Sunday, 28 December 2014

Light and the Absence of Colour (Part Four)

Colour theory differs in some very significant ways if one comes at it from a scientific or an artistic perspective. While white is the union all colours of light in scientific understanding, to an artist or craftsperson’s mind, colour must be removed to produce white. This interplay of colour and whiteness is utilized by the laws of the tabernacle. The previous posts discussed the sacred colours; this last post is about white and the priestly garments. But I find it requires some background information to get us there.

The Torah includes a number of laws that seem pointless to modern people. One of these is the prohibition against linsey-woolsey or “shatnez” (the prohibition isn’t against any type of blended fibre either; it's very specific that the prohibited shatnez is a blend of linen and wool). Modern people have difficulty explaining or understanding it; they’ll often point to it as an example of a law that is simply meant to differentiate the Israelites from their neighbours (it isn’t). What they usually miss is that the priest was commanded to wear linsey-woolsey, except on Yom Kippur. I guess that’s where dye history and knowledge come in.

 One of the dividing lines between Egyptians and the various Canaanite peoples of the Levant was their use of fibre; the Egyptians detested sheep and everything that came into contact with them, including shepherds and of course wool. They became the preeminent linen producers of the ancient world (it’s through linen production that we can date a likely time for the Exodus). So a prohibition of mixing linen and wool could be seen as a prohibition against syncretism in the vein of the laws against getting horses from Egypt, but it’s likely more than that.

The Egyptians note the brightly coloured clothing of the Canaanites (see the beni hasan murals depicting Canaanites or Hyksos in patterned clothing). Like Joseph’s coat, this was a distinguishing feature of the people of Palestine. It is of course because they favoured the very fibre the Egyptians detested: wool. Anyone who does natural dyeing knows that wool takes almost all colours the best (with the exception of indigo--one would assume murex being a vat dye would have similar properties). Cellulose fibres need a lot of extra processing to take most colour, and it is never as bright. So while linen was sometimes dyed, it was usually bleached. When you wanted true vibrant colour you opted for wool (see our samples from my dye trip post and how wool takes dyes compared to other fibres). Vat dyes would produce good colours on cellulose fibres, but other dyes need some chemical wizardry (in some cases, a 29 step process). The material isn't mentioned in Exodus, but since shani was not a vat dye, wool would be required to get a bright scarlet. This is later confirmed by the author of Hebrews. The coloured threads were made of wool.

Which brings us to the clothing of the priest. The garments he was to wear included an ephod and sash woven or embroidered in a pattern with both the sacred colours and linen. Meaning those items were made of linen and wool blend, as were much of the tabernacle textiles. Consider that the coloured yarn is mentioned in addition to linen. There are sometimes a lot of gymnastics done in rabbinical writings about what counts as shatnez and what doesn’t, but only a few dispute that the priestly garments and tabernacle were shatnez. Some Jews also believe the prayer shawls laymen wear were to be shatnez as well.

In other words, like the special incense, this blend was to be set aside for sacred purposes. So it wasn’t about making the Israelites peculiar. The tabernacle and the priest were being singled out from the people, the holy from the common. Mem says this is like how no one was to work on the sabbath but the priest. Just as we now do not work, and instead trust that our Lord is “always working” for us.

 A second part of the equation is that on the day of atonement, the high priest wore linen only. This not only prevented sweat (since basically any discharge was a sign of uncleanness) but also did away with the wool embroidery/weaving and colour. Ezekiel re-iterates this and says the new priesthood of his vision does not wear wool but only linen (which again implies that the daily priestly garments at the time were in fact shatnez). That the wool, with the colours of blood, judgement and death is removed when atonement is made is a powerful picture of the true work of the final high priest. shatnez for now, but finally linen pure and clean. A little bit of simil justus et peccator.

 As noted the production of these dyes is very ancient, and at various times, controlled by royalty. This has led some to think the dyes were commanded just because they were valuable, to remind people of the kind of respect God deserved. But God tells David he's not particularly interested in human displays of wealth, and the fact that all traces of the colours were removed from the sacred robes on the day of atonement as well as Ezekiel’s vision suggests that this was all very intentional. If the colours represent the work of God (both for salvation and judgement), perhaps the lack thereof represents the results. It reminds one a little of the blinding visions of God, not to mention Peter’s description of the transfiguration. White and light, all colours blurred into oblivion.

