Posted by R. John Howe on 03-29-2007 06:34 AM:

Red: Internet Search Snippets

Dear folks –

As I prepared for this lecture and “rug morning,” I consulted quite a few books, but also made some internet scans. Now internet scans can throw up interesting items, but there is an associated problem of quality control. Acknowledging the latter, here are some of the items that my internet scans threw up that I did not use in the lecture.

The images above are of items from Canadian graves about 1,000 BC, red ochre still adheres.

Neolithic hunter peoples considered red to be the most important color endowed with life-giving powers and thus placed red ochre into graves of their deceased. This explains finds of skeletons embedded in red powdered ochre.

Neolithic cave painters ascribed magic powers to the color red.

The German word for "magic" ("Zauber") translates to "taufr" in Old Norse and is related to the Anglo-Saxon "teafor" meaning "red ochre".

In some societies they painted animals in red ochre or iron oxide to conjure their fertility.

Protective powers of the color red against evil influence were common belief. Objects, animals and trees were covered in red paint, warriors painted their axes and spear-catapults red to endow the weapons with magic powers. Some of the Australian aborigines abide by this custom up to the present times.

Roman gladiators drank blood of their dying adversaries to take over their strength.

In some cultures, the newly born were bathed in blood of particularly strong and good looking animals.

Red painted amuletes or red gems, such as ruby or garnet, were used as charms against the "evil eye". Wearing a red ruby was supposed to bring about invincibility.

Red bed-clothes were customary in Germany up to the Middle Ages as protection against the "red illnesses", such as fever, rashes or even miscarriages. A famous example of red bed-clothes is the painting below by Jan Van Eyck, dated 1434.

Red garlands and red scarfs were part of wedding customs in many cultures.

Red wedding gown was en vogue in Nurnberg of the 18th century, but this tradition goes back to Roman times.

Some report that Roman brides were wrapped in a fiery red veil which should warrant love and fertility, although others insist Roman bridal veils were yellow.

Brides in ancient Greece are reported to have worn red veils, associated with Hymen, the goddess of marriage. Greek, Albanian and Armenian brides wear red veils even today.

Chinese brides are wearing red wedding gowns and are carried to the ceremony in a red litter.

The Chinese bride walks on a red carpet and is greeted by the groom who lifts her red veil. Neighbors bring red eggs to the couple after a child is born.

A red rose is the symbol of love and fidelity.

According to the Greek legend red roses arose from the blood of Adonis who was killed by a wild boar on a hunt. In Greek mythology, a red rose was a symbol for the cycle of growth and decay, but also for love and affinity. Red rose is dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess.

There are also negative connotations of this color. Israelites in biblical times painted their doorframes in red blood to scare demons.

Red in ancient Egypt was the color of the desert and of the destructive god Seth who impersonated the Evil. "Making red" was synonymous with killing someone, evil doings were referred to as "red affairs".

Salvation from Evil is the subject of an ancient Egyptian charm: "Oh, Isis, deliver me from the hands of all bad, evil, red things!" Writers of Egyptian papyri used a special red ink for nasty words.

In the Ebers Papyrus, said to be the oldest complete book in existence (c.1550 B.C.), the color red was used for chapter headings, names of diseases, and weights and dosages of drugs.

The image above of a page from it gives the treatment for asthma.

The Egyptians considered themselves the red race and applied red dye for emphasis.

A red flag was used by the Romans as a signal for battle.

In the French Revolution the red flag became the symbol of insurrection.

The word red in Russian also means "beautiful."

In India it is the symbol of the soldier.

To the Chinese and the Hopi, it represents the direction south.

Some studies indicate that women see red better than men.
(I wonder if this means that they also “see red” more frequently.)

To repeat, I don’t pretend that the indications above are the result of deep and careful research, but it is interesting what Google will throw up in searches about the color red.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 03-29-2007 07:09 AM:

Hi John,

Red bed-clothes were customary in Germany

Just for the record: Jan Van Eyck was a Flemish Painter and the painting you show, “The Arnolfini Portrait”, was made in Bruges. Giovanni Arnolfini, portrayed with is wife, was a member of a merchant family from Lucca living in Bruges.


Posted by R. John Howe on 03-29-2007 08:10 AM:

Hi Filiberto -

I knew I'd get in trouble if I "played on your court."

So what is you understanding of the implications of the red bedclothes in the "Arnolfini" portrait?

Do you think the protective function of red bedclothes attributed to Germany was in fact believed and practiced more generally in Europe?


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 03-29-2007 08:21 AM:

Hi John,

As usual in this kind of portraits there is always a symbolism involved – like the dog, symbol of fidelity, for example.
I don’t know about the use of red in this painting… I’ll have a look.


Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 03-29-2007 10:24 AM:

Hi John,

I’m afraid there isn’t much consensus about the meaning of red bed-clothes in the “Arnolfini Portrait”.

A simple explanation could be that the Flemish had the same custom of the Germans on the matter…


Posted by Chuck Wagner on 04-10-2007 10:04 PM:

Crazy, Man...

Hi John,

There's another less well known red textile dye that was in used in Japan, China, India, and Pre-Columbian Central & South America. This is the mineral cinnabar, which is mercury sulfide (HgS). It was used heavily in the Pre-Columbian world as a pigment for ceramic painting (which may explain some of the wacky things we see in that art...), and as a component in Asian calligraphic inks and textile paints, but was also occasionally used as a pigment textile dye.

One reference that makes specific mention of the use of cinnabar for dying silk yarn is: "Chinese Silk: A Cultural History", by Shelagh J. Vainker (Rutgers University Press, 2004).

Chuck Wagner

Chuck Wagner

Posted by Horst Nitz on 04-11-2007 05:31 PM:


"Red bed-clothes were customary in Germany up to the Middle Ages as protection against the "red illnesses", such as fever, rashes or even miscarriages."

A very clever idea and much ahead of its time: red is arousing, stimulating sex and by that strengthening the immune system.

Let's have fun,

Horst Nitz