How Crimson and Scarlet Red Meant War and Seduction

Painting of Eleonora di Toledo, by Bronzino.

Red is the colour of passion and war. This idea of what red means is very ingrained in all cultures. The colour scarlet is often associated with sin and immorality. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about a woman who committed adultery and was branded with a scarlet red “A” across her chest and faced constant public ridicule while her lover was able to remain anonymous. This story takes place during the pilgrimage times before America formed as a country.

Ancient Times, Roman. – 017 – Costumes of All Nations (1882). Source: WIkipedia.

Red is a colour that is associated with power, love, sex, rage, passion, and luxury. Red is a colour that is attractive, exciting and draws attention. It is the second most visible colour we see next to yellow. It is a colour used to warn others of danger and to tell drivers to stop. When some people wear red, they can be perceived as more attractive; this is known as the Red Dress Effect. This is when a person wears red and is perceived to be more sexually appealing versus wearing other colours. Like the colour Tyrian Purple which was a colour reserved for royalty, vibrant red was also hard to make and reserved for royalty.

Red became a symbol of the warrior in many settings. In Roman mythology, it was associated with blood, courage and war but was associated with fertility and love. It is the colour of Mars, the god of war. The tunics the Roman soldiers wore were red and the Gladiators were adorned in red. Generals wore paludamenta cloaks in crimson, scarlet, and sometimes purple, and white. It signified leadership when they fastened the cloak over their one shoulder. When generals celebrated their victories, they painted their entire bodies red. Other people wore it to signify a person of high ranking, referred to as coccinati the people of red.

Painting “The Death of Julius Caesar”, c. 1804-5 CE, Oil on Canvas, Vincenzo Cammuccini, Italy.

The other times red shawls were worn were at Roman weddings. They wore a flammeum veil to cover up the bride’s body. It was a flame-coloured veil worn head to toe on the body. Brides wore flammeums because it was a part of all Roman matrons performing sacrificial rites. The colour was to make the bride look like she was on fire which would scare away evil spirits on her wedding day. Like how bridesmaids were used as decoys for the bride on her wedding day, flammeum veils were also camouflaging against wrongdoers who would kidnap the bride. The flammeum is a symbol of marriage and was worn until the 4th to 5th century.

The common dye that made the red colour was called Kermes. It made the crimson and scarlet red colour found in the Mediterranean regions like for ancient Greek and Romans. The Kermes is a scaled insect that fed on evergreen oak saps, primarily on the Kermes oak tree native to the Mediterranean area. When the female bugs are dried it creates a natural crimson for dyeing wool and silk. The bug is where the name for the colour crimson comes from. Crimson is a bluish red.

HEX Code for Crimson Red – #DC143C

Scarlet red came from the insect Porphyrophora hamelii also known as the Ararat cochineal. It was also one of the ancient natural sources of red dye from the Middle East and Europe. It is also known as the Armenian Red. The insects contained a very strong natural red dye. The insects were so small they were historically thought to be a grain which coined the expression “dyed in the grain.” The colour was an export from Persia to Rome for the Roman Empire. It was the secondary colour worn by royals. Scarlet red can be an bright orangey red almost like a flame colour to a vibrant radiant blood-like colour. The word Scarlet red comes from the Persian word “Saqerlât“; in Middle English, “Scarlet”, in Old French “Escarlate” and in Latin “Scarlatum.”

HEX Code for Scarlet Red – #FF2400

The other associations of red came from Christianity and Catholicism. Red still somewhat has the same meanings to blood as to how the Romans associated it with life. But the colour also meant a few other things. In the Catholic Church, the scarlet red represented the blood of Christ and the Christian martyrs. Therefore, it was also associated with religion, devotion, and sacrifice. Cardinals started to wear red in 1295. It is to express the church’s belief that the Cardinal has witnessed the faith. Cardinals are the second authority to the Pope therefore should be metaphorically ready to shed their blood for the church and Christ. It is a colour worn on the feasts of the martyrs like Palm Sunday, Pentecost, and Good Friday celebrations of Jesus Christ’s passion. They originally wore a reddish-purple that was close to the Tyrian purple of the Byzantine Emperors. But due to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the imperial purple colour was no longer easily available. This was when the Cardinals began wearing a scarlet red full time.

Painting of “Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals”, c. 1518-1520, Oil on Wood, Raphael, Uffizi, Florence – Source: Public Domain.

Before Mary Queen of Scots was executed by beheading after being imprisoned for 18 years for treason, she removed her plain outer black gown to reveal a bright scarlet undergown as her last silent protest. The scarlet colour was seen as associated with the Catholic Church and martyrdom to those sympathetic to her and her cause. But for others who disagreed with the Queen of Scots saw the colour in a negative light connecting it to the archetypical scarlet woman, the biblical Whore of Babylon.

The colour red, especially scarlet red, is also associated with sin particularly the sin of lust – prostitution and adultery. It was referenced in the passage The Great Harlot from the Book of Revelations with “And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls” Revelation 17:1–6. The Tyrian purple and scarlet red were commonly used royal colours in Roman culture. The scarlet red colour didn’t get a good wrap with Puritans who argued that the colour was connected to the Catholic Church because of the red cardinal robes therefore to them connected it to something evil. The Whore of Babylon, according to The Gospel Coalition of Canada, represents seduction in a culture. A person actively engaged in the deception and destruction of God’s people.

Scarlet red is mention in the bible with several different meanings away from seduction. Other examples of scarlet red is the scarlet thread to designate the birth of a firstborn child especially for twins. In Genesis 38:27–30, Tamar (Judah’s wife) was giving birth to twins. The midwife tied a scarlet thread around one twin who stuck his arm out of the birth canal. She did this for Tamar to know which twin was the firstborn.

Painting of “Eleonora di Toledo ”, c. 1560 , Oil on panel, Agnolo Bronzino, Florence – Source: Public Domain.

Scarlet is also a type of fine woollen expensive cloth from Medieval Europe. It was a medieval scarlet made from English wool and dyed with kermes. Garments dyed with the bright colourfast dye was a luxury and expensive to produce. Royalty wore the colour with gold and other neutral tones. The character Will Scarlett from the Old English tales of Robin Hood may refer to the occupation of Will being a scarlet cloth maker for the rich. During the times of the sumptuary laws that passed in 13th century Léon and Castile, scarlet became one of the colours restricted for use for kings. Ladies-in-waiting for Elizabeth I wore scarlet for the dramatic backdrop for the royal. The British army wore scarlet tunics commonly referred to as red coats. Even though it was scarlet red colour, the garments were made with cochineal red and madder red. It has the similar effect how the Roman Imperial army wore it first.


What is the Scarlet Thread in the Bible? – Steppes of Faith

The real reason brides wear veils on their wedding day is pretty scary – Cosmopolitan

Why red is the oldest colour – The Guardian

Reading the Colors of the Vatican – ABC NEWS

Banner Credit: Cropped Painting of Agnolo Bronzino’s Eleonora di Toledo, c. 1560. Oil on Panel.
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