Contemporary artists and designers often pride themselves on the use of bright colors and bold patterns to attract us, the consumers of their products. Whether it’s a piece of sculpture or a rug, a pair of socks or a cocktail dress, we like to think of ourselves as living in a world where we are daring if we pick a color that is not a neutral. Those bright red trousers you’re wearing to work now that Spring and warm weather have finally arrived might make you think that you’re a bold, outspoken sort of fellow.
Except, of course, for the fact that this has all been done before: you were just never told about it.
If your visual experience of Western Civ 101 in high school or college was limited to viewing some grainy slides via a poorly lit projector, or paging through some hazy illustrations in a textbook, you could reasonably be forgiven for thinking that Western culture up until the 20th century was pretty murky and dark. Yet when we look at a cleaned and restored work of art from our past, brought back as near as possible to its original state, we can appreciate how people who lived centuries ago not only loved to use color, but were just as bold as we are in the use of it, if not more so. They surrounded themselves with domestic objects, buildings, and works of art that were brightly colored. And they themselves dressed in those almost garishly bright colors which we associate with things like cartoons and comic books.
A perfect example of this is what I’m using for my wallpaper at present, appropriately for Easter, a painting of the Resurrection by the Florentine Renaissance artist Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1476-1527). Most of us today associate the Easter season with very bright colors after the months of dull, late winter grays and browns. When it comes to public celebrations, ladies’ hats, and decorations such as Easter eggs, Easter grass, baskets full of colorfully wrapped candies, etc., we love to get out the virtual box of crayons and go a bit off the deep end in an explosion of color. However this particular artist’s image of Easter is about as Easter Parade-y as you can get.
Look at the figures of the Roman soldiers and Temple guards reacting to Christ’s Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning. It is a bright, sunny day, well past sunrise, and as Jesus rises from the grave dressed in white garments, the soldiers are falling down like dead men and running away, just as Scripture tells us. One poor fellow in the lower left foreground has even had the stone slab from the tomb land on top of him.
Now take a moment to notice what incredible colors these fellows are wearing. We see these tough soldiers dressed in salmon pink, coral red, periwinkle blue, spring green, dusty rose, saffron yellow, and midnight blue. There’s no camouflage here: even the very few gray, brown, and white articles of clothing worn by these fighting men only serve to enhance the bright colors of their other garments.
It’s worthwhile to take a look at what the painting looked like before it was cleaned of its old varnish, and notice how dark and yellowed it was. I think oftentimes this is the sort of image which misinforms our impression of Western civilization. We’re taught, whether intentionally or not, to see the past and the people who lived centuries before us as collectively dusty, yellowed, confused, ignorant, and unexciting. One look at this picture as restored should permanently dispel that badly-learned lesson from your mind, and this is but one example among many.
The truth is that there is always something heroic, fresh, and invigorating about Western culture. This image neatly sums up that fact, for del Garbo clearly believed that he was living in an exciting, vibrant time when he created this work of art. He chose to depict the boldness of his own day, in the figures of the soldiers he painted, rather than sticking strictly to an historical interpretation of what 1st century Judea probably looked like. In doing so he preserves, almost like a snapshot, what people who lived 500 years ago thought of themselves, their faith, their culture, and their world. Theirs is not some dark and gloomy, scary place, but an attractive, bright and cheerful spot worth a visit. Who wouldn’t want to picnic beside the Roman ruins in the background of this picture, under the trees on a bright Easter Sunday?
Perhaps it’s time we get out some of the varnish stripper, ourselves. Let’s try to wipe away some of the jaundiced coloring that has been shading our eyes to the bright, heroic achievements of those who came before us. We are part of a long tradition in Western culture, if we would but recognize it.