The Meaning of Purple – the Colour of Nobility

Jan 20 2013

April Love by Arthur Hughes

“There is no evil that does not promise inducements. Avarice promises money; luxury, a varied assortment of pleasures; ambition, a purple robe and applause. Vices tempt you by the rewards they offer.”  – Seneca

“He wrapped himself in quotations – as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors.”  – Rudyard Kipling

“If Bacchus ever had a color he could claim for his own, it should surely be the shade of tannin on drunken lips, of John Keat’s ‘purple-stained mouth’, or perhaps even of Homer’s dangerously wine-dark sea.”  – Victoria Finlay

I remember the first time I saw the painting April Love in the Tate Gallery in London, being stunned by the intensity and extravagance of the colour purple, and it’s just as stunning every time I see it. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were strongly influenced by nature, and used great detail in their paintings and were renowned for the brilliance of the colours they used (they often painted glazes of pigment over a wet white ground to give the colours greater clarity). This was in part a reaction to the darker style of many artists in the nineteenth century. April Love was inspired by the Tennyson poem “The Miller’s Daughter” about fragile young love.

Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

Purple refers to the range of hues between red and blue, usually deep and rich in colour. Violet is also a common colour descriptor, although this is a slightly different bright bluish purple that takes its name from the Violet flower and appears in the spectrum between purple and blue. Violet is less intense and bright than purple, and is a real spectral colour, whereas purple only exists as a combination of red and blue and does not have a “wavelength”. This is one reason why purple is relatively rare in nature.

The word ‘purple’ originally derives from the Greek porphura and was first used in the English language in AD 975 AD (Violet came almost 400 years later). Porphura (or purpura in Latin) was the name of the Tyrian purple dye manufactured in classical times from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail. This was the colour worn by Roman Emperors and magistrates, and has since been associated with royalty.

Mosaic of Justinian I, Ravenna

The name Tyrian comes from Tyre which along with Sidon was the centre of production of the dye on the coast of ancient Phoenicia (Lebanon). The process was long and expensive (which is why only a few could afford it), involving the shelling of thousands of tiny snails, which were then left to soak before a tiny gland was removed and the juice extracted and placed in the sun in a basin, until the juice turned white, then yellow-green, then green, then violet and then increasingly darker red. The timing of the process was important to capturing the right colour, which could range from bright crimson to dark purple, and always resulted in a rich, bright  and lasting dye.

Mosaic of Empress Theodora, Ravenna

This dye became the colour of kings, nobles, priests and magistrates all around the Meditteranean. It is mentioned in the Old Testament, when God asks Moses to have the Israelites bring him an offering of a cloth “of blue, and purple, and scarlet”. In the Iliad the belt of Ajax is purple and in the Odyssey, the blankets of Odysseus’s wedding bed are the same colour. King Solomon was reported to have brought artisans from Tyre to create purple fabrics for the Temple of Jerusalem. It was the colour of Alexander the Great when giving audiences, and the colour worn by honoured Generals during a Triumph, although generally reserved mainly for the Emperor (Nero made it punishable by death for anyone else to wear it).

Madonna by Giotto di Bondone

The use of the colour continued for emperors, diplomatic gifts and even imperial documents and pages of the Bible. The Bishops of the Byzantine church wore white robes with stripes of purple and government officials wore squares of purple fabric to denote rank. Emperor Charlemagne was crowned in 800 wearing Tyrian purple, and was a buried in a shroud of the same colour.

The Coronation of Charlemagne

The Shroud of Charlemagne

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the colour lost its Imperial status, replaced by scarlet made from cochineal. In 1464, Pope Paul II decreed that cardinals should wear scarlet rather than purple, as it was considered a finer colour. Bishops and archbishops of lower status wore purple, made from indigo which was cheaper then Tyrian purple. However, professors at many of Europe’s new universities started wearing purple robes modelled after the clergy, often topped by square violet or purple caps and students of divinity often wore purple too. Purple and violet were important in religious paintings of the Renaissance, and angels and the Virgin Mary were often painted with blue or violet robes.

detail of an angle from The Resurrection of Christ by Raphael

It was still sometimes worn by rulers, such as Catherine the Great, by members of the aristocracy and by bishops. The cost of purple was prohibitive for others until the 19th century when William Henry Perkin made mauve as a side effect of making synthetic quinine, which was immediately turned into an industrial process. Mauve quickly became fashionable, especially after Queen Victoria I wore it to the Royal Exhibition of 1862. It was particularly popular with the pre-Raphaelite painters including Arthur Hughes.

Catherine the Great

In Western cultures, Purple has always been associated with royalty and piety, and also with extravagance, individualism, ambiguity, the unconventional and the artificial. It tends to be a colour which people love or hate, and in some cultures (e.g., China) it is not a popular colour. Other meanings of purple include dignity, sophistication, elegance, passion, creativity, spirituality, mysticism, magic, the subconscious, inspiration, imagination, sensitivity, conceit, pomposity, cruelty and mourning.

Violet has similar meanings, and is also associated with intelligence, knowledge, religious devotion, sanctity, sobriety, humility, penitence, sacerdotal rule, authority, truth, fasting, obscurity, sadness, sorrow, temperance, nostalgia, grief, mourning and old age. Violet is the colour of St Mary Magdalene.

