EDITORIAL FEATURE

The Secret History of the Color Red

Seeing red? Explore the unexpected history of this seductive color

Did you know that red is the first color that humans perceive, after black and white? It’s the color that babies see first before any other, and the first that those suffering from temporary color blindness after a brain injury start to see again. Red’s dominance is even reflected in how colors are defined: although different societies developed their names for colors at different times and in different ways, almost all of them named them in the same order. With only a few exceptions, the order of labelling colors was generally black first, white second, red third, and then green, yellow and blue.

Scientists have posited that societies developed names for colors according to which ones they had the strongest reaction to. This means that humans, supposedly much like bulls, have had strong feelings about the color red for thousands of years. Over time, red has come to symbolize power, love, vigor, and beauty. Do you want to know why? Take a journey with us through history to discover the surprising story of the world’s most powerful color…

1. Painting the Cave Red

Scientists have found evidence that over 40,000 years ago, Stone Age hunters and gatherers ground up red clay to make body paint. Another use was protection in the afterlife: in the Paleolithic period people buried their dead with red powder in order to ward off evil spirits (or potentially neutralize odors).

Red also made waves on the pre-historic art scene. Caves across the world, from Africa to Asia to Europe, bear traces made during the Paleolithic era. Drawings of animals, vessels, and people were made from painting red ochre on the cave walls, like this painting of a thylacoleo (an extinct species of lion) from the Djulirri rock art site in Northern Australia. More than 11,000 paintings have been found stretched over the site. Dated to 11,000 BCE, this naturalist animal painting may be the oldest surviving painting discovered there.

Painting, Extinct Animal, Djulirri, Western Arnhem Land, Australia, 11000 BCE (Collection: Australian Rock Art)

2. Lucky In Love

Red is the the color of our bloods and our hearts, and has symbolized love and fidelity in cultures across the world for centuries. Some even consider wearing red jewelry and accessories as one way to get ahead of the romance game. This necklace from the 13th century BCE is made with red carnelian beads and the gold central spacer features the image of the Goddess Hathor, the goddess of love and joy. Red is also a prominent color found at weddings, from Roman times when brides wore red shawls to warrant love and fidelity, to China today where red still brings good luck at weddings. Chinese brides wear red wedding dresses, are carried to their weddings on red litters, walk on a red carpet down the aisle, and are kissed under a red veil. The couple also receive red eggs as gifts upon the birth of their first child!

Necklace with gold spacer (Goddess Hathor), 13th century BCE (Collection: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

3. Deadly Red

The Romans liked to decorate the walls of their villas in brightly-colored frescoes. However having the latest look in interior decor came at a price as the pigment they used for the bright red, vermillion, was derived from the mineral cinnabar: a common ore of the highly-toxic mercury. The miners (usually slaves or prisoners) who extracted cinnabar from the Southern Spanish mines for Roman consumption were essentially given death sentences for their work.

Wall Fragment with Grotesques, c. 70 CE (Collection: J. Paul Getty Museum)

4. Holy Blood

Red, symbolic of the blood of Christ, has played an important role in Christianity and Christian iconography. Cardinals wear red robes and the color is predominant in public-worship garments and textiles. Adopting the color was also a way for kings in the Middle Ages to show their God-given right to rule. Red became the color of regal majesty and power: Charlemagne wore red shoes at his coronation as a visible symbol of his authority, as did Louis XIV in his official portraits.

Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna, 1437 (Collection: Städel Museum)

5. Fortune and Prosperity

In Chinese philosophy, red is one of the colors associated with the five elements of the world: red for fire, yellow for earth, white for metal, black for water, and green for wood. The fire element, and therefore red, is linked to dynamism, leadership, confidence, aggression, and hypersensitivity. When Chinese emperors asked their personal fortune tellers to choose a color that would bring the most prosperity and good fortune to their reign, red was the answer: in the Zhou, Han, Jin, Song and Ming Dynasties it was the royal color par excellence and was featured heavily in royal ceremonies. In this Tang-era painting of Chinese Emperors from the Han to Sui dynasty, eleven of the thirteen Emperors wear red robes, symbolizing their royal power.

Yan Liben, The Thirteen Emperors, second half of the 7th century CE (Collection: Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

6. Valuable Bugs

When the Spaniards landed in Mexico in the 1500s they discovered textiles dyed vivid red. In Europe, the substances used for to make red dye (madder and kermes) produced a weaker, browner hue. The Aztec’s secret was cochineal, a small bug that was scraped off cactuses, dried, and then crushed. The Spaniards soon set up an extensive trading system to export cochineal to Europe, where it became a (red) hot commodity.

Unku with staggered and linear designs, 500 AD - 700 AD (Collection: MALI, Museo de Arte de Lima)

7. Raising Red Flags

World leaders have used red clothing as a way to showcase their power for hundreds of years. This portrait of Princess Elizabeth I before her accession as Queen shows a young woman preparing to assume her position as a powerful monarch. Her richly decorated red dress and red coif (close-fitting cap) send an unequivocal message of the young woman’s political and moral strength. After the fall of the monarchy, the color red was then taken up by Revolutionaries around the world to symbolize new liberties and freedoms: from French Revolutionaries and their red phrygian caps, to the Bolshevik, Cultural, and Cuban Revolutions.

Attributed to William Scrots, Elizabeth I when a Princess, 1546 - 1547 (Collection: Royal Collection Trust, UK)

Courage, sacrifice, and love or anger, danger, and war? The color red can be associated with the happiest feelings as well as with the worst. Being the color that elicits the strongest reactions, it is no surprise that its symbolism can lie on both ends of the spectrum. So next time you’re held up at a red stoplight (in this case the red is a symbol of danger), think about the color’s revolutionary history (and maybe love too).

Explore more artworks in the color red here.

Or take a look at some amazing facts about the colors blue and black.

Story by Maude Bass-Krueger
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