Saturday, November 15, 2008

R is for Red Letters

DSC_0032Lively, assertive, challenging, alluring, frightening, gorgeous, shocking. Red is all that and so much more. So utterly central, this primary of primary colors contradicts and unifies, attracts and repels, radiates and absorbs. It symbolizes life and death, transgressions and sanctity, luck and doom. It’s virtually impossible to feel ambivalent about red. You either love it or you hate it. I love it, and I hope you do, too.

IMG_7562Red letters represent red’s contradictory personae particularly well. On the one hand, they signify providence and joyful anticipation, but on the other, they stand for punishment and shame. “Red letter days” are important days, full of promise. The term derives from the red ink used to mark saints’ days on liturgical calendars. Embellishing a religious text with red letters (notes, marginal symbols, above all, directions to the pious) is rubrication, from the Latin rubricare, which means “to color red.” The term, miniature, did not originally mean small. It simply described illustrations for devotional texts. In fact, it actually meant red picture. The word miniature derives from minium (also Latin), a kind of red lead that was widely used to color ink drawings.

DSC01534Shift slightly from red letters in a general sense to scarlet letters, and the meaning changes entirely. Hawthorne famously titled his story after the letter A that Puritan magistrates used to punish adulterers in the Massachusetts colony under the strict rule of the Mathers and their ilk. Apparently, they also commanded burglars to wear Bs, drunkards to wear Ds, rogues to wear Rs, thieves to wear Ts (branded into the skin—if you’re really into that stuff, James A. Cox of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has written quite a bit about it). I hope my R doesn’t brand me a rogue (can women be rogues?)! I prefer to think of it as a celebratory portent of some exciting day in the future.

IMG_7528Red Dye
Alizarin, carmine, red ochre, vermilion...we have many natural and chemical reds at our disposal for dyeing, painting, tinting, and basically painting any town red (there’s a nice etymology for that phrase, by the way). But that wasn’t always the case. Although there were many natural elements that could tint fabrics red, most of them produced fugitive colors that faded quickly. The Mayans, however, discovered an excellent source for dye that produced a vivid, durable, red red: cochineal, still the gold standard for natural red dyes. The Spanish stole that state secret, but didn’t realize its full market potential for several decades, and when they did, cochineal husbandry became a Spanish state secret. It was eventually stolen by the French and English, but is still raised successfully using centuries-old traditions in Oaxaca, Mexico. The dye is derived from the Dactylopius coccus bug’s blood. The fussy insect feeds off of particular kinds of cactus that grow particularly well in Mexico, and are susceptible to cold and humidity. Once dried and crushed, the bug becomes a dye pellet.

DSC03920Cochineal’s vivid red was so remarkable, so sought-after that it drove major global markets, supported economies, and made red the ultimate symbol of power and wealth. The Spanish love of red easily traces back to its national pride in its control of the cochineal market during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Red was expensive and bold, a clear sign of power and panache. It is no accident that Cardinals began wearing red, rather than blue or purple in the fifteenth century (even before cochineal red was known in Europe). It seems incredible to conceive of a color economy, but red really did control financial markets.

dogwoodOf course cochineal wasn’t the first red dye. In Europe, other natural dyes included madder and kermes, a sort of cousin to cochineal—darker and more purplish. The madder dyers of Strasbourg, alarmed at the sudden popularity of blue, petitioned the builders of Strasburg Cathedral to make the devil’s skin blue in all the stained glass windows, so that church-goers would associate blue with evil, rather than red.

My favorite medieval use of red is in the six unicorn tapestries in Paris’s Musée Cluny. While one represents the whole series, the five others each illuminate one of the senses. The museum has created a special theatrical viewing room so that its visitors can properly take in the sequence and really experience this extraordinary work as the spectacle it was always meant to be. It seems incredible that the six tapestries should have been hidden for so long, only to be re-discovered by Georges Sand in 1844 in an obscure château.

Red has been a major component of most symbolic systems, traditional and theoretical. The great expressionist (theosophist, mystic) artist and theoretician Wassily Kandinsky articulated a theory for most colors, and red is no exception. He thought of red as “alive, restless, confidently striving towards a goal, glowing” and emanating a “manly maturity.” Its auditory equivalent, he proposed, was the “sound of a trumpet, strong, harsh,” as in a fanfare, or both the lower notes of a cello and the high, clear sound of a violin.

IMG_7504In China, red generally stands for luck, but when combined with letters (characters is more correct, I think), can also stand for death. Obituaries, apparently, are usually written in red ink. When a name appears in red, it signifies that the person has either died or that they have been disowned or shunned in some way.

InksThere are countless other symbolic associations with red, and if I started considering political associations, advertising uses, non-verbal signage, etc., I’d never get back to the needles! My knitted red letter R uses Shetland yarn and a modified Fair Isle technique (modified, because the floats are so long). I was trying to mimic the capitals of a manuscript Bâtarde “hand.” A French manuscript style in use from the late 13th to the mid-sixteenth century, Bâtarde hand was bastardized from the more laborious Gothic lettering into a cursive form, which was much faster to write. This particular hand was favored by the Burgundian court, and applied extensively in the creation of manuscript books. One of its distinctive features was that the scribe would change the pen angle several times during the execution of each letter so that the each letter contained both very thick and very thin strokes.

berriesI have longed planned to design a red and gray Fair Isle, in a sort of hommage to a familiar and favorite winter sight. There’s something about the winterberry tree that I find really, really compelling. It’s just now coming into its own. Maybe I love it so much because it is the only bit of color in January? I believe the horticultural name is Crataegus viridis, cultivar Winter King (a type of hawthorn). I find the combination of red and gray really compelling. Bold and muted, outspoken and understated, the two colors (and yes, I’m considering gray a color here) contrast one another beautifully.


booksRed Bib
  • Greenfield, Amy Butler. A Perfect Red. NY: HarperCollins, 2005.
  • Pleij, Herman (translated by Diane Webb). Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After. NY: Columbia University Press, 2004.
  • Dekanare, François, and Bernard Guineau (translated by Sophie Hawkes). Colors: the Story of Dyes and Pigments. NY: Abrams, 2000.
  • Kandinsky, Wassily. Complete Writings. NY: DaCapo, 1994.
  • Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain. La dame à la licorne. Paris: Musée Cluny, 1979.
  • and for fun: Chevalier, Tracy. The Lady and the Unicorn. NY: Dutton, 2004.

  • IMG_7592Red Letters

    IMG_2536Unicorn Tapestry


    Anonymous said...

    A red-letter day indeed to be able to explore red in so many ways. It's my favorite color by far; someone commented years ago that my Wedgwood china, wallpaper, and wrapping paper (to pick the highlights) were all red and white. Many thanks for immersing me in red. I'll be printing it out before it can escape into the ether.

    Dee D said...

    Love your red letter. Before reading the post, I scrolled down to find the info re typeface you based the knitted letter on. What wonderful capital letters. The alphabet I'm currently studying has no caps .... perhaps you found some for me! Thoroughly enjoyed reading all about red.

    Anonymous said...

    As always, so satisfying to read the scholastic background. The knit letter is so handsome, and the modified Fair Isle sets it off very well.

    I, too, love winterberry. There is a stunning planting of them at the MN Landscape Arboretum. Those red berries just glow against the snow and winter-blue skies.

    Anonymous said...

    As always, a visual feast as well as an intellectual one. The font or hand just fascinates me. I had no idea that there was so much history behind them all. I had known about the Mayan dye but it's so interesting to think of a world economy controlled by color or tulips, rather than our boring oil and information.

    Grey and red, a perfect combination.