Blue: the last colour to be named
Blue is my favourite colour. Yet it was the last major colour to get a name in any language – Homer didn’t have a word for it; he described the sea as wine-dark . Experts reckon the reason for this is that there are very few naturally occurring blue objects in the world. It is in itself a very evasive colour. And therefore in our minds it becomes the colour of escape.
In the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli, an intensely blue stone quarried from one mine in Afghanistan, was brought to the West by Arab traders. After many, many attempts, the Italians devised a recipe to turn this stone into the finest blue pigment Europe had ever seen and called it “ultramarine”, which was soon more expensive than gold. Colour laws were passed in the 13th century to stop people wearing blue because it was considered too special for worldly use.
Artists, of course, were alive to its transcendent qualities. Giotto’s Arena chapel in Padua (1305) has a ceiling covered in blue, with little gold stars, to represent heaven. And blue became this great, Christian colour: through much of European tradition, the Virgin Mary wore a blue robe.
By the time of Titian, blue was released from religious control. His Bacchus and Ariadne (1524) is a scene of secular paradise, with an incredible blue sky, plastered with the purest ultramarine ever found.
From about 1800, blue became the great symbol of Romantic longing, the colour of our internal world. For Picasso, in his Blue Period (above), it was the colour of despair. For Yves Klein, who patented the vibrant International Klein Blue, it was the colour of obsession (his widow claims his fatal heart attack, in 1962, was triggered by poisons in the pigment).
There’s a lovely turning point to all this when, in 1968, photos from the Apollo 8 mission revealed Earth, viewed from space, as blue. All through the centuries we have thought of blue as the colour of escape from earthly things. But when we finally breach those horizons we find that blue is the colour of our own planet.