The history of color is also a history of humanity.James Fox, 2021
What does the colour red mean to you? Since it is the colour of blood, let’s look at some of its other meanings that have seeped into history, science, linguistics, sociology, anthropology and art.
Red is the first identified colour. Three hundred centuries ago when our Paleolithic ancestors started painting, they used red (a mixture of ochre with spittal or blood) to make prints of human hands on the walls of caves from Europe to India, Africa, Asia and Patagonia. Black charcoal, in contrast, was used to draw the outline of animals. Indeed, red ochre was called the gold of the Stone Age as it was the first colour to be made, reproduced and broken down into different shades to create an industry. It appeared first in painting and later in the dyeing industry and for centuries, remained the favourite colour of many cultures. In India, for example, when chess was invented in the 6th c. B.C., the opposing chess pieces were red and black; in the West they were red and white until the former was replaced by black in the late Middle Ages. It was also at this time that red was replaced by blue as the favourite colour in the West and it remains so up to the present day. The prestige of red was further diminished with the publication of Newton’s Colour Spectrum in 1666. This scientific classification based on the various colour wavelengths of white light as it passed through a prism, relegated red to the end of a chromatic sequence beginning with violet, then blue, green, yellow, orange and finally, red.
The relationship between blood and the colour red is universal which might account for the use of red in the human cave paintings. Yet, as Dr. Chantal Séguin has pointed out elsewhere in The Blood Project, while blood is red in humans and most vertebrates, it can be blue in some spiders, octopus and squid, and green or purple in some types of worms. Linguistically however, the relationship between the colour red and blood is based on the fact that the Sanskrit ‘rhudira’, meaning blood, and the English word for ‘red’ both derive from the Indo-European root reudh.1
Similarly, red ochre comes from the mineral haematite, a word, like haemoglobin, that is derived from the Greek root for blood, ‘haima.’ The ‘Red Indians’ of North America, for example, were so called due their custom of coating their bodies, hair and clothing with haematite. Many ancient texts (1800/1900 B.C.) agreed that the first humans were made from red dust, red clay or red sand. Thus Adam, the first human of the Old Testament, is a name derived from the Hebrew word for ‘red’ which is related to other words meaning ‘earth,’ ‘clay’, ‘ground’ and perhaps, ‘blood’.
Culturally, the colour red is rich in symbolic, if ambiguous, meanings. It can be associated with life, death, passion, lust, beauty, prostitution, power, Hell’s flames, blood sacrifice, danger, a forbidden boundary, revolution. In Mesoamerica, blood sacrifice of humans or animals was seen as an offering back to the gods who had given blood to create the universe; it was thus a symbol of life, not death. In ancient China, red ochre was used for burials as a symbol of breathing life back into the corpse.
Red also became a political symbol of revolution beginning with the French in 1789, followed by the Russian Revolution in 1917 and Mao’s Communist Party from the early part of the 20th century. It was also the colour of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s in Paris and elsewhere. In the U.K., red persists as the colour of the left leaning Labour Party, while blue is the colour of the Conservative & Unionist Party. The reverse obtains in the United States for the Republican and Democratic Parties, but only since the 2000 election. Prior to that a similar colour scheme to that in the U.K. was generally followed. In Catholic Church hierarchy, the cardinals, nearest to the Pope in rank, wear red robes as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and their willingness to be martyred for the sake of the church. (The Pope since 1276, on the other hand, has worn white, a symbol of Christ’s resurrection and life. A Dominican friar became Pope Innocent V in 1276 and white, the colour of the Dominican Order, was adopted from then on).
Red has also been absorbed into the language of politics for many centuries. In 49 B.C. Julius Caesar arrived at the Rubicon River in northern-eastern Italy at the boundary with Cisalpine Gaul. The river’s name comes from the Latin ‘rubico’ (red) as it had a reddish hue due to iron deposits in the riverbed. Caesar broke Senate law by deciding to cross the river from Gaul and head south towards Rome with his army. This led to a Civil War which he won to become dictator of Rome until his assassination in 44 B.C. The phrase ‘crossing the Rubicon’ was subsequently applied to any action from which there could be no turning back; ‘crossing a red line’ in modern day speech.
The painting shown at the top of the essay is Mark Rothko’s No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue), 1954, Oil on canvas, Copyright Fair Use in the United States.
Fox J., The World According to Colour: A Cultural History. UK: Allen Lane, 2021.
Pastoureau M., Red: The History of a Color, translated from French by Jody Gladding. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
About the author
Brenda Moore-McCann received her M.B. at University College Dublin and was medical director of a non-governmental agency, Family Planning Services, before taking a Diploma in the History of European Painting at Trinity College Dublin followed by a B.A. (Mod) in Art History and Classical Civilisation. She received her PhD at Trinity College Dublin in 2002. Click here to learn more.