Tag Archives: Green

The Color of Money

It’s not a hard-fast Renaissance rule, but mutable green was often associated with those who worked or lived in the world of money, as opposed to those who were born into privilege or manual labor. Artists loved to experiment with their greens–verdigris, terre verte, malachite–and so you see emerald backdrops for a variety of subjects, but nearly every time a merchant or a moneylender was in the picture, he is in close proximity to green. Green was not yet of the earth, but still in the realm of humans, and attached to the more dynamic middle of society rather than the more steadfast upper or lower levels. That vibrant green, also attached to youth and fertility, adorned the merchant Arnolfini’s wife, and dominated the settings of his commercial successors, who appear to have dwelled in a world of green and gold, inside. Look at all these merchants from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning with Jan Gossaert’s confidant man of business, who appears to have been given a green halo of sorts.


Man Wearing Gold

Hans Holbein 1532

Bildnis-eines-jungen-Kaufmanns Hans Holbein

Jan Gossaert, Portrait of a Merchant, c. 1530, National Gallery of Art; Adriaen Isenbrant, Man Weighing Gold, c. 1515-1520, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Member of the Wedigh Family, probably Hermann Wedigh, c. 1530, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Young Merchant, probably Hans von Muffel, c. 1541, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

There is always a bright green cloth on which the money, or its instruments, rests. While the men above look like honest brokers, green was also used as the color of greed in the more satirical compositions of Northern Renaissance artists like Marinus Roymerswaele and Quentin Massys, which retain the setting but distort the faces or avert the gazes of bourgeois money-changers, scary tax collectors, and lawyers.

Quentin Massys Tax Collectors

Lawyers Office

Quentin Massys, The Tax Collectors, first quarter of the 16th century, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein; Marinus Roymerswaele, The Lawyer’s Office, 1545, New Orleans Museum of Art.

I’m not sure that merchants and bankers and bureaucrats were aware of such color associations, but there is ample evidence of clothing consciousness in the Renaissance. A perfect example of self-fashioning through clothing choice is the amazing “Book of Clothes” by aspirational accountant Matthäus Schwarz of Augsburg, who commissioned 137 watercolors depicting outfits he wore for each stage and event of his life, from infancy to death. Discussed at length in Ulinka Rublack’s wonderful book, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (2010), Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein seems strikingly modern to me–like a blog or a selfie–and is a great visual reminder of just how modernly materialistic this era really was. And while he was in his still-slim youth, Schwarz wore several striking green outfits.

Book of Clothes

More images of Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein, which is at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum , here.

All is Green

We had some very English weather for most of last week and rain at its end, so now everything is very, very green. And of course it is mid-June, not mid-July or -August, so that’s just the way it should be: lush. My garden is just about to move into its overgrown phase, so I’m going to spend the day trying to tame it, but first a few pictures. There is nothing I like better than an ivy-covered “feral house”: here is my favorite and on my way to the Post Office yesterday I discovered another one. This little brick building has been vacant (at least on its first floor) for quite a few years, and now its entire back–and chimney–are wearing green. It was a funny day–one minute it rained, and then the sun popped out for twenty minutes or so; it was humid and then almost chilly. I was running around town taking “now” pictures for several upcoming posts and an exhibit on the Great Salem Fire (fast approaching its centennial anniversary), but I stopped along the way to take some pictures of green wherever I found it: on this little building, in Forest River Park, just walking along the sidewalk, in a beautiful Federal Street garden, and in my own backyard.

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Green with Envy

I have posted about green quite a bit on this blog:  green cards, green men, green rooms, the green fairy, my favorite shade of green. Yet it’s St. Patrick’s Day, so I’ve got to come up with something green–why not the emotion associated with the emerald hue? Shakespeare was specifically referring to jealousy with Othello’s “green-eyed monster” line, but jealousy is just a subset of the more all-encompassing envy, one of the seven deadly sins and the one conspicuous for its complete lack of pleasure: it leads not to material wealth or power or drunkenness, but only to a festering illness in which one literally eats their heart out. This self-inflicted sickness–described as a form of moral rotting–could be one source of the sin’s connection with the color green, as could its association with snakes, either alone or in the form of an allegorical Medusa-like character, but emerald (or chartreuse) envy seems to be more of a modern conception than a medieval one.

