Like black, white is an achromatic colour. The word derives from the same roots as the words “bright” and “light”, which describe the colour white. Along with black, white was one of the first colours used in cave paintings. Palaeolithic artists used chalk or calcite to produce white markings.
In Ancient Egypt, white was connected with the goddess Isis who, according to myth, resurrected her dead husband. The priestesses of Isis dressed only in white linen and the same material was used to wrap mummies. In Ancient Greece, the colour white represented life and nourishment, particularly concerning a mother’s milk. The Ancient Greeks and other civilisations also saw white as a counterpart to black in terms of light and darkness.
In Ancient Roman, Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and family, was said to wear white linen robes. Thus, white became a symbol of purity, loyalty and chastity. White was also worn at ceremonial occasions by Roman citizens between the ages of 14 and 18. A man who wished to be elected to public office wore a white toga known as a toga candida. This is where the word candidate stems from.
The early Christian church adopted the Roman concept of white representing purity and virtue. Priests were expected to wear white during mass and it became the colour of the Cistercian Order and the official colour worn by the Pope. Similarly, in the secular world, a white unicorn was used as a symbol of purity, chastity and grace. Legend said, only a virgin could capture a unicorn.
Whereas black is the traditional colour of mourning today, before the 16thcentury, widows commonly wore white. Later, in the 18th century, white became a fashionable colour for both men and ladies. White wigs and stockings became a typical part of male dress for the upper classes.
Did you know it was once an unwritten rule that all underwear and bed linen must be white? This may have been because these items were washed more than others and, therefore, more likely to fade and wear out.
According to science, we see the colour white when an object reflects all light and colour wavelengths. Snow is white because the ice reflects the sunlight. Clouds are white because the water droplets do not absorb any wavelengths. The White Cliffs of Dover are white because they are made of limestone, which reflects lights. White beaches occur when the sand is made up of limestone or quartz particles, from which light is reflected.
There are many interpretations of the meaning and symbolism of the colour white. In Western cultures, white usually represents innocence and purity. It is also associated with beginnings and is the reason why babies and children are usually baptised wearing white. Queen Elizabeth II wears white at the opening of each British Parliament session. Debutantes wear white at their first ball. White has been the traditional colour of wedding dresses since the 19thcentury.
White is a sign of cleanliness. Objects that are expected to be kept clean are typically white, for example, dishes, refrigerators, toilets, sinks, bed linen, towels, doctors’ coats and chefs’ outfits.
White can also mean peace or surrender. Originating during the Hundred Years’ War, a white flag is used to request a truce or indicate surrender.
In the Bible, white is also a symbol of purity, innocence, honesty and cleanliness; however, there are also other meanings. One repeated representation is illness, particularly in relation to skin disease. When someone is ill, they usually look pale or white, particularly in the hands and face. Verses that refer to this idea include:
The example from Joel talks about plants rather than humans. Joel speaks about a plague of locusts that have destroyed his vines and fig trees, stripping them of their bark. The inner layers of many trees are white; this fact is mentioned in the book of Genesis:
Sometimes, the writers of the Bible have used the colour white to describe something’s appearance. In these cases, they may not contain hidden meanings but rather a way of helping the reader picture the scene:
There are many examples of white being used as a symbol of purity. A couple of these refer to the repentance of sin, for example:
You may remember from previous articles that the gardens of the palace of Susa contained white hangings and, later, Mordecai was clothed in blue and white. These also refer to purity as well as peace.
The remaining examples of the colour white that I have found are all related to prophesy. White horses, for example, symbolise truth and righteousness. The other prophetic uses of the colour likely refer to similar things; however, scholars have debated at length over their exact meaning. If you have the time, you may wish to read up about the following verses on the internet or in books but for now, I will just list them so that you can get a general idea about the prophecies. As you will see, the majority appear in the book of Revelation.
This ends The Importance of Colours in the Bible series. I hope you have enjoyed studying the Bible through colours and learnt something new. For fun, let’s end with phrases and idioms involving the colour white. As always, feel free to add your own examples.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon