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Color History and Spirituality Essay

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Updated: Oct 22nd, 2020

Importance of Color in History

Ever since the dawn of humankind, the color was regarded as something fascinating – an object of admiration and mystery. Every civilization associates colors with its history, nature, and landscape. Despite that fact, names of colors remained relatively few. When a study of color-naming was conducted in the 1960s, it appeared that many languages contained only two color terms – white for light, and black – for dark. Over 98 languages were analyzed during this study. The English language scored best in this color litmus test, providing 11 original color names – brown, gray, purple, blue, pink, green, yellow, orange, red, white, and black. The rest of the colors were not accounted for in this research, as their names derived from objects they are associated with, such as avocado, tan, or gold.1

Over the course of two thousand years, plenty of thinkers and scientists dedicated themselves to studying and understanding of color. The Greek philosopher Aristotle made the first known contribution. He considered yellow and blue to be the base, primary colors. In his philosophy, they mirrored the antagonizing natures of white and black – representing the sun and the moon, day and night, male and female, yin and yang. Observing how the light changes throughout the day, Aristotle came up with a palette of colors, which progressed in a linear fashion: white, yellow, red, purple, green, blue, and black. While green seems out of place, many artists and photographers recorded green hues of the last dying rays of light observed during the late sunset.2

Colors play an important part in all areas of human life. They have a practical, aesthetical, and symbolic meaning. In nearly every religion, colors were associated with something. For example, red, yellow, and orange were associated with life, warmth, and the sun. White and black were associated with snow, cold, and death. The color green represented nature, and the color blue – the sky.

Religious Architecture – Blue

Blue has a very important meaning for nearly all religions, new or old. In the majority of religions, the color blue is the color of heaven. Gods were believed to live in the sky, beyond the clouds, thus giving the color a divine meaning. In ancient Egypt, blue was the color of Amun-Ra, in Greece, it was attributed to Zeus, and in Rome – to Jupiter. In eastern cultures, many sky gods such as Indra, Vishnu, or Krishna, were portrayed in blue colors.3

Christianity is not different from all these religions, in regards to colors. In Christianity, blue is the color of heaven, eternity, and truth. It is the color of Virgin Mary – in Christian art, she is often portrayed wearing blue, which reflects on her divine purpose as the mother of Jesus. Nowadays, blue is considered a symbolic color for the Advent.4

Historically, blue was a very expensive color. Unlike brown, black, yellow, or red, it was not an earthly, or a natural color. While any color can be easily replicated nowadays, in antiquity it was extremely rare due to the method of creation of blue dye. The dyes were created out of Lapis Lazuli – a semi-precious and rare stone.5 It was ground to dust in order to create the dye. The rarity of the color meant that its use was restricted to the very rich and wealthy, like kings, nobility, and religious leaders. Blue was the color of wealth, power, and divinity.

Religious organizations were among the few who could afford the use of blue color in the construction of their temples. During ancient and medieval times, the Church had a powerful influence on politics and economics. It possessed the land, workers, resources, and money. The magnificent chapels, monasteries, and castles required a lot of wealth to create and sustain. The two primary examples of the use of Blue color in religious architecture are the Giotto Chapel and the Blue Mosque.6

Giotto Chapel

Giotto Chapel was built between the years 1303 and 1305.7 It is a relatively small church, and yet it is considered a masterpiece of medieval art. It is located in Padua, Italy. The insides of the church contain a fresco cycle created by Giotto di Bondone – a famous Italian painter and architect.8 What is special about the fresco is the extensive use of the color blue, as the ceiling of the chapel and many paintings contain illustrations of the skies. The artist aimed to create the “outdoors effect” inside of the chapel – the abundance of the color blue makes the visitors believe they are actually outside, on a bright, sunny, and cloudless day. It also makes the small chapel seem a lot larger than it really is. The cost of the dyes and the money needed to pay the famous artist easily make Giotto chapel not only one of the most beautiful examples of western art but also among the most expensive ones.

Blue Mosque

However, Giotto Chapel pales in comparison to the Blue Mosque. It is also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named that way after Ahmed I, the ruler of the Osman Empire.9 The mosque was constructed during his rule, in 7 years, between the years 1609 and 1616. It is famous for many things, one of them being that its walls are covered with numerous blue hand-painted tiles, which is how it got its name. These blue tiles are very small, meaning that a lot of time, effort and money had to be put into painting, crafting and placing every tile in accordance to the architect’s desires. The tiles form numerous patterns and are meant to reflect the light during different times of the day, creating an ever-changing dance of light. This wondrous example of religious architecture was made possible only because the religion of Islam had a deep and profound hold on the rulers of the Osman Empire, who were able to afford to build such places of worship.

Religious architecture, in general, was always several generations ahead of its own time. The construction of majestic domes, the creation of beautiful works of art, use of music and echoes, artistic use of light, all were used to create the essence of spirituality and miracle in order to make all those who enter the holy places to feel the presence of a supernatural God. The religious architecture was always an instrument of affecting the believers and strengthening their faith.

Color in Contemporary Architecture

The use of color in contemporary art and architecture is much different from how it was in days past.10 For a very long time, the color white was considered to be the “official” color for buildings and structures. Blueprints and designs were drawn in white or in shades of gray. There were several reasons for that. Throughout the history of mankind, architecture was often accused of chromophobia – an aversion to color, as if adding color to a structure would somehow pollute or contaminate its image. Naturally, this was not always the case. However, many classic architects were staunch in this point of view.

In the 20th and 21st century, however, views on architecture started to evolve. If before the architects drew their blueprints and outlines in shades of gray or light-blue, excluding any strong colors, now they allowed their imagination to go wild and explore new frontiers. A research group lead by Angela Garcia Codoner had concluded that the application of color split into four concepts associated with color versatility:11

  • Transformation
  • Fragmentation
  • Movement
  • Innovation

These concepts were prevalent throughout the 20th century, as they challenged the outdated and stereotypical norms of architecture, paving the way for new forms of expression and art, such as abstract expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism

Transformation, fragmentation, movement and innovation – these terms could be used to explain the application of color in art and architecture throughout the entire period. One of the directions, which defined the use of color in modern architecture, is Abstract Expressionism.12 The term itself appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. It is associated with the Russian artist and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky, and later with American Expressionism.13

Kandinsky created a set of meanings for each color, which is illustrated in his Basic Theory of Color. It was published in 1911 and provided a psychological and philosophical meaning to many shapes and colors. He describes yellow as a cheeky, warm, and disturbing color. Red – as restless, glowing, and alive. White – as deadly silent, but pregnant with meaning, not emptiness. Black – as extinguished and immovable. Orange, on the other hand, is considered a healthy, radiant and serious color. This contrasts with Kandinsky’s perception of the color red. Blown is a dull and inhibited color – the theorist viewed it as mix of red and black, with black playing a dominant role. Violet is considered a color of sadness and sorrow – yet another mix, just like brown. His theory also assigned colors to shapes, depending on how prominent or “dull” these shapes are. Kandinsky and his work have influenced many architects and laid the foundation for American Abstractionism, which became increasingly popular in the Post-War period of 1945-1960.14

Color Field Painting

Walls and buildings are often viewed as surfaces for other forms of art. A particular technique, known as Color Field painting, found its way into works of many artists and architects. This technique uses patches of color in the form of stains, squares, circles, and other forms, in order to create a psychological effect on the viewers. Tin Color Field Painting, color is not used to represent objects, but rather becomes the object itself. Buildings and structures were perfect for color field paintings, as the walls offered a great amount of flat surface.15

One of the famous proponents of Color Field Painting was Luis Barragan – a Mexican architect, whose impact and influence on contemporary architecture was acknowledged only after his death.16 He was not afraid of color and used it in huge and interesting patterns. His work juxtaposed and focused on the shifting angles, shadows, and light. He introduced innovative patterns in magenta and cobalt blue, adobe walls, sunset-colored alcoves, and lines of warm summer yellow, on a grand scale. He is known for combining Mexican and European styles of architecture together, and innovating them with vivid and sensual colors. His legacy was honored in 1976, during a retrospective exhibition held in New York Metropolitan Museum.

One of the famous art galleries of abstract expressionism is Rothko Chapel. The chapel was designed by Philip Johnson and built in 1964. However, the place is named after Mark Rothko – the artist who was commissioned to create many works of art to create a contemplative space. In order to do so, he covered the walls with color field paintings of dark gray colors. Many visitors to the Chapel reflect on how the monuments and colors create a sense of belonging, contemplation and meditation. 17 Some of them spend countless hours in front of the pictures, reflecting on themselves, their lives, and finding inner peace. The Broken Obelisk is the most iconic piece in the entire complex.

The monument itself was created by Barrett Newman. It represents a shattered shape hovering on top of a pyramid, placed in a body of water. The monument has a mesmerizing, almost magical effect on people, as it looks both futuristic and ancient as if a lost monument to an alien culture on a forgotten planet. The shapes and forms of the monument were repeated in movies and videogames. One particular example is the old Sith Temple in “Knights of the Old Republic. This is the point behind abstract expressionism – the art does not have a scope to represent something or send a message. It is supposed to make those who look at it feel something, manipulating emotions of the viewers with color, light, shadow, size, and shapes.18 The perfection of form and technique becomes less relevant, as details give way to the perception of art as a whole.

Why Color Now?

Color in art and architecture is even more prevalent in the 21st century. Modern technology is put to use to create obscure shapes for buildings and structures, and the use of LED displays, diode lights, lamps, and adaptive patterns allows artists to create living and ever-changing cityscapes. Art is no longer static – it is moving and is filled with motion. The purpose of colors and shapes remains the same – to create a certain mood, to influence the viewers on a psychological level. Many companies actively use attractive colors in order to grab the attention of potential customers. The psychology of colors is a topic actively studied in marketing.19

Just like Kandinsky, marketers study colors and attribute them to certain feelings and impressions these colors invoke in the audience. For example, in many treatises on color in marketing, yellow is associated with warmth and optimism, red – with youth, boldness, and excitement, blue – with trust, peace, and stability, and green – with harmony, health, and growth. This is very similar to Kandinsky’s Color Theory and is widely implemented. For example, many banks prefer white, blue, and green colors, as those are associated with stability, safety, and trust. Banks wish to look representative and cultivate such feelings within potential clients, which is why these colors see so much use.

