December 18, 2014 @ MyScienceWork
Spike Bucklow, of the University of Cambridge, may have an answer to this question, a hypothesis that grew out of his study of a certain form of medieval church art. A chemist by training, Dr. Bucklow lends his skills to the restoration of art, at the Hamilton Kerr Institute of the University’s Fitzwilliam Museum. Since 2009, he has been involved in a project to survey and restore rood screens dating from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Rood screens are wooden structures that stand in a church between the nave and the chancel. These screens were carved in the Middle Ages, richly decorated with images of saints or local donors, and followed a very consistent color scheme: alternating zones of red and green. The pattern varied so little that Bucklow thought there had to be a connection.
Time, space, and sacredness, therefore, are intertwined and, logically, share a symbolic system to mark their transitions. But why use red and green in the first place? Spike Bucklow suspects they were chosen to represent dichotomies, much like the rood screen announces the distinction between secular and holy, or the solstice marks the turning from old to new. Red and green were commonly associated with the pairs of fire and water, male and female. Bucklow’s analysis of the pigments used in these works of art provides further evidence for the symbolism of opposites. He noticed that the green pigment decorating the rood screens was a synthetic material made from copper. There were several sources for the color red, one of which was iron. Both pigments, then, were derived from metal products. “Metallurgy was determined by astrology in the Middle Ages,” he explains. “The seven planets visible to the naked eye related to seven metals. Copper was associated with Venus, which is tied to the feminine, love, and a watery figure. Iron, on the other hand, is linked to Mars, the masculine, war, and fire.”
Even today, colors carry different connotations for different cultures around the world. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, if cultures of the past attributed greater meaning to colors than we do now. “Color associations were extremely powerful,” Dr. Bucklow explains. For example, as purple was reserved for royalty, “up to the year 500, if you wore purple in Eastern Europe or Western Asia, you could be executed. If you were a weaver who made a garment in purple for someone, your hands could be cut off. It’s funny that today we’re so free with color and so unaware.”
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