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 Raphael (1483-1520), Alba Madonna, ca. 1510, The Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art,Washington, D.C.

To err is human; to color, divine

By Marjorie Och

What do we see when we look at a Renaissance painting? Often our immediate attention is drawn to fields of color. This is certainly the case today because we are less familiar with the Classical and Biblical narratives than were artists, collectors, and most viewers in early modern Italy. But color carries those narratives and directs our understanding of meaning – then and now. For example, if we look at Raphael’s Alba Madonna of ca. 1510  we see an extraordinary harmony of cool and warm colors equal to the harmony of the balanced grouping of figures. This harmony underlines the apparent calm in this highly charged Christian image of the Madonna looking to the symbol of her son’s execution, the cross, here the staff of the young shepherd St. John the Baptist, grasped by the right hand of the baby Jesus. The Madonna was typically clothed in a blue mantle with a red inner garment – blue being understood as a reference to heaven, faith, and truth, and red identified with passion and blood.

This woman embodies a message of pain and salvation through then-accepted notions of color and Raphael’s manipulation of his materials. Many later painters such as Vincent Van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky connected color to emotions and spirituality, or developed color-based theories of composition and structure, as did Hans Hofmann. Some modern and contemporary artists have rejected color as allegory or metaphor, celebrating instead how that color speaks to commerce, as in Alighiero Boetti’s Rosso Gilera, Rosso Guzzi of 1971. But any rejection of meaning or metaphor highlights the potential meaning of color. Understanding color requires context.

Renaissance viewers read paintings. They would read St. John’s staff as a cross, and they would read blue as heaven, red as passion. How else might they read color? We might expect some viewers in this age of Humanism to experience painting, and therefore color, not only by looking at a work, but by reading a book. One of the most important books about art that comes down to us from the Renaissance is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550 and greatly revised for a second edition published in 1568. Vasari was a painter, architect, courtier, and writer, and many scholars today consider The Lives of the Artists to be his most important work. He organized the Lives as a history in three-parts, “from Cimabue down to our own time.” (Vasari, 14) We can read these three parts as histories of early (roughly the 14th century), middle (the 15th century), and late (late 15th and into the 16th century, or “our time,” as Vasari wrote) Italian Renaissance art. For Vasari, however, these three parts were the good, better, and best of art. Art historians of the mid-twentieth century and earlier considered Vasari’s text a kind of Bible — a sacred text that provided clues and sometimes answers to questions of authorship, provenance, and meaning. We read Vasari now expecting less certainty about the facts, even taking delight in what we currently know to be Vasari’s fictions. But still we read Vasari, in part because Vasari’s Lives were read by – and influenced – both artists and patrons. Scholars today rely on Vasari for first-hand accounts of what it was like to be an artist, deal with patrons, assist a “master” in “his” workshop (he discusses few women artists), and travel from one court or city to another in search of work. The Lives of the Artists is a remarkable work, and while there were many sources from which he could draw, nothing quite like this text had ever been produced…or even contemplated. What Vasari accomplished in The Lives of the Artists was no less than the identification of the artist as a creator, divine in his intellect and ability to fashion something from nothing, as God created Adam from earth.

 Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), Le vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori scultori e architettori (Florence, 1568), Gift of E. J. Rousuck, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In the first part, Vasari notes that color was critical in the work of artists who initiated the development of good art. Two statements stand out: Giotto “gave a beginning to the good method of drawing and of colouring…”. (Vasari 99) And Stefano Fiorentino, a disciple of Giotto whose works, alas, have not survived, “did more than anyone after Giotto to improve painting, for, besides being more varied in invention, he was also more harmonious, more mellow, and better blended in colouring than all the others….” (Vasari 129) Vasari is brief, and while there is surprisingly little discussion of color anywhere in the first part, he attributes a founding father of Renaissance art, Giotto, with reviving both drawing and color.

Giotto (ca. 1265-1337), Madonna and Child, ca. 1310-15, Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Vasari identifies Masaccio as the artist in the second part who realized that painting “is nothing but the counterfeiting of all the things of nature, vividly and simply, with drawing and with colours, even as [nature] produced them for us….”. (Vasari 317) Masaccio and his colleague Masolino collaborated on several works, including Sant’Anna Metterza of ca. 1424, an altarpiece that depicts St. Anne sheltering her daughter Mary, seated with the Christ Child on her lap. Masolino, the senior of the two artists, is credited with painting St. Anne, and Masaccio with Mary and the Christ Child. Looking at the faces of Anne and Mary we see more than age and youth. Rather, we see two approaches to forming a face: Masolino sharply delineating structure, Masaccio blending with light, shadow, and color. If we compare the Madonna and Child by Giotto with the Sant’Anna Metterza by Masaccio, we can agree with Vasari that Masaccio “painted his works with good unity and softness, harmonizing the flesh-colours of the heads and of the nudes with the colours of the draperies which he delighted to make with few folds and simple, as they are in life and nature. This has been of great use to craftsmen, and he deserves therefore to be commended as if he had been its inventor, for in truth the works made before his day can be said to be painted, while his are living, real, and natural, in comparison with those made by others.” (Vasari 318)