According to a study called “Impact of Color in Marketing,” 9 out of 10 snap judgments made about particular brands or products are made based on its color choices alone.20 This is why appropriate coloring is very important to creating a successful brand. Many companies, whether large or small, do not give colors appropriate respect and attention, and yet every successful worldwide brand uses appropriate and recognizable colors. Red and white are the trademark colors of Coca-Cola – they represent activity and dynamism, which correlates with the marketing campaign for their line of drinks. Black, blue, and silver are used in many auto brands, such as Volkswagen, Audi, and Mercedes. These colors are traditionally associated with the automobile industry, and they inspire confidence and promote a sense of stability and solidity.

Studies also show a correlation between color acceptance and gender. This means that brands for men-oriented products have to use a different color scheme when compared to brands aimed at women. Hallock’s findings on the subject show that the most popular color among men is the color blue – with over 57% of respondents marking it as their favorite. Green, black, and red are the next most popular colors. For women, the situation is different. While blue is still the most popular color, only 35% of respondents marked it as such. Purple holds second place with 23%, followed by green (14%) and red (6%).21 If we look at many products designed for men, it is possible to see these colors in abundance – Gillette, a popular brand of shaving utensils and creams, uses black, blue, and silver colors. Same colors continue to dominate the clothes markets as well.

Brand colors are important in modern architecture as well. Many companies wish to incorporate their brand colors into the design of their office buildings. However, in the case of office buildings, black, blue, gray and silver continue to be the dominant colors – they represent reliability and stability associated both with companies occupying the structure, and the structure itself.22 It is hard to imagine a colorful office building, as many customers would brand such as “unserious.”


Colors have always played an important part in our history and our lives. Appropriate choice of color can have positive or negative effects on the human psyche and can make viewers and customers view items, brands, and structures in a favorable or unfavorable light. Ancient historical monuments, such as Giotto Chapel and Blue Mosque, show the importance and influence of color in religious monuments and buildings. This trend was prevalent in eastern religions as well, in Buddhism in particular – the color blue, depending on its shade, was used as symbol of the sky, wisdom, or well-being. Earthly colors like red, blown, black, or white, were attributed to the common folk, while purple and blue – to nobility.

Modern architecture is full of various colors, patterns, and techniques that change the perception of otherwise ordinary structures, buildings, walls, and rooms, turning them into works of art. An architect is an artist and an engineer at the same time – many architects of the abstract expressionist genre, such as Barrett Newman, Luis Barragan, and many others, proved this. Their groundbreaking and innovative approach to architecture, art, and color, allowed overcoming chromophobia – a prevalent tendency in the architecture of the classical period. With modern technology introduced into architecture, and more colors and techniques becoming available to architects, the theories of color perception become more and more relevant.

Reference List

2015, Web.

2016, Web.

Blaszczyk, R 2012, The color revolution, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Bradley, M 2011, Colour and meaning in ancient Rome, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Braham, W 2002, Modern color/modern architecture: Amedee Ozenfant’s and the genealogy of color in modern architecture, Ashgate Publishing, London.

2012, Web.

2016, Web.

2015, Web.

European expressionist architecture 2012, Web.

Ferrier L, 2012, , Web.

2016, Web.

2016, Web.

2016, Web.

Holmes, R 2015, , Web.

, 2013, Web.

2011, Web.

Moffat, C 2008, , Web.

2016, Web.

Smirnova, E 2012, , Web.

2016, Web.

The psychology of color in marketing and branding 2016, Web.


  1. History of colour 2016, Web.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Bradley, M 2011, Colour and meaning in ancient Rome, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  4. Color symbolism in Christianity 2015, Web.
  5. Holmes, R 2015, Why blue is the costliest color, Web.
  6. Symbolism of the color blue 2016, Web.
  7. Scrovegni chapel frescoes 2016, Web.
  8. Giotto di Bondone 2016, Web.
  9. History and architecture 2016, Web.
  10. Ferrier L, 2012, White cubes and red knots, Web.
  11. Color burst into contemporary architecture 2012, Web.
  12. Braham, W 2002, Modern color/modern architecture: Amedee Ozenfant’s and the genealogy of color in modern architecture, Ashgate Publishing, London.
  13. Smirnova, E 2012, Basic color theory by Kandinsky, Web.
  14. Moffat, C 2008, Abstract Expressionism, Web.
  15. Color Field Painting 2016, Web.
  16. Luis Barragan, architect of color, 2013, Web.
  17. Barnett Newman 2016, Web.
  18. European expressionist architecture 2012, Web.
  19. Blaszczyk, R 2012, The color revolution, MIT Press, Cambridge.
  20. Architecture: Branding and identity 2015, Web.
  21. The psychology of color in marketing and branding 2016, Web.
  22. Ibid.
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