So while there is an element of royalty and status in the colours and, as YHWH himself said, “glory and beauty”, it is interesting that on the day of atonement, the priest appeared with “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him”. He arrived before God in plain white. White like the dress of the angels, and finally the dress of the martyrs, white robes given to them by the lamb and final high priest, bleached in his blood. The restored priesthood with Christ alone as their head don’t wear beautiful colours. They wear white like the high priest, like the cord on the door of the temple when atonement has been made. Like God himself as partakers in his nature.

It turns out all colour does unite to make white.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Symbolism of the Colours (Part Three)

As I mentioned in the previous post, until the 19th century all dyes were what we now call “natural dyes”--with most of these being produced from plants. Murex snails and carmine producing insects were two of the three known animal dyes (lac also is produced from the secretion of an insect). We have established that these were the most likely sources of the “sacred colours”. That is, of all the dyes out there, the ones chosen were the few animal dyes. Dyes valuable because of not only the fastness, but the work and also the death involved--murex requires the death of thousands of snails in order to produce the smallest amount of dye (at least the way the Tyrians did it).

They are also all produced by unclean animals. Jews and Muslims still tend to avoid carmine food dye as it is cochineal, another carmine producing insect. Though one could argue that one would have to ingest the colours to violate purity laws, there are plenty of examples of people being rendered unclean by simple contact with an unclean person or item. This is part of the reason I’m inclined to believe those Jews who argue tekhelet is murex; it then nests better with the other two colours on the symbolic level (though that is not necessary and really the colour IS indigo).

 I don’t think it’s accidental that animal dyes were chosen, and unclean ones at that. The work of the tabernacle was all about cleansing and death and atonement.

 Josephus mentions the colours when he describes the temple, associating tekhelet with the sky, argaman with the sea, and shani with fire. These do line up with some other things we know about the colours. As mentioned in my previous post each colour tends to be associated with different things, both in scripture and in later cultural practices of the Jews.

 A few years ago I wrote a post on abrash and trinitarianism, making the argument that natural dyes proclaim a sort of diversity like the trinity. Mem assures me this is not reaching like Origen for the crack pipe, but I do see a trinitarian structure to the colours used. Not simply by the fact that there are three colours and therefore bam it’s the trinity but in the afore mentioned symbolism.

 As I mentioned previously, tekhelet blue covered most of the holy objects of the tabernacle and is the only colour laypeople were commanded to wear.  Josephus’ comparison to the sky is most likely based on the fact that the original Sanhedrin see God standing on a “pavement of sapphire, clear as the sky”. Ezekiel and Isaiah see the glory of God the same way, enthroned in the crystalline blue of the heavens. Numbers gives the reason for the use of tekhelet tassels--to remind each individual to be holy to God.  This colour is almost always used as a reminder of God and his holiness, often emphasizing his righteousness, “otherness” and power.

The symbolism for shani ranged almost contradictorily from sin to purification. While modern people often suppose that scarlet is associated with blood rites, it’s more often associated with cleansing rites and “fire” in scripture (usually blood was included separately). Fire is actually the primary purifier in the torah, with water being used when fire couldn’t be; but the scarlet wool features in both types of rites. Isaiah, while famously saying that scarlet sins become white, also says that such blood stains are washed away by a spirit of judgement and fire. He also associates the towla or worm with the unquenchable fire of judgement, a picture Christ echos later. It calls to mind that John said Christ would baptize not with water, but with “the Holy Spirit and with fire”. Of course the Holy Spirit manifests as fire in the new testament at pentecost, as God does several times in the OT.

I'd like to wax Calvinist about the fact that the bread of the presence was covered in shani-dyed cloth, but I'll leave that for you people to decide. >:)

While Josephus associates it with the sea due to it’s source in the same, purple almost universally signified royalty. When Christ was mocked he was wrapped in a purple cloth; the soldiers were clearly mocking Christ’s claim to be king of the Jews, the anointed one. But it’s hard to think the connection of Christ being wrapped in purple just as the altar of atonement was wrapped in purple is coincidental. This action, like the prophesy of the high priest, appears to me to be an unwitting acknowledgment of what he was truly doing. Again, of all the tabernacle articles, only the bronze altar was covered in purple. The significance of a bloody altar/Christ is hard to miss. Argaman, and not shani, is the colour of blood and atonement.

With all that said the colours seem to represent the triune nature of God, but perhaps even more the roles of the person of the Godhead in the salvation of man. It wouldn’t be surprising that the colours chosen intended to represent the God who met his people in the tabernacle. Not that I’d push it, but it doesn’t seem that far out. It’s through the workings of the persons of the trinity, in the place where God meets his people, that we are finally made holy, righteous and clean. The workings of the persons in bringing us into communion with God are all there.

