During the Renaissance era of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, artists revolutionized their field. Particularly in painting, artists made great strides in representing perspective, lighting and, with the advent of new types of paint, color. While color was often chosen simply for aesthetic or technical purposes, it also served as a symbol in select cases. Although the significance of color ultimately boils down to the intent of the artist, there were some undeniable commonalities about color symbolism during the Renaissance era.
During the Renaissance, as today, color symbolism was not absolute; context determines the meaning of color, if there is any intended meaning at all. For instance, in one work of art -- whether it's a painting or a stained glass piece -- red may represent passion while in another it symbolizes blood. In his book “The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art,” Richard Stemp notes, “There is little point in defining a symbolism for colors in paintings ... the meanings for each one vary according to the context, the place and the time.”
Despite the importance of context in color symbolism, certain colors were more commonly associated with symbols than others during the Renaissance era. Oftentimes, the use of white, green and red together represented the three cardinal virtues of faith, hope and charity. Likewise, the use of yellow sometimes indicated choleric emotions while black symbolized melancholy and white represented peace or calmness. While today's artists tend to use red to evoke feelings of passion or aggression, it was often regarded as a cheerful, sanguine color during the Renaissance.
The Price of Color
In some cases, the use of a certain color had a value-based significance to Renaissance artists and viewers. For instance, blue paint made from the powder of the gemstone lapis lazuli was extremely expensive to obtain and produce. This made the color a rarity in Renaissance painting, lending it a special significance when used. Typically, this shade was relegated to the clothing of the biblical Mary. Expensive colors lent a sense of importance or respect to certain elements or figures in Renaissance art, and they became shorthand for figures such as Mary or Saint Peter.
A Sign of Allegiance
Outside the world of art, colors had specific meaning as part of Renaissance attire. Flashy clothing that featured rarer colors or materials were a sign of wealth or prestige. Likewise, servants often wore uniforms, or liveries, in their master's family colors. This use of color in clothing -- a sign of allegiance -- was usually exempt from sumptuary laws passed by several English monarchs, laws that restricted the colors and materials of clothes by social class.
- The J. Paul Getty Museum: Color in Renaissance Painting
- History: Renaissance Art
- The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art; Richard Stemp
- Palomar College: Symbolism in Medieval and Renaissance Art
- University of Michigan-Dearborn: Renaissance Clothing and Sumptuary Laws
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images