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Medieval art, colours and techniques

Related Topics

Middle Ages Images (how to read them, by Chiara Frugoni)

Christian Symbols

Medieval painting

Medieval drawing

Medieval artists

Medieval Women Artists



Medieval art and its symbolism are here shortly explained.

Carles li reis, nostre emper[er]e magnes
Set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne:
Tresqu'en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne.
N'i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne;

Mur ne citet n'i est remes a fraindre,
Fors Sarraguce, ki est en une muntaigne.
Li reis Marsilie la tient, ki Deu nen aimet;
Mahumet sert e Apollin recleimet:
Nes poet guarder que mals ne l'i ateignet

(La Chanson de Roland, about 1090)

Material conditions

Today we have much more affordable and far better paints and artistic material than during the middle ages.

Painter wanted "strong" and ""vivid" colours. In artistic terms, colours had to be highly saturated. Beautiful is what is vivid, shiny, brillant.


Painters had a limited palette of colors which they had to prepare themselves from natural materials.

The meaning of colours as bi-fold. the same color could be seen as positive and negative

Blue = its nobless is for Christ's clothes and the spiritual


Lapis Lazul, a semiprecious stone from where blue was madelapis lazul

The colour blue has the highest respect in the Middle Ages not only because of its very high price but also because it's the symbol for the spiritual world and the transcendant.

It is the colour for the most noble carachters, Christ in particular. In Frescos like the ones by Giotto, the blue colour is used to paint the backgrounds similar to gold for the altar wooden paintings.


The colour was made out of the semi-precious stone lapis lazul and called "oltremare" (ultramarine). Meaning it was coming from the " overseas". From Afghanistan in particular...



Azurit was another mineral used to make the blue colour (lower quality but still very expensive).

Found in Europe. "Lapis armenius" (Plinius), "Azzurro d'Alemanna" (Germany)

Indigofera Tinctoria


Indigo = coming from India and made from a plant (Indigofera tinctoria)

Cheaper than the above, these pigments produced a low quality blu.

«mixed with manure for a day and a night » then mixed with a foamy liquid «were blue died cloths are obtained» (XII century manuscript)

Left, an indigo cultivation in Brezil, from a 1806 book (see original here)

indigo cultivation in Brazil, 1806





loyalty, justice,wisdom, sapience, resoluteness, nobilty stupidity, low social position,


Here some temporary notes...


Red = for kings and queens

red and blue in painting from the Middle Ages by Dirk Bouk, 1460


Along with blue, red is used for the Vergin's and the infant Jesus's clothes.

Along with black is considered the opposite of white. Red and white like colour and non-colour.

Red is also the colour of love (both spiritual and earthily)




strength, courage, charity, sapience, resoluteness pride, cruelty, irascibility



Mixing red and blue in equal parts results in violett and so this colour is only for Christ (during the Passion) who mixes his regal divinity with his blood during his sacrifice for us.




prudence, soberness, dignity sadness, ambiguity, greediness, glottony


Gold = the majesty and symbol for God

Used for backgrounds and a symbol for divine light. Gold gives shine and add value.


Yellow - trahison, foolishness

Used for Giuda's clothes by Giotto.

Also used for buffons and foolish people.

The greener the yellow (our "lemon yellow") the more negative the meaning

BUT: a very saturated yellow is a positive sign. because it looks like gold (e.g. used for saints)




richness, nobless falsity, envy, trahison, laziness


White - change, treshold and angels

Used often with black




purity, chastity, hope, justice death, eternal torment


Black - death and the devil




humility, patience, temperance pain, death, penitence, despair






beauty, youth,physical strength chaos, foolishness, unfidelity, avarice





NORD = black
SOUTH = red
EST = green
OVEST = white

Animals - Medieval Bestiary

Animals had their meaning and when people saw them, they could "read" them in the way they were supposed to be read

Eagle = The eagle can look directly at the sun and so it represent Christ who is he only person able to look directly into God's eyes.

Pelican = Christ. The pelican cutting open its breast represent the crucifixion of Christ and his shedding his blood for our sins

And so on.


Read all the meaning of animals in this listing of medieval bestiary:



Return from medieval art back to the homepage

Return from medieval art back to the middles ages art pages


source: http://freeforumzone.leonardo.it/lofi/STORIA-E-SIGNIFICATO-DEI-COLORI-NELLA-CULTURA-OCCIDENTALE/D7686595.html





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