As the writer of the epistle of Barnabas notes, in salvation he takes broken human beings and makes them into living stones of an incorruptible temple. In so doing, he makes us “partakers of the divine nature”. With that said, there’s a final piece to this puzzle, known as “shatnez”.

Friday, 26 December 2014

The Colours (Part Two)

The history of dyes is older and full of more intrigue than one might think. Until the 19th century, all textile dyes were produced by and extracted from plants or occasionally animals, with the rarest and most colourfast being the most valuable and sought after. It can sometimes be surprising to modern people how sophisticated the techniques really were--vat dyeing with murex for example appears to go back as far as 1800 bc.

There are numerous colours that were well attested by the time of the Exodus, but a set of three become the centrepiece of the tabernacle. These are the “sacred colours” of Exodus: tekhelet, argaman and shani--translated as blue, purple and scarlet respectively. These three colours decorated all the cloth items in the tabernacle as well as the priest’s garments and were used to colour the cloths that covered the holy items when being moved. Each colour is also used individually in the items or rites of the tabernacle. However they’re not generic colours as we might think in a world of chemical dyes; each was produced from specific sources which gave distinct shades of each colour. For example, while madder red was used at the time, scripture is clear that shani is produced by an insect.

Towla Shani
As mentioned, shani is actually referred to as towla shani or “worm scarlet”. There is no question it’s a bug dye (“worms” including larvae of insects), made from an insect known as kermes. The female kermes insect produces carmine (we get the words “carmine” and “crimson” from kermes, while “vermilion” comes from the latin name for worm--the kermes vermilio) and has been used as a dye since neolithic times. While it usually produces crimson, the dye bath can be altered to get scarlet as well (crimson being blue toned, while scarlet is orangey), though the scripture uses them as parallel synonyms (ie Isaiah). Shani can only be carmine red.  I’ve seen one or two people deny this since “the colour of fire is orange, not red”. But those people are morons; don’t look directly at them.

It’s also important to note (for later) that kermes is the only colour of the three that isn’t a vat dye. It’s what we know as a “mordant dye” because it requires an auxiliary (the mordant) to bind it to the fibre.


Kermes (red ground) on silk--the coronation mantle of Roger II of Sicily

Shani was usually used on its own in cleansing rites. Wool dyed with worm scarlet and hyssop were used to sprinkle the blood of the dead bird over the living one to be set free in leper and house cleansings. It was also to be included in the burning of the ashes of the red heifer.

The scarlet yarn also features in later interpretations of the rite of the day of atonement. In a ritual probably based on Isaiah’s prophesy, a scarlet cord was to mark the goat for azazel and after splitting it, half would be tied to the temple door and observed. It was thought it would become white if YHWH had indeed cleansed and forgiven the people. This also harkens back to the cleansing rites using the two birds, one killed and one freed.

There is really only one purple of note in the ancient world, produced by molluscs and more commonly known as murex. As mentioned we have examples of murex dyeing as far back as 1800 bc--this is the source that is intended when the word purple is used. The Greeks even called Tyre “Phoenicia”, the land of purple, because of the production of murex. Lydia sold murex cloth, and at times its production was funded and controlled by royalty around the mediterranean (this continued until the end of the Byzantine empire). In Exodus this colour is called argaman.

 So like shani, argaman isn’t just a generic purple, it’s an item dyed in murex. “Tyrian purple” is the most prized form of it, produced from overdying in two breeds of murex according to Pliny the elder. The colour is sometimes known as oxblood, as in the ancient world the most prized shade was that of “clotted blood”. It’s more akin to maroon than a bright purple we may think of.


murex dyed byzantine robe--murex is apparently difficult to photograph. It is also unusual in that it darkened with time rather than faded, and could eventually turn black through oxidation. Thus the colours aren’t the most accurate.

This dye, the colour of blood, is the colour of cloth YHWH commands should cover the bronze altar. It is the only thing that is covered in purple alone--even the ark is covered in blue. There are no other uses for argaman specifically.

