Seeing Green


Michael Gorra shares insights from Green: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau:

In the Renaissance the color’s chemical instability made it seem “false” and even treacherous, a “deceptive color, simultaneously appealing and disappointing.” As such, it became associated with games of chance or hazard; think of the green baize with which tables for cards or craps or pool are covered even now. The color here carries a symbolic charge that is inseparable from its use—gambling means green. It connotes luck, the ups and downs of a player’s fortunes, and it also suggests avarice.

A sixteenth-century painting by Quentin Massys shows a money changer spreading his wares on a table covered by a verdant cloth, and in fact the Seven Deadly Sins had each their color. In early modern Europe pride was seen as red and black betokened anger, while in pictures the greedy Judas was often clad in green. In northern Italy, as Pastoureau writes, “dishonest debtors” might be clapped into the stocks wearing acornuto verde, and bankrupts were later said to have taken “the green bonnet.”

Other scholars have touched on aspects of Pastoureau’s project, most notably John Gage in his 1993 Color and Culture. But none of them approaches his range or indeed his prodigality, a range that makes Green and its companions seem stuffed with rarities and wonders, an attic of all the centuries, right up to Babar’s cheerful lime suit.

(Image: depiction of Judas by Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov via Wikimedia Commons)