Tag Archives: Bible

Color Symbolism in Medieval Christian Art

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Color Symbolism in Medieval Christian ArtAround 200 AD, color became a focal point in Christian art. In the beginning, each color’s meaning was taken from Ancient Greek and Roman interpretations, but soon the Bible became the color guide for Christian artists.

When the Roman Catholic Church began using color to represent liturgical seasons, five were chosen as standard: purple, white, black, red, and green. Years later, blue and gold were added. Later on, two more colors joined the list: vibrant orange, which represented courage and strength, and rich brown, the symbol of earth and humility.

These key colors and their variants are apparent in surviving pieces of medieval Christian art and religious iconography.

● Purple, a royal color since ancient times, is also associated with repentance. It is the liturgical color for Lent and Advent.

● White symbolizes innocence, purity, and virtue. To this day it remains the representative color for all of the Christian high Holy Days, such as Christmas and Easter.

● Black is regarded as the symbol of death and mourning, although in some instances it could represent power. Black is the color associated with Good Friday.

● Red is the color of Pentecost and symbolizes the Holy Spirit. During the Medieval period it represented the blood of Christian martyrs.

● Green glorifies the season of Epiphany. It celebrates fertility, nature, bounty, and hope.

● Yellow (gold) symbolizes hope, light, and purity. When combined with white, it is the symbolic color for the Easter season.

● Blue embodies heavenly grace. The Virgin Mary is often depicted wearing blue.

Color Symbolism in Medieval Christian Art 1During the Middle Ages, color and light became important mediums for artistic expression. Color in particular was a vehicle for illustrating a higher reality, so shading was discouraged in favor of pure color. On canvas, human skin was not flesh-colored, but a pearly and ethereal white. Blood was a life-rich red, and skies and lakes were more cerulean than blue. Mixing paint became an art form in itself, as artists tried to reproduce the desired hues as clearly as possible.

Although there was a system in place for color symbolism, it was not set in stone. Artists yielded to a natural impulse and added their own interpretations while paying lip service to the original standards. In the study halls and libraries, theologians and philosophers assigned additional meanings to each shade in the artists’ palette. It can make things confusing for modern art historians, especially when you take into consideration that the color symbolism of religious art found its way into secular art too. But a strong enough core system was in place to allow reasonable interpretation to be possible even today.

Read more Segmation blog posts about color symbolism:

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Rembrandt van Rijn – 17th Century Dutch Master

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (July 15, 1606 – October 4, 1669) is regarded as the greatest artist of Holland’s Golden Age and one of the most important in European art. A prolific painter, draftsman and etcher, his portraits and artistic interpretations of the Bible remain unique. By the end of his life, Rembrandt had produced over 600 paintings (including nearly 100 self-portraits), around 400 etchings, and 2,000 drawings.

Rembrandt was born in Leiden, the Netherlands, the fifth son of a miller. Despite coming from a relatively modest family, his parents attached great importance to education, and Rembrandt began his studies at the Latin School. At the age of 14, he was enrolled at the University of Leiden. But the program did not interest him, and he soon left to study art first, a three-year apprenticeship with a local master, Jacob van Swanenburgh, and then, in Amsterdam, with Pieter Lastman, a local master known for his historical paintings.

Under Lastman’s tuition, Rembrandt became exposed to works of Caravaggio and the Italian masters. His interest in religious and mythological subjects was most likely a result of Lastman’s influence. After six months, and having mastered everything he had been taught, Rembrandt returned to Leiden, where he was soon so highly regarded that, although barely 22 years old, he took his first pupils.

In 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and settled there permanently. He became a leading portrait painter and received many commissions for portraits as well as for paintings of religious subjects. His works were characterized by his mastery of chiaroscuro – the theatrical use of light and shadow. He used luxuriant brushwork and rich colors, generous flesh tones, and a lively presentation of subjects that lacked the formality favored by his contemporaries.

Of all the Baroque masters, it was Rembrandt who evolved the most revolutionary technique. By the mid 1630s he had abandoned the conventional Dutch smoothness and his surfaces were thick with paint. From the Venetians he learned to use a brown ground but despite a palette that was limited even by 17th century standards, he was renowned as a colorist, combining tones of light and shade with vibrant colors.

In 1634 Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburg, the beautiful cousin of a successful art dealer and the model for many of his paintings. He was, by then, a wealthy, respected citizen, and in 1639 he purchased a large house (now the Rembrandt House Museum) in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. This was the period in which he painted masterpieces such as ‘The Blinding of Samson’, and his most celebrated painting ‘The Night Watch’, a group portrait of one of the city’s militia companies. His studio was filled with pupils.

Rembrandt’s family life however was not so successful. Saskia died in 1642, a year after the birth of their son, Titus. His affections then turned to his housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoffels, who modeled for him and bore him a daughter. And despite his financial success, Rembrandt lived expensively, and was declared bankrupt in 1656. He was forced to sell most of his paintings as well as his house and printing press. Eventually, he opened an art shop with Hendrickje and Titus.

Rembrandt’s new poverty had little effect on the quality of his work however, even if they did become more somber. Some of the great paintings from this period are ‘The Jewish Bride’, ‘Bathsheba’, and ‘Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph’.

Rembrandt outlived both Hendrickje and his son, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the vicinity of Amsterdam, in 1669.

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