Purple prose

Purple is a mysterious shade. Not a colour, properly speaking, but a combination, it can range from a reddish to a blueish hue. It is a matter of supreme injustice that purple escapes the status of colourdom when indigo belongs in the spectrum only because of the mystical beliefs of Isaac Newton. The physicist was obsessed with numerical symbolism and could not accept a spectrum with fewer than seven colours, seven holding particularly rich connotations in many belief systems. Indigo, then, while not being a real colour and simply a shade of blue, usurped its way into the rainbow, entirely out of the prejudices of Newton. As well as possessing a diverse range of variations -from mauve to mulberry- purple is also very difficult for the human eye to discern because it has the shortest spectral range, occurring as it does between red and blue.


Purple has enjoyed very deep veins of meaning throughout history. It has long been associated with royalty, a link that continues to this day as seen in the coronation portrait of the king-emperor George VI in 1937 (above). Roman emperors adopted it in place of red, a use that very likely was related to Alexander the Great’s practice of wearing a purple cloak when acting as emperor; the Romans had a special devotion to this figure, which explains why both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony so readily interacted with Cleopatra from the outset despite her being a queen -monarchs were despised by the Romans and female rulers in particular- since the Ptolemy dynasty claimed blood descent from the military conqueror. Use of purple in the Roman Empire became gradually restricted until only the emperor himself could wear it (not unlike the colour yellow being the regal colour in China and Thailand) under pain of death. Caligula, possibly the most deranged and debauched of all emperors, had the king of Mauritania murdered for having sported robes in this colour. That did not, however, stop Caligula from dressing his favourite horse, Incitatus, in a purple cloak. This horse also benefitted from an indoor manger constructed out of ivory and, while Caligula considered making this animal a senator, he never actually did so.

Musée Bonnat - La découverte de la pourpre - Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1636)

This all begs the question of why purple, and why not say orange, became linked to grandeur and power. The answer is, as always, a simple one: cost. Purple was sourced from murex, a Mediterranean sea snail that secretes mucous in this striking color. It takes an enormous amount of murex to make even small quantities of the purple secretion needed to dye cloth. Given its noble role in standing for the leader of the Western world, a myth was constructed around the colour, though a rather whimsical and surprisingly human one. It is related that, while walking his dog on the beach at Tyre and distracted by courting a fetching nymph, Hercules noticed that his dog which busied itself through playing at the sea while he was otherwise occupied,  had its mouth dyed purple after devouring some of the sea snails that had been beached in the tide. And thus, Tyrian purple was born. Peter Paul Rubens pictured this scene in the sixteenth century (above).

Courtesy of JYaunTayaban, Flickr

Courtesy of JYaunTayaban, Flickr

It might appear surprising, since it was the colour of prestige, that bishops came to wear purple.  This is a throwback to the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476. In the turbulent aftermath and the successive waves of Barbarian invasions, it fell upon bishops to maintain some sense of order and continuity, since the hierarchy was an organized network that survived the fall of Roman civilization. Monasteries played a crucial role in ensuring the survival of classical culture during the uneasy three centuries that followed. As well as providing stability, Church officials also were literate and played an essential part in maintaining a culture of documentation and writing. It is for this reason that the legal and office term clerk derives from cleric, a member of the clergy. Byzantine emperors always signed their signatures with purple ink, a practice continued after 1453 by the patriarchs of Constantinople, though sadly this tradition fell into abeyance during the course of the twentieth century.

Thus purple, formerly associated with the secular authority, became bound with ecclesiastical authority. It must be added that technically bishops were not allowed to wear purple until the fifteenth century when Pope Paul II allowed cardinals to wear red since purple was becoming too expensive a commodity. Bishops were to wear an inferior indigo-purple colour which, over the centuries, became the particular pinkish episcopal shade that is worn today (as above; the long cloak that the prelate wears is called the cappa magna and originally developed to envelop a bishop riding on horseback). This change has only been partially successful; we still speak of cardinals as taking the Roman purple when they are named, and the pope still wears the former papal preserve of red in all of his accessories (shoes, cloak, hats). On this note, I cannot resist including a very delicious anecdote about the former British foreign secretary George Brown. Mr Brown, who served under Harold Wilson’s government during the 1960s, had a noted and pronounced penchant for alcoholic beverages. Indeed, the BBC coined the expression “tired and emotional” as a euphemism to describe public occasions on which the politician had been, to put it plainly, sozzled. The snippet is quoted by an eyewitness, at a reception held in the Brazilian president’s Palace of the Dawn and is recounted in A. N. Wilson’s Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II:

“It was really quite beautiful – I think only the Latin Americans still do it that way: all the military officers were in full dress uniform, and the ambassadors were in court dress. Sumptuous is the word, and sparkling. As we entered, George made a beeline for this gorgeously crimson-clad figure, and said “Excuse me, but may I have the pleasure of this dance?” There was a terrible silence for a moment before the guest, who knew who he was, replied, “There are three reasons, Mr Brown, why I will not dance with you. The first, I fear, is that you’ve had a little too much to drink. The second is that this is not, as you seem to suppose, a waltz the orchestra is playing, but the Peruvian national anthem, for which you should be standing to attention. And the third reason why we may not dance, Mr Brown, is that I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.” (p. 163)

Purple is not only remiscent of pomp since it is linked to mourning in some Asian countries -recent widow’s weeds are this colour in Thailand- and was also the royal colour of mourning in many European monarchies. In spiritual terms, it is the colour of penance (Lent) and of preparation (Advent). For that unhappy section of society which delights in moralizing, purple has often served as the colour of decadence and vanity, for reasons that are obvious.  Its spiritual use might also be related to the fact that the natural dye is surprisingly tenacious and thus remains constant, in a world that sometimes moves and changes too quickly.

jan 2012 808

Today’s cufflinks contain the rare mineral Charoite, which is hypnotically entrancing in both its colour and the veined pattern. Far more beautiful than amethyst, traditionally associated with the colour purple, Charoite is only found in certain regions of Russia and was only formally listed as a mineral in 1978. The sterling silver surround is understated and allows the mineral to seduce without overshadowing it in any way. The pair has a maker’s mark that I cannot identify, a type of symbol, but the creator has made his or her mark on the back of the pair, with an attractive embossed pattern, below.

jan 2012 829

I particularly like the fact that this mineral remained undiscovered to the wider world until the tail end of the twentieth century. We invest much time seeking happiness and adventures elsewhere, little appreciating the hidden treasures that await our discovery beneath our feet. I think that if Charoite had been known through the centuries, a very different story of purple could have been told.


2 comments on “Purple prose

  1. Mary m says:

    Thanks you, Paul. Nice to read the George Brown anecdote once again. The charoite cuff links are lovely. I didn’t know that this mineral was a recent discovery.

  2. Thanks, Mary. Charoite has a lot of catching up to do. I think Brown would have made prime minister had he not been so partial to drink. Mind you, Wilson was addicted to his manipulative secretary, so I suppose we all have something to dominate us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s