Blue, purple, scarlet, linen
As part of a very long-term project of study around my artwork, I’m exploring the symbolism of color in Judaism. In particular, I’ve been looking at the four pigments that appear in Ex 25:4 - blue (תְכֵלֶת), purple (אַרְגָּמָן), scarlet (תוֹלַעַת), and linen (שֵׁשׁ). There are many other colors mentioned, but these pigments are unique in that they are used by humans to create. I mentioned to my sister Kohanot that I’ve been exploring this, and there was enough interest that I thought I’d write a post about it to share the resources I’ve been capturing with everyone.
It had never occured to me before reading “Color: A Natural History of the Palette” by Victoria Finlay that “linen” really just meant white. I guess it’s not really a difficult leap to make, but I never made it before. As she points out, white would have been an incredibly difficult pigmen to come by, except for white wool. Linen in its natural state was probably the closest most achieved. But since the word white does appear in the Torah, I do wonder if “linen” is a pigment that is more of a pale yellow.
Needless to say there a lot of different ideas about what these pigments may have and currently represent. Here’s my compilation of the correspondences, but for for detail see the sources below.
- Blue: divinity, divine revelation, balance, sky
- Purple: royalty, purification of sin, power, glory
- Scarlet/Crimson: life, joy, sin
- Linen: physical and spiritual purity, death
I hadn’t really differentiated that these were pigments, not just colors, until I reviewed the Jewish Encyclopedia article again. I really recommend that article first and also Color: A Natural History of the Palette to understand more about the role these types of pigments have played in history. You’ll find she puts Tekhelet, (blue) in the purple section. Technically it is considered a “blue-purple” pigment.
Pigment vs. Color
Pigment: (definition source)
- a dry insoluble substance, usually pulverized, which when suspended in a liquid vehicle becomes a paint, ink, etc.
- a coloring matter or substance.
- Biology .any substance whose presence in the tissues or cells of animals or plants colors them.
Color: (definition source)
- the quality of an object or substance with respect to light reflected by the object, usually determined visually by measurement of hue, saturation, and brightness of the reflected light; saturation or chroma; hue.
Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay