Blue is the third primary colour along with red and yellow. The word comes from the Middle English bleu, which means shimmering or lustrous. Of the colours on the visible spectrum of light, blue has one of the shortest wavelengths. As a result, when sunlight passes through our atmosphere the blue waves are scattered more widely than other colours, therefore, the sky appears blue. It would take a scientist to explain this theory but, as Einstein said it was true, we can accept it as thus.
Apart from naturally occurring blues, blue was not used in art or referenced in literature until much later than the other colours. This is because it was much harder to produce a blue dye and the minerals from which it was made were much more expensive, for example, indigo, lapis lazuli and azurite. No ancient cave paintings contain the blue pigment; one of the earliest uses is thought to be on the funeral mask of King Tutankhamen (1323 BC).
The Ancient Egyptians associated the colour blue with the sky and divinity. They believed the god Amun could turn his skin blue to fly, invisible, across the sky. They also believed blue could protect against evil, which is why many people in the Mediterranean to this date wear blue amulets to protect them from misfortune.
The Romans often used blue for decorations. The walls of Pompeii were reportedly decorated with frescoes of blue skies. Later, in the Byzantine era, blue was often used in churches and the Virgin Mary was usually depicted in dark blue clothing in artwork. In Islam, blue is said to be Muhammad’s favourite colour.
In the Middle Ages, blue became the colour of poor people who used poor-quality dyes made from the woad plant to colour their clothes. In the western world, blue did not appear in churches until the 1130s when Saint-Denis Basilica installed a cobalt coloured stained glass window. This colour became known as bleu de Saint-Denis. Although the Byzantine Empire had depicted Mary in blue, the western church did not take up this practice until the 12thcentury. Before that, the Virgin was shown wearing black, greys and greens.
King Louis IX of France, now known as Saint Louis, was the first king to dress in blue. After this, many nobles followed suit. As a result, paintings of the legendary King Arthur began to show him dressed in blue. In the years to follow, blue became a sign of the wealthy and powerful in Europe.
During the Renaissance, merchants devised a way to produce blue dyes more cheaply. This led to several blue dye industries being set up in cities across Europe. Eventually, blue pigments became widely available and the colour began to appear regularly in paintings. By the 18thand 19thcenturies, blue had become a popular colour amongst artists, particularly impressionists.
In contemporary English, blue is used to represent sadness, for example, “She was feeling blue.” Alternatively, blue can represent happiness or optimism, for instance, blue skies. On the other hand, in German, to be blue means to be drunk. Also, in German, a naïve person is said to look upon the world with a blue eye.
In Turkey and some parts of Asia, blue represents mourning. In China, blue is the colour of ghosts, torment and death. It is common in Chinese opera for the villain to wear blue face paint. In Thailand, however, the colour blue represents Friday.
Although some societies are trying to eradicate gender stereotypes, it is common to associate blue with boys and pink with girls. Before the 1900s, however, it was the other way around. Blue was the colour for girls because it corresponded with the blue of the Virgin Mary’s clothes. Boys were pink due to its closeness to the colour red, a masculine colour.
Many countries throughout the world use the colour blue on their flags. Countries include Scotland, Finland, Greece, Israel, Argentina, Uruguay, Estonia, Romania, Barbados, Russia, Serbia, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Thailand and the United Kingdom. In politics, blue represents the Conservative Party in the UK and the Democratic Party in the USA.
In Christianity, blue is mostly associated with the Virgin Mary, although there is no evidence she wore this colour in the Bible. In Hinduism, many of the gods have blue skin, including Vishnu, the preserver of the world. In the Bible, the colour blue is mentioned several times, however, it appears most in verses related to the Tabernacle. In Judaism, the colour blue is said to represent God’s glory.
The colour blue first appears in Exodus 25:4 in which the Lord asks Moses to tell the Israelites to give him a gift of gold, silver and bronze; “blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair,” rams skins and so on. After this, between chapters 26 and 39, there are a further 33 mentions of the colour blue.
I will not bore you by listing every verse; instead, I will supply a brief overview. Exodus 26 contains God’s instructions for the construction of the tabernacle. In the very first verse, He requests ten linen curtains made from blue, purple and scarlet yarn, which have loops of blue material along the bottom (verse 4). Another curtain containing blue yarn is instructed in verse 31 and one more for the entrance to the tent in verse 36. Exodus 27 continues God’s instructions for the tabernacle. The entrance to the courtyard of the tabernacle required “a curtain twenty cubits long, of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen.” (verse 16)
Exodus 28 records God’s wishes for the priestly garments. These include a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a tunic and a sash, all made from gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn. The breastpiece and ephod were to be tied together with a blue cord and the robe was made entirely from blue cloth but decorated with balls of blue, purple and scarlet yarn. A blue cord attached a seal onto the priest’s turban, which read, “Holy to the Lord”.
