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Seeing Red

By: Jesse Russell
June 27, 2018

mberto Eco, the late Italian semiologist, novelist, and lapsed Thomist, occupied the twilight of his career producing upgraded coffee table books skillfully assembled from beautiful paintings and clever quotations drawn from the pantheon of Western literary, philosophical, and, at times, even theological geniuses. With visually lush collections such as The Infinity of Lists and The Book of Legendary Lands, Eco, before his death last year, became the polyglot traveling salesman of oversized haute culture books crafted from the mental sweepings of Western civilization.

Happily, Eco is not the sole custodian of the ark of Western culture. The much lesser known but equally erudite Michel Pastoureau, director of studies at France’s École Practique des haute études, has also gifted intellectually curious and aesthetically attuned audiences with a stream of beautiful and encyclopedic “miscellany” books.

Beginning with his tremendously successful Blue: The History of a Color, published in English in 2001, Pastoureau has treated readers to a sagacious feast of color-lore and the civilization that was built from the colors of the Western imagination. Blue was followed (in English translation) by Black (2008) and Green (2014). Pastoureau also published an ardent homage to bears, The Bear: History of a Fallen King in 2011. He carefully crafted each of these works with skill and love and filled them with his tremendous knowledge of Western culture, from the Paleolithic to the Postmodern period.

Pastoureau’s most recent release, Red: The History of a Color, is, like its predecessors, a mammoth and exhilarating tour of the color red in Western culture, from the earliest cave paintings of red hands and bears to contemporary stop signs and term papers heavily graded with red ink. In Red, the now septuagenarian French scholar has maintained his steady hand and passionate love for Western culture's curiosities.

Pastoureau begins his discussion of red in the cold and murky Paleolithic period, for the experience of the color is deeply rooted in when and how humans first experience the world. The title of Red’s first chapter is, appropriately, “The First Color,” for while blue is now our current favorite, red was the most beloved color of the Western palette for Paleolithic men and women, who scrawled red bison by firelight in the Spanish Santillana del Mar cave or the mysterious ancient European totem animal, the bear, on the Chauvet Cave's silent walls (made famous by the eccentric director Werner Herzog’s 2010 haunting Cave of Forgotten Dreams.)

Red was also used by the Bronze Age ancestors of the Vikings for the boats they depicted crossing the whale road at the Vitlycke site in Tanumshede, Sweden. It is little wonder that these earliest Europeans, huddled around fires and perhaps sharing caves with the same animals that adorned the walls in severe reds, blacks, browns, thought of red as a sacred color.

Although wise and humble enough not to attempt a deep mythological explanation for the Western fascination with red, Pastoureau does leave enough clues in his writing that he is implicitly charting the persistence of four basic but paradoxical qualities associated with the color red: love, beauty, death, and danger.

Red served as the core color for the savage high pagan cultures of the ancient world. For the ancient Egyptians, the red of fire and blood became the red of chaos and war and thus was often associated with the wicked god Seth, brother of Isis, the white goddess who would later haunt the dreams and ambitions of the Hellenistic Egyptian monarch Cleopatra. Red was also the color of ritual for the ancient Greeks. Among the many generous visual representations in Red,  Pastoureau gives us a 6th century BC painted piece of plastered wood depicting Greek priests and priestesses adorned in red leading a poor sheep, whose neck is tied with a red cord, off to slaughter―from which a great gush of red will soon fill the scene.

It was assumed among pre-Christian Westerners that the gods demanded hot red blood to consume, and which they likewise demanded their devotees consume―even if, at times, the gods permitted the drinking of red wine in place of animal blood.

Red was not exclusively the color of ecstatic sacrificial pagan worship; it was also the most common color in everyday civilized life in Rome. Despite Caesar Augustus’s famous claim, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,” Rome was always dotted with red as the Roman insulae, or everyday average buildings, were constructed from varieties of red brick. Romans traditionally preferred simple colors like white, black, and red.  It was only when the eternal city slouched into recurring and varied periods of decadence that barbaric colors, beloved by the ivory skinned Celtae and Germani, such as blue and green, became popular. Unsurprisingly, Nero, famous for his madness and excess, introduced the fashion of dressing in the cool greens and blues of Northern Europe.

As the ancient Mediterraneans set aside the mute gods of their ancestors and took to adoration of the Christ, the symbolic and now sacramental power of red reached a triumphant and brilliant climax. The red of blood mixed with the red of love and fire coalesced in the meteoric image of the great tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Rather than drinking and pouring the blood of sheep and bulls, men and women now drank the blood of everlasting life under the appearance of red wine. The blood of death became the red blood of life as Christ poured out his sanguinem in toto on the Holy Cross. The image of the red burning flames of erotic love now became the flames of caritas, which consumed the life of a Christian offered in true love and sacrifice for Christ―who had admonished his disciples that he had come to ignite the world with the ardent red fire. Pastoureau, an exquisite connoisseur of art, provides Lippo Memmi’s under-appreciated 14th century masterpiece Mary Magdalene in which the tranquil, lily face of the saint is sounded with a light red background, for her once scarlet lust has been transformed into tranquil charity by the perfect and generous love of Christ.

As the flames of Christianity spread north across the snowy Alps, and the warring tribes of Celts and Germans lowered their necks under Christ's gentle yoke, red was splashed on the banners of confraternities of the Precious Blood and crusader flags. Medieval monks warned their fellow monks and the small tribe of medieval literati with drawings of red dragons gnawing sinners in hell and the red flames that would scorch the pallid bodies of the damned.

In many ways the vivid colors of the Mediterranean did not sit well with the Germanic people who threw off the rich colors of the medieval world and donned the somber black of first generation Lutheranism and Calvinism. This didn't prevent Dutch artist Rembrandt, caught between Protestant and Catholic sensibilities, from painting the gorgeous and vibrant Night Watch, a medley of whites, browns, Protestant black, and a man with a very Catholic red sash leading the watch. 

The decadent French 18th century became the century of pink―a softening of red, writes Pastoureau―as Madame de Pompadour introduced the fashionable and elegant color, worn by both men and women (until the 1930s). This pink century collapsed into the red of revolution. Adorned with the red Phrygian “liberty cap,” revolutionaries waved red banners in France in 1789, 1848, again in 1871, and finally during the temper tantrum revolution of 1968. Red banners of course flew over Russia and China throughout much of the 20th century as the red blood of Christian martyrs flowed underneath totalitarian Communism.

Before the red terror of the Soviets and Maoists, however, red had declined in the West to the gaudy and dull melancholic red of the late 19th century, in what Pastoureau calls the “Red World of Prostitutes” made famous by the sad and vulgar paintings, such as Au Salon de la Rue des Moulins, of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

But red was always the color of decadence, sin, and beauty, at least since the Scarlet Lady of the Bible’s Revelation. Red lipstick, the defining mark of a prostitute or witch, was almost universally condemned by Christians (before the 20th century, at least) although rosy cheeks were a mark of modesty and beauty as they had been since the Greeks. Further, while green was the ancient symbol of love, red had always had its place in love’s accoutrements. Ladies in the Middle Ages would give a “red sleeve” to a knight as a sign of favor, and cherries, as any reader of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” knows, were the symbols of youthful love―youth itself being “the time of cherries.”

At the same time, red was the color of danger and punishment. As Julius Caesar had to cross the Rubicon to take Rome, the ancient Israelites had to cross the Red Sea to escape bondage. The color of hell's punishments in the Christian mind, red became the color of prisoners, judges, and the gloves of executioners, who sometimes wheeled the condemned in a red cart or wheelbarrow. This hellish red is used in the present day in the hands of stern school teachers and professors.

Gingers, much maligned today, have always been associated with barbarism, impurity, witchcraft, and evil. Among the Romans, the lumbering red faced and red-haired German was a stock character in comedies, and thus, the Latin nickname Rufus became a term of insult throughout the Latinate Middle Ages. Even Judas and Cain were often depicted as redheads.

Pastoureau’s works contain an attuned love for the everydayness of the precious little things we find in mass culture (a love he shares with another European public intellectual, the very odd Slavoj Žižek). Like so many things caught up the whirlwind of postmodernity, however, Pastoureau argues that red is tarnished by the prolific mass production of goods since the industrial revolution and is now overexposed and thus undervalued and unloved. No icon serves Pastoureau’s purpose better than Marilyn Monroe’s red dress, worn in the famous 1955 photo. Just like her white dress, formerly a symbol of purity, parachuting oddly upward in the air in the infamous “subway scene” of The Seven Year Itch, the allegedly “red hot” dress of poor Norma Jean becomes the color of boredom and sadness.

Michel Pastoureau, like Umberto Eco before him, was very much at home in the beauty, both earthy and sublime, of medieval art, culture, and theology. And like the “lost saints” of his childhood faith, Pastoureau mourns the advent of modernity and its long and terrible death in postmodernity. Perhaps the old French bear has maintained his childhood sensus catholicus even after all these years as a French academic in the nihilistic twilight of European civilization. Red is a highly recommended, monumental work that deserves a place on the bookshelves of bright and inquisitive readers.