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History of Green

by Antonella Pesola

According to colour theory, green is a secondary colour, as it is obtained by mixing two primary colours, blue and yellow. In theories of perception, green belongs to the visible spectrum of light and is adjacent to the colour red, to which it is complementary, and is defined as an optical blend. It does not physically exist, a sort of illusion of the blend of blue and yellow, which happens directly within the visual system. This contradiction also plays out in the fact this colour represents at once vitality and tension and resistance to change.
Nature is commonly green, because of chlorophyll absorbing wavelengths of light complementary to this colour. This colour radiates a sense of balance, empathy, harmony and conveys love for the natural kingdom; it is ecological because it places us in relation with that which is external to us, to that which belongs to us and to that which we belong to. It also evokes the link between soul and nature. On a deeper level it instils a sense of fairness and generosity of spirit, as it bestows strength and persistence in pursuing one’s resolutions. Its link to nature and its ability to promote and maintain good spirits make it a commonly appreciated colour. In colour and light therapy this colour is used as a remedy for anxiety, anger and to promote a sense of inner peace.

Colour of sprouting life and growth, it is associated with youth and therefore with hope, new beginnings, permissions, access, encouragement to move and go forth. Some negative connotations of the colour are its links to monstrous creatures in fairy tales and aliens. Contrary to the ancient Greek, the Egyptians held this colour in great stead, a tradition which carried through to medieval times. In the Christian world it did not seem to hold much allegory until Pope Innocent III wrote an essay on the use of sacred vestments establishing green to be an intermediate colour among red, white and black and should therefore be throughout «Ordinary Time» in the liturgical year. In northern Europe there were barbarian greens; the Vikings chose it to represent their lands, in contrast to the blue of the sea and the white of the snow. The tunics of the pirates who attacked churches and monasteries were also green. Many believe it to be the most representative colour of Islam – think of Muhammad’s cloak and turban or the flags of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Pakistan and the Arab League – while others associate it solely with Shi’ism. In Islamic countries only those who are born during the months of Ramadan are allowed to wear green, while others should wear white.

Green has even been defined as dangerous over the years in the Western world. Ever since colours were used as dyes (a profitable activity, especially during the Middle Ages) this colour was evidently chemically unstable, combined with anything that is fickle, unpredictable, like youth, luck and destiny. Herein lies the origin of the Italian expression «essere al verde» (to be in the green, i.e. to be broke), which didn’t originate from the colour of dollars, as many think, but from the stub of candles typically used in liturgical celebrations: when the candle burns out, the green of the base that supports it becomes evident.

Although artists used it consistently at the time, this colour was also associated with witches, evil and the Devil. Therefore, the colour blue took over in popularity, as testified by the blue jacket and yellow trouser ensemble chosen by Goethe for his character Werther, which set an important trend during Romanticism. Green was supposedly the colour of the middle class and merchants, while red was reserved for the aristocracy, black for the clergy and blue for artisans and labourers. Nonetheless, even Goethe, painted the walls of his bedroom in his Weimar townhouse, a dark shade of green. Since then, artists, poets and authors become the new arbiters of the colour.

The Impressionists employed it to depict open spaces; Mondrian, on the other hand defined it a «useless colour». Its reputation as a corrosive, toxic, dangerous colour carried through to the 1950s so much so that it was rarely found in objects, decorations and furniture. Only khaki, a mixture of brown, yellow, grey and green gained some level success.

Nowadays it is back in demand, especially as a political symbol. Added value and appreciation have also come from the agricultural, ecological and health industries. It is used as brand quality assurance in packaging, as well as in pharmacies and hospitals, where walls and lab coats are of this shade. It is currently the second most appreciated colour after blue.

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