the time frame you were discussing - but it's a caveat emptor sort of thing.

John Simlett said...

Which all goes to convince me that I am right in sticking to black and white with my artwork.

The 'values' I use are a deceit, for in reality they are merely a variance in thickness of the black line, and not shades of grey.

The best bits are always the white ... the bits I don't draw on.

A really interesting post; thank you.

Physiocrat said...

Turmeric is a golden yellow and impossible to wash off.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Physiocrat, Tumeric again came along the silk road from the East and therefore was expensive, as was cinnabar which was used for vermillion, which was the red for "rubrics", I think.

Doing the red was expensive!

Physiocrat said...

Cinnabar is a pigment used for paints. It is mercury oxide and very toxic.

John Nolan said...

In the Sarum Use red seems to have been the default colour (most Sundays) which explains why the vestments in the V&A collection are mostly of that hue.

LizzieD said...

Not quite, Physiocrat, cinnabar is mercuric sulphide,(chemical formula HgS) which is possibly toxic if inhaled/ingested.
Father, I think vermilion was used for the rubrics, but also red lead which was known as minium could be used - in fact it was the extensive use of this latter colour that gave rise to the name "miniatures" (not the fact that they were small illustrations.)
Very interesting post!

Fr Ray Blake said...

I had forgotten about red lead, you are right of course, hence its early and frequent use.

Brazilwood became a plentiful supply of "red", apparently it was the wood that gave its name to the country, not the otherway round.

Mike Cliffson said...

As a boy , having a tree with oakapples, or galls, handy, I tried making my own ink (with modern coppersalts as well!), timeconsuming and no better (but no worse) than (50s quitepostwar,primary) school ink.Did they use oak galls for dyes and paints as well? They're horrible tricksy things on account of natural variation,fruit to fruit, maturity, species and variety, weather conditions in the growing season, anything organic is like that, the active ingredient you're after can be shown by chenmical analysis to vary by orders of magnitude.

O by the way, reading BERNAL DIAZ DEL CASTILLO's account of the Conquest of mexico in which he took part, the conquistadores were fooled , or fooled themselves, by the small sacks of small dead insects in Monteczuma's treasuries,along with gold, undoubtedly cochineal - and they imagined/were fobbed off with the idea, that the most civic and pious mexican citizens with no better tribute nonetheles caught and saved their own body lice for their dread sovereign.
There's a moral or two there somewhere.