Aristotle & the Color of Angels

On one of those cold, wintry days when all of the color is drained from the landscape and the world is painted in compressed values of dreariness, I happened upon an exceptional exhibit. My wife urged me to drive to the Linda Hall Library on the Campus of UMKC.  Just inside was the extraordinary exhibit Wheels, Pyramids and Spinning Tops: The Scientific Approach to Color.  Curated by Nancy Green, this exhibit traces the scientific thought on color from Aristotle to Albert Munsell.

So, what exactly is color?  Color has no meaning outside of human perception but its elusive nature has interested and confounded us for millennia.  Aristotle discussed it throughout his writings.  He believed color was a combination of black and white but he broke with traditional belief that associated color with the classical elements of the universe – fire, earth, air and water. In doing so, he increased the number of colors from four – white, black, red and yellow – to seven by adding purple, green and blue.

The discussion of color continued through the centuries with little added to the conversation except the number of colors.  Girolam Cardano, a 16th centrury physician, increased the number to nine. Seventeenth century Jesuit, Francois Aguilon produced the first color mixing diagram.  He worked with Peter Paul Reubens to develop his approach to color and even attributed painterly characteristics to the colors.  Athanasius Kirchner, an author of more than 30 books, explored many aspects of color including why the sky is blue, how animals, plants and minerals obtain their colors and the color of angels.  He identified eight true colors – black, white, yellow, red, blue, gold, green and purple.


It wasn’t until 1664 when a young Isaac Newton began experimenting with prisms that the mystery of color began to reveal itself.  He directed light through a prism and observed the refracted colors – which he called a ‘spectrum’ because of its ghostly appearance.  His Experimentum Crucis series included directing the refracted colors through a second prism so that it reassembled into one spot of white light. This illustrated that color was not a property of an object but that light was the source of the sensation.

The story of color continued with Richard Waller’s hand-colored exploration of Newton’s theory (1686), Michel Chevreul’s color wheels, Johann von Goethe’s experimental studies and Albert Munsell’s color tree concept that demonstrated the color attributes of hue, value and chroma.


To us artists color is everything!  But don’t tell that to my painting students.  I impress upon them that composition and value are much more important.  But one look at how Matisse and his fellow ‘fauvists’ used color in unusual and surprising ways indicates otherwise.

Today, with the near infinite possibilities of individual colors, we have Pantone and its worldwide standardization of colors including 2100 fashion, home and interior colors. Not to mention their annual announcement of the ‘Color of the Year’ with Pantone 18-3224, Radiant Orchid taking the honors for 2014.

So what is the color of angels?  Fra Angelico, Raphael and Michelangelo knew – and they showed us.


Why were we asking?

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