The Meaning of Yellow - the Colour of the Golden Sun

Nov 27 2012

“Yellow contains the nature of brightness and possesses a powerful force that can also give rise to tension and anxiety.” - Goethe

“Each colour has its own quality; yellow is warm but also produces negative effects.”  - Wassily Kandinsky

Yellow is the colour of the sun and gold, and was one of the first colours to be recognised by man as important, signifying a heavenly body and a divine metal with all the meanings that still stem from that. Yellow is the colour of Apollo, the sun god, and the solar plexus chakra which is linked to fire. It has meanings associated with joy, vivacity, intellect, force, ambition and knowledge as well as the more negative connotations from gold of power, envy, jealousy, anxiety, falsehood and fear.

In nature yellow is the colour of sand, autumn leaves, lemons, corn and sulphur as well as many bright and distinctive fish, birds and flowers.

The word is used to describe many things from sunshine to jaundice, and is one of the oldest colour words used in the English language (after white, black and red). It has its roots in proto-Indo-European language (which is the root of Afghan, Persian, Greek and English among others), although there is no written evidence for its existence. The original word for yellow in this language has been determined to be ghelwo, which entered proto-Germanix as gelwaz and then came into Old English and other more modern languages. The oldest written use of the Anglo-Saxon word (geolu or geolwe) is in the epic poem Beowulf, in reference to a shield carved from yew wood.

Yellow has been shown to stimulate mental processes and the nervous system, activate memory and encourage communication. In language a ‘yellowbelly’ is a coward, ‘yellow fever’ is a common tropical disease, ‘yellow jack’ is the flag for a quarantined ship, and ‘yellow journalism’ is the sensationalisation of a story to sell more papers.

Yellow was one of the first colours used in prehistoric cave art, such as at Lascaux’s image of a horse coloured with yellow ochre pigment made from clay (estimated to be 17,300 years old).

Yellow was associated with gold by the ancient Egyptians, and was considered imperishable, eternal and indestructible (the skin and bones of the gods were believed to be made of gold). Yellow was used extensively in tomb paintings (ochre or orpiment) and small paintbox containing the paint was found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. The ancient Romans used it in their paintings to represent gold or skin and it is seen frequently in the Pompeii murals.

In the Renaissance, yellow became the colour of Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ (even though there is no evidence for this in the Bible), and from this time has had associations with envy, jealousy and duplicity. At this time, the practice of ‘marking’ non-Christian outsiders with yellow was also developed, leading to the dressing of heretics in yellow during the Spanish Inquisition. Pope Innocent III also used yellow to mark Jews as excluded from public life, and these practices ultimately led to the yellow star mark used by the Nazis for the Jews.

Synthetic pigments and dies of yellow were first made in the 18th and 19th centuries, replacing the more traditional (and more dangerous) products made from arsenic and cow urine.  J.M.W. Turner was the first painter to use yellow to create moods and emotions, and his painting Rain, Steam and Speed was dominated by the colour.

Rain Steam and Speed: the Great Western Railway by J.M.W. Turner

Georges Seurat was later fond of yellow as, most famously, was Vincent Van Gogh who loved the sunshine, as he wrote to his sister, “Now we are having beautiful warm, windless weather that is very beneficial to me. The sun, a light that for lack of a better word I can only call yellow, bright sulphur yellow, pale lemon gold. How beautiful yellow is!”

In the twentieth century yellow has been valued because of its visibility, often replacing red as the colour of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles and common in neon signs. It is also commonly used for taxis, streetcabs and by post offices and couriers. In fact, the name taxi arguably derives from Francesco Tasso who is the 15th century was keen to improve communications between military leaders and instituted a ‘postal’ system (the word post came from the posts at which horses were rested or changed). It was decided to use colour as a clear signal and yellow was chosen as it did not have strongly identified meanings at that time, unlike other colours. The name Tasso morphed into taxi and ultimately to Joni Mitchell’s ‘big yellow taxi’.

In football and rugby, yellow cards mean a caution.

In the west, yellow is not a well-loved color; in a 2000 survey, only six percent of respondents in Europe and America named it as their favorite color. compared with 45 percent for blue, 15 percent for green, 12 percent for red, and 10 percent for black.  In China and many other Asian countries, yellow is a highly popular colour, symbolising virtue and nobility.

Yellow has strong historical and cultural associations in China, where it is the color of happiness, glory, and wisdom. In China, there are five directions of the compass; north, south, east, west, and the middle, each with a symbolic color. Yellow signifies the middle (and as China is the ‘Middle Kingdom’ that makes it important! The name of the first Emperor of China, Huang Ti, menas the yellow emperor and in the memoir of the last emperor of China, Pu Yi describes being surrounded by yellow objects. Only members of the Imperial household could wear yellow in China (as purple was to the Romans), and yellow carpets were rolled out for distinguished visitors.

In China, yellow is a masculine (yang) colour. ‘Yellow movies’ has the same connotation in China as ‘blue movies’ do in the West.

To Hindus, yellow is the sacred colour, symbol of happiness and is second only to white. Yellow is Krishna’s colour, denoting the radiance of the sun. Yellow is the colour of the Vaisyas caste (merchants and farmers) and during spring festivals, people eat yellow food, wear yellow clothes and sprinkle yellow powder on the statues of the gods. [Taxis are yellow and black in India.]

In Japan, yellow can represent courage and light yellow is worn on the anniversary of a funeral. Yellow can also imply joy, happiness, optimism and many of the other meanings common in the West. In Malaysia and Brunei, yellow is the royal color of the Sultans and associated with authority figures. In the past, yellow was reserved for the royalty and others used to avoid the colour. In Thailand, yellow is the colour of wisdom, good fortune and the holy eight-fold path, as well as the colour of the Royal family (and of Monday). Yellow sashes are placed around Buddha statues to signify nirvana (as in other Buddhist countries).

in The Roman Catholic church, yellow symbolizes gold and the golden key to the Kingdom of Heaven, which Christ gave to Saint Peter. The flag of the Vatican City and the Pope’s colours are yellow and white (the  gold and silver keys).

In the modern world, yellow haired (blonde) girls have more fun and are preferred by gentlemen, the Beatles had fun too in their yellow submarine, and Dorothy and Elton John followed the yellow brick road.

Above all, yellow is the colour of sunlight, warmth, heat and energy (yellow lamps are more natural and feel warmer than white ones). As the colour of light, yellow is often associated with knowledge and wisdom (the yellow colour of gold symbolises wisdom in Islam), and in the medieval world yellow was the colour of reason (as opposed to passion [red] and the spiritual [blue]). Yellow gowns and caps are still worn in many European universities.

Because of these associations, yellow is the color most associated with optimism and pleasure. Yellow attracts attention, and yellow dresses in fashion are rare, and always associated with gaiety and celebration.

Sunny side up?

One response so far

  1. hello, thank you so much for this information, it will be a great help for my project! all the best, esme xx

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