Medieval art was highly symbolic and allegorical. Painters were not as interested in creating realistic representations of the objects they painted as they were in conveying specific messages through symbol and allegory. These messages were often religious in theme, and one of the primary methods for conveying such a message was through the use of colour.
The Color Code
The colours in medieval paintings were not chosen at random, but were carefully selected according to a colour code in order to express certain concepts symbolically. White represented virginal purity or a state of innocence. Black represented fear or death. Yellow indicated hope, and brown referred to humility or to monasticism. Orange was a sign of courage. Through choosing his colours carefully based on this colour code, the medieval artist could communicate ideas to his viewer that are not always clear to a modern person.
Colours could also have positive or negative associations based on context. Blue, for instance, represented everything spiritual and noble. If a medieval person saw Christ wearing blue clothing, this would be the meaning he would take from it. However, blue can also represent a person of inferior social status. If a painting portrayed a servant in blue, this meaning would be applied instead. White generally represented purity, but in some contexts could indicate death instead. Green symbolised both beauty and chaos. Interpreting the colours in a medieval painting is not a simple matter of referring to a list, but of understanding the context to which the painting refers.
When an article of clothing is given more than one colour in medieval art, each colour is restricted to one side of the body. For instance, a person wearing a tunic of both red and green might be all red on the left side and all green on the right side, but would not generally be shown wearing stripes of alternating colours or with both colours mixed across both sides. This rule does not apply to the hose, which could be of any colour. Often, but not exclusively, an individual wearing two colours is supposed to be a jester.
Medieval artists did not have as wide a range of colours to work with as modern artists typically do. This because the colours had to be made by hand and the ingredients were often not easy or inexpensive to acquire. Blue, for example, was made from a stone called lapis lazuli, which had to be brought all the way from Afghanistan. The expense and difficulty associated with a particular pigment had something to do with its associated symbolism. The rarity and expense of blue paint was one reason for its association with the spiritual.