Masolino (ca. 1383 – 1435 or after) and Masaccio (1401-28), Sant’Anna Metterza, ca. 1424, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

It is in the third part, or the art of “our time,” that Vasari brings color into greater focus with his references to the many artists who advanced art through color. In his brief preface to this section, he singles out Perugino, Giorgione, Andrea del Sarto, Rosso Fiorentino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giulio Romano, and Michelangelo for their “sweet harmony of colouring,” “beautiful gradation of colour,” and “giving life to their figures with their colours.” (Vasari 617-23) It was Raphael, however, who stood out to Vasari from among all others.

Raphael, a pupil of Perugino, left his master’s studio in Urbino in 1504, and he worked in Florence until he was called to Rome by Pope Julius II della Rovere in 1508. He spent these years in Florence studying works by established painters such as Leonardo and Botticelli, as well as his contemporary, the young sculptor Michelangelo. In Florence Raphael produced a number of paintings of the Madonna and Child, including the Madonna of the Goldfinch of ca. 1505-06. This is a painting Vasari knew and admired. He writes in his “Life of Raphael”: “Raffaello also formed a very great friendship with Lorenzo Nasi [a Florentine wool merchant]; and for this Lorenzo, who had taken a wife about that time, he painted a picture in which he made a Madonna, and between her legs her Son, to whom a little St. John, full of joy, is offering a bird, with great delight and pleasure for both of them. In the attitude of each is a certain childlike simplicity which is wholly lovely, besides that they are so well coloured, and executed with such diligence, that they appear to be rather of living flesh than wrought by means of colour and draughtsmanship.” (Vasari 713) In other words, what the painter accomplishes with color is life itself.

Raphael (1483-1520), Madonna of the Goldfinch, ca. 1505-06, Uffizi, Gallery, Florence

From the Renaissance until well into the 20th century, color had meaning. In the 20th century, the meaning of color changed as we see with Frank Stella’s paintings and his comment that “what you see is what you see.” (“Judd and Stella”) We have yet another conversation around color today that we might trace to Yves Klein when, in 1960, he created and patented the color we know as International Klein Blue. Furthering that dialogue in a commercial direction is Anish Kapoor’s controversial acquisition of sole rights to use Vantablack, the blackest black available. (Neuendorf) And this summer Pantone announced “Love Symbol #2,” a purple inspired by Prince’s concert piano and recently created in collaboration with his estate. (Flanagan)

What gives life to art? In large part, color. Where today we see fields of color in a Renaissance painting, Vasari and his contemporaries saw the evidence of a divine creator. For Renaissance viewers there was no question that God, an artist himself, created Adam. No longer satisfied with the status of anonymous artisan, Vasari uses the materials of art – color – and the act of painting – coloring – to define the artist as divine. It remains to be seen how commerce in color redefines the artist.



“Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today,” Museum of Modern Art, March 2-May 12, 2008. and


Andrew Flanagan, “Prince Gets His Own Purple.” The Record, music news from NPR, August 14, 2017.


Henri Neuendorf, “Anish Kapoor Angers Artists by Seizing Exclusive Rights to ‘Blackest Black’ Pigment; The pigment is so dark that it absorbs 99.96 percent of light.” Artnet news, February 29, 2016.


Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the painters, Sculptors, and Architects. 2 vols. Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere, introduction and notes by David Ekserdjian. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.


“‘What You See Is What You See’: Donald Judd and Frank Stella on the End of Painting, in 1966.” ARTnews,

Marjorie Och, Professor of Art History, earned a Ph.D. (1993) in art history from Bryn Mawr College and currently teaches at the University of Mary Washington. Her publications include contributions to The Ashgate Research Companion to Giorgio Vasari, Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons in Renaissance Italy,Women as Sites of Culture: Women’s Roles in Cultural Formation From the Renaissance to the 20th Century, The Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women, and Wives, Widows, Mistresses, and Nuns in Early Modern Italy. She is currently working on a critical study of biographies of Renaissance artists. Her research has been generously supported by the University of Mary Washington, the Kress Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Folger Institute of Renaissance and Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Richmond, The American University in London.

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