Envy 2008 by Michael Craig-Martin born 1941

Michael Craig-Martin, Envy (from the Seven Deadly Sins series), 2008.  Tate Modern, London.

Medieval manuscripts illustrate envy (invidia) in several ways:  on the iconic “Tree of Vices”, accompanied by a demon and its “sprouts” (detraction, treachery, treason, homicide, conniving, pleasure in the suffering of others–what we would call Schadenfreude–resentment, jealousy) and as a woman looking at something or someone with daggers (sometimes literally). Pride is always the root of the tree–the root all the vices– but envy is just one branch up from the fall of Man. Pride, represented by a King-like character riding a lion, and Envy, a sword-bearing woman riding a wolf, are closely associated in the fifteenth-century edition of penitential psalms below, and Envy reveals her jealous nature in a fourteenth-century Roman de la Rose. Green is not her color, yet.

L0029366 Tree of Seven Vices

Envy and Pride 2

Roy19BXIII_royal_ms_19_b_xiii_f006v_detail2 Envy1

The Apocalypse of St. John, c. 1420-30, Wellcome Library, London; British Library MS Yates Thompson 3, c. 1440-1450, and MS Royal 19BXIII, the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, c. 1320-1340.

Beginning with Giotto, the Renaissance shifted Envy decisively towards jealousy and generally portrayed her as an aged woman, tearing at her heart and/or eating an apple to illustrate her complete capitulation to temptation, often grotesque and emaciated, clearly suffering and sometimes chained, almost always with snakes. There’s a rather striking similarity between the depictions of Envy and witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before the conception of envy in particular and the seven deadly sins in general become secularized. A notable exception is Hieronymus Bosch’s famous table painting, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, which depicts envy with an illustration of a local proverb about two dogs with one bone seldom reaching agreement. Still no green.

Envy Giotto Arena Chapel 1306

Envy George Pencz

Envy Bosch detail

Giotto di Bondone, Envy panel from the Arena Chapel, 1306; Print by George Pencz, 1541, British Museum; Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things detail, c. 1485.

Looking through allegorical images of envy from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I still don’t see much green, but then again, prints predominate. Lots of snakes are in appearance, which is appropriate for a St. Patrick’s Day post as the cleansing of Ireland of snakes is part of St. Patrick’s mythology. At least the connection between women and this most miserable sin is broken, as envy appears in the form of both sexes and then only as a green snake.

Envy 17th century

Envy Snake 1796

Print by John Goddard, c. 1640, British Museum; “Envy” (perhaps a caricature of the Earl of Abingdon), Anonymous, 1796, British Museum.

Envy is depicted in all sorts of ways by modern artists and illustrators, though the aged-lady-turning-green (grotesque)-with envy certainly comes back with a vengeance! I don’t usually see things exclusively through the prism of gender, but it’s really interesting to me how this most self-destructive of sins is so often associated with women. In two twentieth-century Seven Deadly Sins series, the Belgian artist James Sensor envisions a christening in which the young mother (interestingly dressed in green) is looked on with envy by everyone around her, but by the middle-aged woman to her right with particular vehemence, and Paul Cadmus’s Envy definitely harkens back to the Renaissance. As before, envy does not make for a pretty picture; I think I prefer alternative associations for the color green!

Ensor Envy 1904

Envy Paul Cadums

James Ensor, L’Envie, from the 1904 portfolio The Deadly Sins, Art Institute of Chicago; Paul Cadmus, The Seven Deadly Sins:  Envy, 1947, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


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