Exodus 35 requests the Israelites to donate gold, silver and bronze, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen for the construction of the Tabernacle. The actual building of the tabernacle commences in chapter 36. The Lord chose Bezalel son of Uri the task of constructing the gold, silver and bronze elements, and Oholiab son of Ahisamak the ability to teach others to work with the yarn and linen. The chapter goes on to record the production of the curtains mentioned earlier in the book.
Next, Exodus 38 records the construction of the courtyard, complete with a blue, purple and scarlet curtain for the entrance. Finally, Exodus 39 explains how the Israelites made the priestly garments. The chapters are all rather repetitive, however, it emphasises the importance of the colour blue, as well as purple and scarlet.
Blue continues to be important to the Israelites in the Book of Numbers. Chapter four records God’s instruction to Moses and Aaron to take a census of all the Levite clans. The Kohathite clan is responsible for covering the tabernacle curtain with a “durable leather” and to “spread a cloth of solid blue over that and put the poles in place.” (verse 6). They are also instructed to lay a blue cloth over plates dishes and bowls, the lampstand, gold altar and any articles used for ministering in the sanctuary.
Finally, we move away from the tabernacle when we reach Numbers 15:38: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel.’” The tassels, or tzitzit, are still worn by orthodox Jews today. There have been several opinions about the significance of this blue cord (tekhelet), including it represents the noonday sky and it is the colour of God’s glory.
The next mention of the colour blue occurs in 2 Chronicles. A large part of the book focuses on the construction of Solomon’s Temple. 2 Chronicles 2:7 states, “Send me, therefore, a man skilled to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, and in purple, crimson and blue yarn, and experienced in the art of engraving, to work in Judah and Jerusalem with my skilled workers, whom my father David provided.” These are the same colours (except crimson instead of scarlet) as used for the tabernacle.
A man named Huram-Abi was sent to work on the Temple by Hiram. He was “trained to work in gold and silver, bronze and iron, stone and wood, and with purple and blue and crimson yarn and fine linen.” (verse 14) In the following chapter, a curtain of blue, purple and crimson yarn is recorded.
The next book of the Bible to feature the colour blue is Esther. Chapter one, which focuses on the deposition of Queen Vashti, also describes the citadel of Susa. Verse 6 tells us“The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones.”
As you know, the book of Esther contains the story of Haman, the enemy of the Jews. By chapter 8, he has been defeated and King Xerxes gives Queen Esther Haman’s estate. Mordecai was also awarded by the king and “When Mordecai left the king’s presence, he was wearing royal garments of blue and white, a large crown of gold and a purple robe of fine linen. And the city of Susa held a joyous celebration.” (Esther 8:15)
The book of Jeremiah mentions the colour once. On this occasion, the blue does not reference God as it may have done in the curtains of the tabernacle. Instead, in chapter ten, God warns the Israelites of the dangers of false gods and idols. He reports that skilled workers hammer gold and silver, then “What the craftsman and goldsmith have made is then dressed in blue and purple”. (Jeremiah 10:9) God goes on to tell them that he is the true God and any other god or idol will perish.
Ezekiel 23 talks about Assyrian warriors “clothed in blue, governors and commanders, all of them handsome young men, and mounted horsemen.” (verse 6) In this instance, the colour blue has moved away from representing God’s glory and become an indication of importance – similar, in a way, to Mordecai’s garments in the book of Esther.
Ezekiel 27, however, reveals that clothing yourself in blue fabric does not give you the same status as God. In a lament, God reminds the people of Tyre that “Fine embroidered linen from Egypt was your sail and served as your banner; your awnings were of blue and purple from the coasts of Elishah.” (verse 7) Yet, Tyre has now fallen.
“In your marketplace they traded with you beautiful garments, blue fabric, embroidered work and multicoloured rugs with cords twisted and tightly knotted.” (verse 24) Still, Tyre was destroyed.
This leaves us with one final mention of the colour blue:
With the exception of the latter, all fifty-odd references to the colour blue relate to God, the service to God and godly living. The building of the tabernacle and construction of the temple occurred at a time when blue dyes were harder to come across, therefore, they were only used for something special; and what is more special than God? As time went on, people began to use the colour blue to signify their rank and importance, however, God put them back in their place.
With this meaning in mind, it is clear why artists chose to use the colour blue for Mary’s clothing in the Nativity Scene. She was chosen by God to be the mother of his son and is, therefore, important in his eyes.
Today, the colour blue has lost this sacredness. No one looks at blue paint, blue curtains, blue books or a blue football shirt and thinks of God. Fortunately, unlike the people of Tyre, we are not attempting to elevate ourselves to God’s level by using this colour. We use it because it is now readily available.
To finish this article, I have found a list of phrases that involve the colour blue. Some you may already know, some you may not, and others may make you laugh. Enjoy.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon