Seeing Red: A New Book Charts the History of a Color Through the Ages


Boris Grigoriev, Entrez!, 1913.


Love, oh love, oh bloody love! So intense, so beautiful, so treacherous—so red.

Making a timely debut for Valentine’s Day, the new book Red: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau (Princeton University Press) considers red in all its manifold guises. A richly and imaginatively illustrated survey filled with history, lore, religion, science, cosmetics, archaeology, medicine, alchemy, superstition, magic, linguistics, and even recipes for pigments, the book ambitiously traverses the centuries from prehistoric times to the present.



The relatively slim tome—under 200 pages—hosts facts, fictions, and associations. The ruby, for example, with its depth of red, was highly valued and thought to possess an array of talents, among them: “warming the body, arousing sexual desire, strengthening the mind, and keeping away snakes and scorpions.”

Lexically speaking, we learn there are more names for red than for any other color—and more shades, ranging from russet to purple. It is “the color of love, whether mystical or carnal,” Pastoureau writes, and it has been considered “indecent, immoral, and depraved.” In the 14th century, the Great Whore of Babylon is portrayed in purple and scarlet; beginning in the 19th century, red lanterns came to signify brothels.

In Roman times, red hair “had a bad reputation,” Pastoureau notes. “For a woman, it was the sign of a wicked lifestyle; for a man, it was ridiculous and a sign of Germanic ancestry.” Medieval images often depicted the famous betrayer Judas with red hair.

Divided into four sections—“The First Color,” “The Favorite Color,” “A Controversial Color,” and “A Dangerous Color”—the book first takes us back to Paleolithic times, when pallets of red ocher featured in tombs among funerary objects, and then to the Classical era, when Greek pottery told tales in red and black in a fascinating example of what Pastoureau calls, in consideration of the two colors communicating, “bilingualism.”

Western rosace, calendar, in Paris's Cathédral Notre-Dame, ca. 1260. ©JEAN-PAUL DUMONTIER_LACOLLECTION_SERVICEPRESSE

Western rosace, calendar, in Paris’s Cathédral Notre-Dame, ca. 1260.


Red dye was composed of plant or animal matter and valued accordingly. Reds based on Kermes, for example, a dye extracted from the bodies of crushed insects—only the males—was favored by Greek and Roman dyers and was far more expensive than the reds made from the plant substance known as madder. Kermes produced deeper, richer hues and was much more stable. As such, it came to be esteemed by nobles and high-ranking clergy. Roman painters used more red-related tones than any others (red ocher, hematite, and the poisonous cinnabar). Topping the list in extravagance and opulence at the time was a purplish red made from the shellfish Murex trunculus, arduously culled from a small gland in the mollusk.

Despite red’s long-held preeminence, it had a mighty rival. Color wars rose up in the 12th century, with blue challenging red for stature. Blue was rarer, harder to produce, and more subtle. Between the mid-12th century and early 13th century, blue became fashionable in art and then in clothing and life at court, we learn. It was used in enamel work, stained glass, and illuminated manuscripts. Pastoureau notes that historians pondered whether blue’s rise in fortune derived from technical progress in the area of pigments and dyes or, instead, an ideological shift. He postulates that “it seems that theological and ideological stakes preceded chemical and economical changes.”

From Medieval times to Post-Impressionist and Expressionist painting to the symbolist Russian avant-garde, red has exhibited more disparate personalities and changes of mind than most pathologic serial killers. All the while, it has remained undaunted and unsubdued.

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