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“Color is a power which directly influences the soul.”Wassily Kandinsky
Once you begin painting, you no longer see Fall leaves simply as beautiful colors, instead they transform into shades of Venetian red, golden ochre, vermillion and morellone, because now you’ve entered the vivid world of color.
Color attracts us to apprehend beauty, then speaks to us in a visual language of symbolism that conveys the meaning of the subject. For example, in iconography, when we see a vibrant cobalt blue garment painted from ground Lapis Lazuli, we know we are encountering the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos; when Christ is portrayed in a radiant white robe, we know He has risen.
But how did we codify and systematize our current color choices? Where did these pigments originate?
This post addresses:
- the discovery of a fascinating 17th century 900 page anthology of hand painted color swatches;
- three informative books on color;
- a link to a short video from the National Gallery in London; and
- a link to an open-source forum where you can find many digitized books.
Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau
Traite des couleurs servant a la peinture a l’eau, has an intriguing back story. This 17th century manuscript is a 900 page comprehensive color study of hand mixed and painted water color swatches created specifically for artists by Dutch artist A. Boogert in 1692. It includes instructions on how to mix watercolors in every color of the spectrum. The fact that it is the ONLY copy, undoubtedly limited the number of people who had the opportunity to study it, although it is believed to have influenced Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s art history making studies and possibly even Syme’s book of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (see below).
“The obscure book disappeared in the archives of the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, France. That is, until its discovery recently by Medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel, who posted scans on his Tumblr and translated some of the introduction from the original Dutch.”
The original manuscript still resides in a Library in France at Aix-en-Provence, as does the digitization, but when I tried to access it through the archives, I found that the library’s site had crashed years ago after Professor Erik Kwakkel’s intial Tumblr posting. Clearly, inquiring minds worldwide really wanted to see it.
Last month, I wrote to Professor Kwakkel to inquire about another possible avenue for me to pursue, because I really wanted the opportunity to look at this book. Alas, the answer was negative, as his experience was the same as mine…the site had crashed and hadn’t been repaired.
Earlier week, I received a wonderful surprise email from Professor Kwakkel which included the following link to view this 17th century book in its digitized entirety!
Click above or here to view: 898 pages of high-resolution digital scans at the Bibliothèque Méjanes site. It is a really dedicated undertaking to systematize and present such a comprehensive collection of colors in such beautiful form. A. Boogert is the real inventor of the Pantone paint deck!
Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours
Edited by Patrick Syme
First published in 1814, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours was the result of the work of eminent Geologist/Mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817). In his first textbook, On the External Characteristics of Fossils (minerals were also considered fossils then), he developed a guide for identifying minerals, addressing key characteristics of color and luster.
Patrick Syme (1774 – 1845) studied natural history under Robert Jameson at Edinburgh University where he saw Werner’s work and matched Werner’s descriptions of the actual minerals to color names, descriptions and color charts. This helped to begin the process of codifying color and standardizing the names we use today.
For example, Prussian Blue is described as the “Beauty Spot on the Wing of a Mallard Drake,” and the “Stamina of the Bluish Purple Anemone,” and “Blue Copper Ore.” Chances are that an artist had seen at least one of these examples of Prussian Blue in natural flora and fauna, thereby standardizing the meaning or true color of Prussian Blue.
Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour was used widely by artists and naturalists, most notably Charles Darwin, who used the color references in this book on his expedition on the HMS Beagle during 1831-36. Darwin included Werner’s terminology for his zoological descriptions, describing natural scenes and species both new and known. He understood that the specimens he collected would deteriorate during the long voyage and an precise written description would provide the most accurate detail. Using codified color names created an accurate visual picture for readers.
The Secret Lives of Color
by Kassia St. Clair
This is a fun compilation of short vignettes addressing approximately 100 colors. The information ranges from some information on chemistry/mineral composition to the significance of the color throughout history. It is interspersed with random fun facts (cochineal/carmine required 70,000 dried beetles for a pound of red pigment). The edges of the book are color matched to the sections discussing roughly the same color. It doesn’t address color theory or composition, but I thought it was fun and filled with interesting trivia.
Do you know why medieval illuminated manuscripts/prayer books/Psalters are often called “miniatures”? St. Clair discusses this in relationship to “minium,” the pigment used for the bright orange-red headings in manuscripts (Red Letter Days) as follows:
“The pigment used was minium. The person who worked with it was called a miniator, and his work was an eye-catching symbol or heading in a manuscript, was called a miniatura. (This is the origin of the word “miniature,’ which in its original sense did not mean small at all.) Minium was used extensively in manuscript illumination during the Middle Ages, and use of it only gradually died out as vermilion [page 144] became more readily available from the eleventh century.”from page 108 Minium, Secret Lives of Color, Kassia St. Clair
Color – A Natural History of the Palette
by Victoria Finlay
“Color” combines color history, with the author’s travel to conduct first hand research, organized by color. I enjoyed the historical information about dyes and interesting facts like Green Celadon was a seaweed green porcelain that only the Chinese emperor could own, or that the most vibrant purple comes from Tyrean mollusks. The stories are written travel-log style, which makes it both entertaining and informative.