Purple was still much in evidence at the funeral of George VI in 1952, and can still be seen at royal funerals and other ritual occasions. Black has now taken over as the official colour of mourning in most Western cultures, and many others.

Purple represents penitence in the Roman Catholic Church. It is worn for days of fasting and is the vestment color for Advent and Lent. Purple may also be used for Masses for the Dead, All Souls Day and funerals. Martyrs also wear purple as a symbol of endurance or suffering. Purple also symbolizes the blending of the blue of the spirit and the red of martyred blood. Rosaries are often made of amethyst, a purple variety of quartz. Violet is the liturgical colour of Advent and Lent, signifying penance and mourning. The Second Vatican Council in 1962, modified the rules of the Catholic church, and priests started wearing violet robes for masses of the dead (as black was considered the colour for mourning outside church).

In Israel, Purple is the color of divinity. In Italy, the Catholic symbolism of purple is intercession, penitence, absolution and extreme unction. Purple also means death, and performing artists will often refuse to go on stage if they have to wear anything purple, which is the colour of martyrs and suffering (Christ is often depicted in a violet robe during the passion).

In Mexico, a Catholic country, some Mexicans drape their saints from head to toe in purple cloth during holy weeks. Some penitent Catholics also wear purple, especially during processions. Homosexual men are called ‘lilos’ (Spanish term for lilac), and some men find purple offensive. In Brazil, purple continues to be the colour of mourning, and purple is considered a colour for sorrow. In many countries in South America, purple is regarded as despicable.

Portrait of Felix Pissarro by Camille Pissarro

In Asia, purple also has some associations with rank. In Japan, the highest ranked Buddhist monks wear purple. It is prohibited at weddings in Japan (perhaps because of the association with death), although burgundy (red-purple) is considered very elegant. Violet was once a popular colour, introduced into Japanese dress during the Heian period (794-1185), known as murazaki in Japanese and also used by painters. Purple symbolises royalty, spirituality, nobility, ceremony, mystery, wisdom and enlightenment to the Japanese, although it is also associated with arrogance.

Purple is not a popular colour in China (and in many other countries). It is associated with heaven and emperor, and the Imperial palace is sometimes referred to as the ‘purple region’. In Chinese painting, violet represents the harmony of the universe (as a combination of red and blue). The modern meaning of purple is grief and self-pity.

Purple is a soothing colour in India, and also associated with sorrow. In Hinduism, violet is the colour of the seventh (crown) chakra. In Pakistan, shades of purple are disliked by men. In Thailand, purple is the colour of Saturday and is also the colour of mourning widows.

Because of its associations with nobility and prestige, purple is often used to signify quality and luxury. It is a common colour for chocolate (Cadbury have registered their purple colour as a trademark). Purple is also seen in the packaging of many luxury goods such as watches and jewelry, which also has the advantage that violet is a complementary colour of yellow and therefore shows gold to good advantage. It is a popular colour for fragrances too, and associated with Violetta de Parma, a legendary perfume which was extremely popular more than 100 years ago.

Purple (or violet) is the colour most often associated with vanity, extravagance and individualism (because of its rarity in nature and its association with wealth and luxury. In modern times, it is also perceived as exciting and cheerful, and is a common symbol of gay pride. In USA, the Purple Heart is the military award for bravery.

In the early twentieth century, violet (with green and white) was the colour of Women’s Suffrage, said to represent liberty and dignity, and later in the 1970s, violet, purple or pink were the colours of  the Women’s Liberation (feminist) movement. More recently, the pink ribbon has become an iconic symbol for breast cancer awareness (pink is the subject of the next colour post).

In English, we refer to “turning purple with rage” and “purple prose” (stilted and false), and a “shrinking violet” is a shy and retiring person. Purple is often a colour for fairytales, and violet and purple are often associated with ambiguity and ambivalence (with an uncertain identity between red and blue). This balance also means that purple is a colour of temperance, and violet flowers symbolise modesty, although in Roman times, purple was the colour of excess and associated with Dionysian orgies (in modern times purple has been associated with the drug culture). With balance, comes constancy and fairness, and also uneasiness, dreaminess and associations with dreams and the unconscious mind. Purple seems to have become a very popular colour among many politicians (especially for ties). Purple is the colour of Klingon blood in Star Trek.

In summary, purple has a very rich history leading to rich meanings, including those of spirituality, imagination and sophistication. Above all, purple is the colour of rank and nobility, luxury and excess, authority and counter-culture.

6 responses so far

  1. Thanks a lot for such a deep research, which makes things clear with this color.
    People perceive colors differently, but it’s very interesting phenomenon that most of basic colors are being understood the same way.
    Also it’s interesting if history has influenced on our modern color interpretiation or it’s just a proof of it.

  2. Thank you so much for this amazing research on all the colours! it has helped me so much to understand fully what each colour stands for.
    thank you!

  3. Amazing content. Who knew that the history of a color could be so interesting!

  4. Ambiguity, clergy and a politician’s tie. Clearly, I must mistrust anyone wearing the colour (except for mourning Thai widows).

  5. Hello !

    This is a wonderful article, I would like to quote it to illustrate a development in my university thesis. Would it be possible to know who wrote this article ?

  6. Santo

    Thanks for the feedback and glad you enjoyed reading. The article was written by Neil Gains from TapestryWorks.


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