My Niki is home for the weekend!  My goodness I miss not having her around – and so does everyone else!  After the dogs calmed down and stopped (literally) jumping for joy at Niki’s arrival, we all bear hugged her, I fed my kiddos, and then it was time for our family’s version of a p-a-r-t-y  ~  spending time altogether!!!  We watched Masterchef Junior which later morphed to Chopped after a story Niki told me which morphed into Good Eats after another story.  (It’s not quiet around here while we watch tv shows.)

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Before we moved here, Niki would come home from work or school each day and I’d hear, “I have stuff to tell you.”  Every day.  She sat down today and told me, “I have so much to tell you – it hurts!”  She started off by telling me all about school and showing me her drawing assignments – what her teacher liked and didn’t like about them.  

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At one point, she went out to her car to get her bag.  Um…the puppies and Gabriel were anything but happy about her leaving the house.  All three of them were whimpering at the door, hoping with all their might she was coming back inside.

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After the boys went to bed, we also watched the most recent episodes of The Paradise, which Niki and I discovered on Netflix just before moving here.  I won’t lie, along with cooking shows, our family has a thing for BBC shows or anything to do with England.

Getting to my point…because this is why my brain switched full on when I crawled into bed and attempted to go to sleep.

While Niki was in high school, the two of us had a thing for studying natural dyes and experimenting with them.  So, even today, we have a soft spot for color history.  We read such books as A Perfect Red, Mauve: How One Man Invented A Color That Changed the World, Black: A History of Color, and others.  Simply fascinating stuff.

We’re watching The Paradise and talking about the accuracy of the costumes, what the names are of the different elements of the clothing, and the meanings behind what they were wearing.  For instance, the bump on the back of the bum (the bustle) for lady’s dresses were not simply a fashion choice – it was a strong statement of wealth.  Clothing was not selected off a rack like it is done today.  It was all custom made which meant that bustle required extra fabric which was seen as an extravagance.  It said, “I have so much money, it won’t be a burden on us for me to purchase extra fabric just because it suits my fancy.”  The bigger the bustle on the back of the dress, the more wealth you had.

Additionally, throughout history, color for fabric or paint were only available to the rich.  It took a great deal of knowledge and experience to know which mordants would help a natural dye adhere to fabric.  You simply did not crush a flower, fruit, or bug then mix it with water and then pour it onto your clothing. It was extremely difficult to 1) get the color to be vivid in any sense of what we know today and 2) get it to not fade horrifically over a short amount of time.  Thus, it was an outrageously expensive process that only, for the most part, royalty could afford.

Have you ever heard of the term “piss poor”?  It comes from the time before synthetic dyes.  If you were so desperate for money, so needy for any way to feed your family – you were called “piss poor” because you sold your pee to the local dyer who would use it as a mordant when creating certain dyes.  (A mordant is essentially glue for the dye to adhere to the fabric.  A stain does not need a mordant because it does just that – stain the clothing – but it will fade over time.  Something people did not desire.)

When Niki and I were studying the Renaissance, you really can’t study it without learning about the Medici family.  One of the ways they flaunted their wealth and power was through art.  Paint was insanely expensive and extravagent.  We take for granted these days that we spend mere dollars to have a variety of different colors in a variety of different mediums.  What is a childhood without crayons now?

Color was one of the key factors in separating classes.  Different shades of brown as well as black were what the commoners and poor wore.  Thus, this is why you traditionally see monks and nuns wearing these colors because they were not going to spend the money on colored fabric.  It would kinda defeat the purpose of the life they chose.

Red, blue, and purple were the hardest colors to adhere to fabric because very few resources would produce a vivid hue on fabric.  People literally fought wars over getting their hands on the resources that would produce these colors vividly.  Thus, royalty or the extremely wealthy were the only ones who could afford to wear anything with color on it until synthetic dyes were invented.

If you’ve studied about iconography, you’ve learned that everything within the written icon has meaning – everything.  The colors chosen, what the person is holding, the background, and even the style of the body.

What I find interesting is that the Church has always taught the people about Christ through their senses.  Throughout most of history, the ability to read and write was only known by a small group of people.  It wasn’t until the 1400’s that the printing press was invented and initiated the change towards a larger group of people having the ability to own or even have access to a book.  So how did the Church teach people if almost no one owned their own copy of the Bible or could read at all?  They read it to them during every single service.  (Through their sense of hearing.)

How else did the Church teach people about Christ?  Through iconography.  (Their sense of sight.)  The icons tell a story without any written words.   People understood the meaning of colors and drawings.  They lived with that meaning everyday as they knew exactly where they fit into society based on the color of fabric they were wearing.  When the iconographer wrote an icon about a saint – the color of the saint’s clothing told the person looking at the icon about that saint.  A monk, nun, or poor person would be wearing various shades of brown and sometimes black.  Christ and the Theotokos are always shown wearing red and blue – both of which are royal colors making a definite statement about their importance.

I’m not going to go into all the senses right now or even all the symbolism of icons but what I found ironic while attempting to fall asleep tonight was thinking about how much icons used to tell a story with ease to the people looking at them even though they were completely illiterate and then think about today, where we consider it a basic necessity of life to teach our children how to read, but we look at an icon and lack the ability to “read” it because we are illiterate to the meanings, symbolism, and the story it is telling us.