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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Throughout the works of Michel Pastoureau (at least in his books on Black and Green) are sketched ideas of the notion of a “chromoclasm”.

The proposition that Pastoureau seeks to advance is that the austere aesthetic favored by Zwingli, Calvin, Melanchthon, and Luther – linked to the avoidance of graven images and varying levels of iconoclasm – reoriented the color spectrum around a ‘black-gray-white axis’ (p. 124). Yet the challenge here lies in the supposition that an iconoclasm of colour – which Pastoureau calls a “chronoclasm” – would have a solid grasp of what an absence of colour was or meant. In the symbolic understanding of medieval Europe, black was not viewed as the zero point, an absence of color. As Pastoureau has put it elsewhere: “L’incolore n’existe pas”.

This work (Pastoureau, Michel, ‘L’incolore n’existe Pas’, in Points de Vue: Pour Philippe Junod, ed. by Danielle Chaperon and Philippe Kaenel, Champs Visuels (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003), pp. 21–36) is only available in French. But it is extremely interesting and I’ll post some remarks and translation notes here. It is, indeed, a shame that some of the best work on the idea of the “colourless” (and how white came to take that place) is only available in French. To that end, the below ideas and histories should be credited to Pastoureau, but the rough translation of them to me.

While every European language has a name for the absence of colour – farblos in German, colourless in English, incoloro in Italian, incolor in Spanish – defining this term is far harder (p. 21). French dictionaries in the 19th-20th century were vague on this: “qui n’a pas de couleur bien déterminée, qui n’a pas de couleur propre, qui manque de teint” (that which has no determined colour, which has no proper colour, that which lacks dye/tint). One of the core problems is how we can suggest, by means of colour, what the absence of colour means.

In ancient societies, Pastoureau claims, the idea of “colourlessness” applied only to textiles to which colouration/dyes had not been applied (p. 22). That is, regardless of the substrate colour, it is the absence of deliberate colouration that leads to the designation “colourless”. Hence, if a Latin text refers to “sine colore”, it means that the garment or fabric has not been dyed (p. 22). The exception is in reference to people’s faces, where the colour has drained due to, say, fear. Nonetheless, at this point (up until the 12th century), colour is defined much more by the material than by light. This fits with the way that etymologists note “colour”’s origins in “celare” – the verb, “to hide” (p. 23). Hence, certain theological authorities – such as St Bernard – see colour as a “condemnable luxury” that interferes with the faithfuls’ relations to God. Le Grand Abbé de Clairvaux wasn’t keen, either, referring to the “opacity” of colour. This extends into the next century, where the habits of Franciscan friars attempt to “go colourless”, but this is a theoretical horizon, rather than a practical possibility. The colourless-ness of the monks St Francis, though, is not the opposite of the black habit worn by other monks. It is, instead, a dress of base undyed wool. Somewhat amusingly, over time, as these “plain” garbs become worn and torn, they take on a greyness (a colour) by the grubiness of the uniforms. They even become known as “St Grey”, showing how their colourlessness cannot fail to avoid chromatic classification. For medieval society, for its codes and its uses, its classifications and its stratifications, where everything is declined in terms of system, the concept of “colourless” does not exist (pp. 23-24, last sentence my direct translation of MP).

From the 12th century, a rival view of colour as light (rather than material) is born. Retracing Aristotle’s physics, St. Suger rebuilt the abbey in Saint Denis in around 1130-1140 in a style that was designed to emphasize light as the agent of God (p.25). One might suppose that “colourlessness” in this context would equate to an absence of light. However, this is not the case. Two English scholars and prelates at the time, Robert Grosseteste and John Pecham, say that: for the notion of “colourless” (sine colore) to be relevant, effective, and understandable, it is always necessary that ‘there is at least a little light left’ (Robert Grosseteste, “De iride seu de iride et speculo”, éd. Ludwig Baur in Beitrage zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, vol. IX, Münster, Aschendorff, 1912, pp. 72-78 (p. 73: “Sine colore non significat sine lumine quod luminis in absentia non possumus percipere absentiam colorum”); John Pecham, De iride, dans “John Pecham and the Science of Optics”. Perspectiva communis, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1970, pp. 114-123.)). In medieval thought, the “colourless” is not total darkness, and even less is it black. In fact, it has mostly to do with the shadows, in a different sense than we think of today.

Recent work on the representation of shadows has made these debates more well known (e.g. Agostino de Rosa, Geometrie dell’ombra, Milan, Città Studi Edizioni, 1997; Roberto Casati, La Découverte de l’ombre, de Platon à Galilée. Histoire d’une énigme qui a fasciné les grands esprits de l’humanité, Paris, Albin Michel, 2002.) It is not until the 18th century, though, that the shadow becomes defined as an “absence of colour”. This poses, though, representational challenges. How can an artist represent an absence of colour, when any painted substrate will have some form of colouration? (p. 26)

Heraldry seems to have been the first to have solved this problem: the colourless can be instantiated, in colour, by using transparency. This is not a total transparency, but a partial transparency. In this effect, the colours of the figure thought to be colourless disappear, but their outlines remain visible. Several coats of arms in the 14th and 15th century are made up of a field of one or more colours and a “colourless”, partially transparent figure is overlayed. The reasons for the choice by an individual or by a family of a “colourless” figure are diverse (for examples: a desire to hide a family link or an identity, a desire to intrigue the viewer by staging a heraldic curiosity), but the colour representation of such figures in the coat of arms is always the same: the perimeter of the figure is clearly drawn but its colour remains that of the field on which it is placed; if this field is divided or compartmentalized, and therefore painted in several colours, these colours appear through the figure (pp. 26-27). The heraldic shadows, enacted by transparency, are given a new term in French: “shadow of” («ombre de …») (p. 27).

This heraldic transparency spills over into painting. Between 1320 to 1330, when painters had to represent in colour a being or a thing passing for colourless, they left the support or the background of the image bare and drew the outlines of the figure on the image. (For more, see Jean-Claude Schmitt, Les Revenants. Les vivants et les morts dans la société médiévale, Paris, 1994, pp. 223-243.) For Pastoureau, these pictorial practices show how we must read images from the 12th to 14th century starting with the background, moving to the intermediate planes, and then to the foreground (p. 28).

Pastoureau claims that everything changes, however, with the appearance and then the distribution of the engraved and printed image. In a few decades, between the middle of the 15th century and the middle of the 16th century, the vast majority of images circulating in the West became images printed in black ink on white paper. It is a cultural revolution of far-reaching significance. All medieval images were polychrome images; most of the early modern images are now black and white images. Certainly, there still exist paintings on panels, murals, stained glass, tapestries, but quantitatively this represents little compared to the millions of engraved and printed images which take place in books or that circulate as prints. In the 15th century and again in the first decades of the 16th century, these engraved images were often coloured, in imitation of the miniatures painted in manuscript books; but thereafter it becomes rarer. The world of the image becomes black and white and, gradually, these two colours acquire a special status. (This paragraph almost a direct translation of one of the most important of Pastoureau’s paragraphs, on p. 28.)

With respect to white. Medieval parchments were never white. Their colours were part of a wide palette, ranging from relatively dark brown to the lightest beige, even pale gray, passing through all shades of beige or ecru. When an illuminator left a parchment bare, it was the natural shade of this parchment, whatever it was, that represented the zero degree of the colour. At that time, there was no link, neither material nor conceptual, between white and colourless – a fact that we can see by the how a highlighter must represent white by using white paint. But with paper, which spread slowly from the mid-century, the base colour is always more or less “whitish”, even if these whites take on various shades. Hence, as paper becomes the obligatory medium for all texts and the vast majority of images, a sort of equivalence is gradually established between the colour of this paper and colourlessness. White begins to be thought of as colourless, and it is to paper that it owes this particularity. (This comes from p. 29 of Pastoureau. I think there are some additional complexities to this, as coloured paper is still very common at this time.) In any case, this “whiteness as blankness” passes over into painting and dyeing (see M. Barasch, Light and Color in the Italian Renaissance Theory of Art, New York, 1978, passim.)

Over time, this equation of whiteness with colourless-ness causes white to lose its status as a colour in its own right. Pastoureau says that by the middle of the 17th century, white was no longer a true colour; it is now situated outside of any system concerning colour. (See A. E. Shapiro, Artists’ Colors and Newton’s Colors, Isis, vol. LXXXV, 1994, pp. 600-630.) The same does not happen simultaneously for black. Black remains a colour for many decades after the transformation of white and it is not until Newton’s experiments with the prism that this changes. This change in physics, in which there then becomes no room for white or black on the colour spectrum, breaks with all previous chromatic systems (p. 30). Black, though, although a non-colour, is still not deemed “colourless”. Pastoureau says black is never presented as colourless, while white is. Hence, in painting and dyeing, at the turn of the 17th-18th century, grey still remains a way of representing colourlessness. In some ways, grey is also eradicated from a conventional polychromatic colour spectrum (p. 31).

Since the nineteenth century, then, Western culture has had three vectors for expressing the colourless: gray, white, and black and white. The latter of these categories is a binary that operates as a whole in itself. Pastoureau believes that this spectrum is, though, socially relative. He predicts a day when, once again, white will reenter the colour spectrum as a colour in its own right. He says the same for the other modes (p. 32). For Pastoureau, it is, curiously, grey, though, that maintains the strongest semblance of colourlessness for us today. “Without being colourless, gray today embodies, probably more than white, the zero degree of colour, these two concepts no longer being completely equivalent, as was the case in ancient societies” (p. 32). There is a distinction, for Pastoureau, between the “zero degree of colour” and a colour that sits outside of our colour system, as colourlessness (p. 33). He speaks also of a “degree one of colour” as a way of distinguishing this.