Shades of Blue: Unraveling the Social History of Everyone’s Favorite Color, Part 1

by clé tile | published: Aug 04, 2023

clé maiolica de delft field tile layout

in the vast spectrum of colors, one shade continues to capture our attention — blue. In addition to being the focal center in our Maiolica de Delft tile, blue has shaped (and reshaped) the cultural landscape for centuries. Its presence has been felt in everything from art, design, and fashion to language, class, status, and even religious iconography. Is it any wonder, then, that blue is consistently found to be the most loved color in the world? It’s certainly one of clé’s most popular tile colors (see more about how to find your blue here). To find out why, we thought we’d take a deep dive into the historical sea of this forever color.

Ancient Origins

Though the story of blue stretches back to antiquity, many ancient civilizations did not have a word to describe the color, leading some to suggest erroneously that the ancients were not able to see it all. But just because they did not have a word for it, does not mean the color was imperceptible. In fact, the ancient Egyptians loved the color blue, which to them held associations to the Nile river, creation, and birth. The color also reminded them of semiprecious stones like turquoise and lapis lazuli, which they held in high regard.

The ancient Egyptians were so enamored with blue, they created the first synthetic pigment in its honor. There is no evidence they ever used lapis as a paint colorant — the difficulty of obtaining these blue stones necessitated the need for an alternative. They found this substitute by mixing and heating a blend of silica, lime, copper, and alkali to create a deep blue pigment they called this mixture ḫsbḏ-ỉrjt, or “artificial lapis lazuli.” Today the color is simply referred to as Egyptian blue. In addition to the pigment, the ancient Egyptians also created blue-colored ceramic faience called tjehent, or “dazzling,” owing to its lustrous surface.

A hallway with white plaster walls and a dark tile floor.

blue paint pigments — images courtesy of jackson art and la contrie

A sink and mirror over a tile floor with a graphic pattern in a lozenge and rectangle shape.

The Egyptian blue pigment had a variety of applications. It was added to paint to use on papyrus, plaster, stone, and wood. It could also be added to other materials for making beads, scarabs, and pottery. The ancient Romans used a variation of this recipe, naming their pigment caerulean, meaning “sky-colored” — but more on that later.

Wine, garlic and roasted peppers sit in front of a white tile wall.
Wine, garlic and roasted peppers sit in front of a white tile wall.

egyptian blue pigment used in the hathor temple in dendera, egypt — images courtesy of egyptian streets / earth trekkers

Royal and Religious Associations

By the Middle Ages, the ancient recipe for Egyptian blue had been lost. But as blue remained in high demand, painters began using expensive semiprecious stones to produce it. Its steep cost — lapis lazuli at this time was more expensive than gold — meant its use was limited to royals and aristocrats who could afford the price. This elite status helped the color earn an even greater designation – that of the cloak of the Virgin Mary. In 431, the Catholic church began assigning colors to each saint. Mary, Queen of Heaven, was given the color blue specifically because of its associations to royalty. The wealthiest patrons demanded artists use ultramarine, produced with lapis, as a way of reaffirming their devotion. For those who could not afford ultramarine, another blue was created using the less expensive mineral azurite. Lighter in color, this new blue earned the name marion blue, after the theological study of the virgin mother known as Mariology.

The use of dark blue for the Virgin Mary cemented the color as a symbol of purity, divinity, and the heavenly realms. Eventually, dark blue also became associated with trustworthiness, fidelity, and authority. These associations linger today, as can be seen in the color choice for police uniforms and the U.S. Navy.

the rest on the flight into egypt, gerard david c. 1512–1515

From Prussia with Love

In 1706, the accidental discovery of a new blue pigment would have profound ripples across Western culture. Prussian blue, as it came to be called, was the first stable synthetic pigment since the loss of the ancient recipe for Egyptian blue.

Prussian blue was discovered by German paintmaker Johann Jacob Diesbach when he accidentally used potash tainted with blood while making red cochineal dye. The iron in the blood reacted with the other compounds to create not red, but a distinctive, deep shade of blue. The discovery couldn’t have happened at a better time. Societal attitudes toward blue were starting to shift. Inexpensive to produce and relatively lightfast allowed blue to be available to the masses. The new pigment became a global sensation. Before long, it became the official color of infantry uniforms of the Prussian army, earning the color its name.

Debossed patterns on a terracotta tile wall.

the great wave off kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai c. 1831

A shower wall in white tile.

blue boy, thomas gainsborough c. 1770

From ancient days to the modern world, blue has held a unique and influential place in world culture. The eighteenth century was a turning point in the color’s social status. But it’s not the end of the blue’s remarkable story. To learn how blue evolved to conquer the modern world, keep reading in Part II of our story on the social history of blue.