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Spotlight: ‘Tis the season to celebrate medieval colours

Posted on 16 December 2016

Madeline Salzman, a Master’s student at the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies, discusses how the colour red became a focus of festive celebrations.


Artists used vermillion to create a strong red colour, as seen here in the image, Court of Heaven, from the 14th century manuscript, The Cloisters Apocalypse.

"It is the season of colour; a time when people dress in certain colours and decorate their cities and houses according to a particular colour pallet. Colour is often the first means of communication in visual media, and plays an important role in the Christmas season from both a religious and cultural perspective. 

Red, green, silver and gold are the typical colours we will see during the festive season, but their meaning and impact is a social construct, embedded in a rich history of colour perspectives. So how does the colour red, for example, become synonymous with Christmas? How does the meaning of colours change over time? 

My research here in York, a city steeped in its medieval past, shows that these seasonal colours are primary pigments in historical decoration. It comes as little surprise, then, that a holiday season shaped by religious traditions would draw from this not-so-distant past in terms of decoration and colours, but what is the significance of these medieval colours in their own context, and how do they influence the symbolism in modern contexts such as the Christmas season?

Black and white 

If we take the colour red as an example, history demonstrates that it is a special colour regardless of time and place, because of the way the human eye works. Red is the first colour that the human eye ‘learns’ to see, based on the composition of light waves and how they interact with the inner mechanisms of the eye. Because of this, the colour red commands attention unlike any other colour the human eye encounters. From a scientific perspective, colour, for the modern reader, is also defined by lightwaves and Newtonian physics. 

In the medieval period, however, colour is understood differently because it is believed to be an innate part of the object, rather than something created external by the nature of light. Red appears at the centre of the Aristotelian spectrum, the medieval counterpart to Newton’s, which places it halfway between black and white. Unlike Newton’s spectrum, however, there are metaphysical associations with these colours as well. 

Black is symbolic of earthy matter, while white is associated with divinity and heavenly matter. If red, therefore, appears halfway between them, it must be positioned halfway between earthly and divine matter.  The coupling of black and white, from a medieval perspective, is therefore a very powerful, auspicious sign. 

To have something that is both black and white means it can easily become divine or earthly, depending on the whim of the object or the invisible hand of fate. One holdover from this belief is the practice of greeting and counting magpies. Birds are believed to be pure because of their ability to fly, bringing them closer to heaven, but if a bird is both black and white, it could easily bring doom to an irreverent person - better to be polite and safe than take a chance! 

To further complicate this, the pigment that was used to create red in medieval artefacts, vermillion, has a very specific alchemical process. Cinnabar, a sulfide mineral, is exposed to heat, which produces mercury, a white matter. Mercury is then converted into metacinnabar; black matter, which is then ground into the brilliant red pigment of vermillion. 

This process is unnecessary from a chemical standpoint, as cinnabar is vermillion in terms of its composition. However, to a medieval artist, revealing the internal white and black matter of vermillion confirms red’s place at the centre of the spectrum, and by extension, the mystical, auspicious associations that red takes from this. This affords red a prominent place in religious imagery, the very same images that inspired the modern use of red for Christmas decorations. 

Victorian revival

The modern incarnation of Christmas was formed by its Victorian revival, shaped by repurposing older religious traditions. Eye-catching medieval illuminations and painted decorations were essential to Victorian society when revitalising Christmas traditions. While the visual language was changed, it still retains its medieval core, particularly the auspicious power of red. 

The hidden dualism gave the colour red a prominent place in religious imagery, most notably as a colour used on Christ’s robes, often accented in colours now seen in Christmas decorations. With this close association to images of Christ, red accented with green or gilded with gold and silver became a foundational colour in Victorian Christmas, and carried forward as Christmas grew in social importance. 

So as we decorate our houses today and pick out our Christmas day outfits, give a thought to our ancestors who dedicated many hours to the production of this colour in art, fabrics, jewellery and homeware.  We still feel its importance today, even if we are not always sure what it means to our festivities.  We can’t imagine a Christmas without this colour and we have our medieval and Victorian relatives to thank for how we use red, and other festive colours, to communicate the uplifting and spiritual nature of the season."

Notes to editors:

For more information about the Centre for Medieval Studies at York visit: https://www.york.ac.uk/medieval-studies/