Video: The Ethereal Short Life of Malachite Pigment
This 3 minute video from the National Gallery in London explains why some paintings that used forms of Malachite pigment have changed over time. This segment addresses Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini’s “Agony in the Garden,” (1458-60), painted in egg tempera on a poplar panel. In particular, this video focuses on the discarded cloak of St. James, which is thought to have been painted with malachite, but now seems to be a dark brown. David Peggie, Senior Scientist at the National Gallery gives a scientific explanation.
Goethe’s Theory of Colors: The 1810 Treatise That Inspired Kandinsky & Early Abstract Painting
You can read this and 700 digitized and audio open-source books here by clicking: Open Culture.
(part 2 of 2 posts)
This is the final continuation of the first post on the icons at Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington. These icons were gifted to Sam Hill by Princess Marie of Romania in 1926.
Mother of God, Joy of All Who Suffer
The original icon of this type was in Moscow by the middle of the seventeenth century. In 1711, it was brought to St. Petersburg and the Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna built an ornate church for it there. The image was popular throughout Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was used as a protection against all kinds of illness.
The Mother of God is shown here wearing a crown and holding a scepter in one hand and the crowned Christ Child in the other. A congregation of suffering humans is gathered below her.
Saints at the left:
- Saints Zosima
- Basil, Paul
Saints at the right:
- John Chrysostom
The figures in the left border are: Saints Basil the Priest, Makarius, Demetrios and Theodore the Monk.
At the far right are: Saints Artremios, Anastasia, Basil and Mary of Egypt.
The Slavonic text below the Mother of God reads, “O all hymned Mother, bearer of the holiest of the holies Word, accept what we offer now, deliver us from every attack, and deliver from the coming torment all those who cry to you.
Quadripartite Icon with Mandylion
Upper left corner: The Mother of God, The Life-Giving Spring (or Well of Living Water).
Upper right corner: Is a scene reproducing an icon of the Mother of God of Unexpected Joy. It alludes to the story of a man who was praying to the icon as he contemplated committing a misdeed. Noticing wounds on the Mother and Child, he asked, “Who has done this?” The Virgin replied, “You and other sinners.” This conversation is shown coming from the mouths of the man and the Virgin.
The inscription below the icon provides the context – “A sinner was in the habit of praying daily to the most Holy Virgin, reciting the words of the archangel.”
At the lower right and left are two very popular Russian icons: The Fiery Mother of God and the Kazan Mother of God. Our Lady of Kazan is considered the protectress of all Russia and of the Tsarist house of the Romanovs. Miracles have been attributed to this icon since 1579, when the image was dug up by a young girl. It is also thought that the Kazan Mother of God (Kazan Madonna in the West) was first written by St. Luke the Apostle, the first iconographer.
The Mandylion (Icon Not Made by Human Hands) is at the center showing a cloth bearing a miraculous image of Christ’s face. We know this icon in the West by many different names, Veronica’s Veil, Christ the Physician, Christ the Healer, etc. The Mandylion is considered to the be first of all icons, made by the icon Himself, Christ.
Left Border: St. Theodore the Righteous, St. Peter the Apostle, St. John the Evangelist and Archangel Michael
Right Border: St. Mary of Egypt, St. Eudocia, St. Parskevi, St. Charalampos
Sign Mother of God
Beaded icons are common in the East, often embroidered with pearls and jewels. This is a form of an Oklad (Russian, meaning covered) or Riza (Russian, meaning robe), which are more typically silvered metal coverings with openings designed to reveal portions of the underlying painted icon. They are designed specifically for the icons they cover as a way to protect them.
This icon depicts the Mother of God during the Annunciation, as she responds to the Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:38): “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to they word.” The terms “Virgin of the Sign” and “Sign Mother of God” refer to the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The image is also referred to as a “Platytera” (Greek, meaning wider or more spacious) which is why she is shown in the orans position (hands open to the sky). By containing the Creator of the Universe in her womb, Mary becomes Platytera ton ouranon (Greek, meaning “More spacious than the heavens”).
The practice of using rizas originated in Byzantine times. They were meant to honor and venerate icons and the Holy figures depicted in them. In churches and in private homes, candles and oil lamps burn near icons. Incense is also a frequent component of church services and personal prayer. Rizas help protect the painted portion of the icon, which can darken over time with this exposure.
We are proud to have been covered recently by the Catholic Sentinel. Please read the article on Trinity Iconography Institute here: https://catholicsentinel.org/Content/Default/Homepage-Rotator/Article/Iconography-Institute-teaches-students-a-new-way-to-pray/-3/382/38476
Courtesy of the Catholic Sentinel. https://catholicsentinel.org/
Join Reverend Matthew Lawrence, Episcopal Priest & Canon for Spiritual Formation at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and Father Jon Buffington, Chaldean Catholic Priest & Master Iconographer of the Trinity Iconography Institute, in a contemplative mini-retreat called “Praying with Icons.” There is no charge for this retreat and a free will offering is gladly accepted.
Saturday, October 19, 2019
9:00 am – 12:00 pm
Learn more by downloading the flyer below.
English Eastern Orthodox Saints are often identified in Russian or Church Slavonic. This lexicon translating Russian to English Orthodox Saints is helpful in saint identification.