Tekhelet has an interesting provenance, or lack thereof. It’s the only dye of the three whose source isn’t completely agreed upon. The colour is almost certainly indigo blue on the chemical level so we do know basically what colour it was. But there are debates between Jewish writers over whether the indigo is produced by the indigo plant or by murex, and over what shade of blue it was. Talmudic writings do claim this colour was produced by a "fish" (ie shell-fish) and that indigo was a cheaper copy of the real thing. If so, murex is the most likely dye as certain breeds can produce blue with exposure of the vat to UV. The only other known animal dyes all produce shades of red.

The argument for murex is also compelling because there have been murex dyed blue items found in Israel from the time of Bar-Kokhba. So we know they were using it at that time. It seems odd to use murex if indigo could be used, because indigo production is comparatively simpler. That said there appears to be a tradition that the colours had to be "locally sourced". If true this would explain why murex was used for blue.

Tekhelet-dyed cloths covered almost all the items of the tabernacle service when they were on the move, with the exception of the altar covered in argaman as mentioned. The bread of the presence and dishes are also covered with shani-dyed cloth, after being set on the table over a tekhelet cloth. All the loops and tying cords of the tabernacle were also blue. The priest also wore a tunic entirely dyed in blue.

Tekhelet is of particular focus for Orthodox Jews because it is the only colour laymen were commanded to wear on the tassels of their garments (the blue of the flag of modern Israel commemorates the blue tassels of the prayer shawl). For some time the colour has been considered “lost” because of the disagreement over the dye source--again not any shade of blue will do.


The blue version of murex on wool from around the time of the Bar-Kokhba revolt. These dyes were prized at least partly because of their unmatchable fastness.

Interestingly, the same three colours were also important ritual colours in many other cultures, as far away as the Americas (with different sources--see the traditional Oaxacan wrap skirt for a different configuration of them). This has to do with the beauty and general fastness of the colours as well as the difficulty of producing them; murex alone is historically one of the most expensive and labour intensive dyes to produce. When YHWH demands everything be made with gold we think that made it precious. But murex was equally precious (in the modern age, it’s actually MORE precious. Than fricking GOLD. Yeah). When scripture speaks of people of status and security, blue, scarlet and purple are mentioned. Across the world these colours symbolize wealth and status, or as YHWH himself says, “glory and beauty”. But they also are tied to other things. More on that in the next post.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Colours, Sacred or Otherwise

Since mem is a wicked human being who won't get his dad to make me dibromoindigo, I'm being forced to think of other ways to get it. This includes making a trip to Morocco to some place I can’t pronounce in the purpuric islands that is rumoured to sell it (and yes a trip to MOROCCO would still be cheaper than buying it from most reputable suppliers by about 40k). It seems legit.

PLUS ALSO Pantone’s colour for 2015 is pretty close to what Tyrian purple would have looked like (though more brown). AND I got an induction burner for Christmas which Phil called WITCHES BREW BURNER. Well it's taken them almost two decades to come to terms with my use of noxious chemicals.

So my art project is back on! In my head. Like usual. This of course brings to mind some interesting things I've noticed in the colours and textile processes used in the production of the priest's garments and tabernacle of Exodus. Mem assures me these things aren’t super extra BORING to normal people, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have a lock on what normal people think or he wouldn’t be my friend.

But I’m going to write about them anyway, because mem is the only one who reads my blog and I think he thinks I can’t write a book length tome on this. To which I say “it’s like you don’t even know me mem”.

 I am reminded of the author of Hebrews saying that the tabernacle was a copy made according to a heavenly original. Some people think this has to do with aesthetics; I am not one of them. The tabernacle represents the realities of God; how he makes himself a holy priesthood and a place where he meets his creation. And maybe I’m crazy but I think that’s more significant than the proportions being an aesthetic pattern for people to follow. While many fixate on the proportions and other things, I’ve always been interested in the processes. I can admit that’s the craftsperson coming out--process is always the most important thing to us. But I do think there are some powerful symbols involved in the creation of the tabernacle (symbolism being used in the more mediaeval sense).

Anyway, there are things going on in the text that are pretty easily missed if you don’t understand how the production of fibre worked in ancient times. In a world where we are so removed from the processes that make the daily items of our lives, we miss many things that would have been common knowledge then. I think this can be shown by how Christians tend to interpret them sloppily and figure they’re not particularly important anyway. Orthodox Jews for their part debate them intensely--they understand that they’re valuable at least partly because they’re still trying to keep the law.  But we believe all the scriptures are about Christ.

I originally wrote this post super cyclically (like a rabbi! Just as wise for sure). While that was pretty cool, it metastasized into a 3000 word document in a few days (even though I skipped a lot of cool stuff--told you mem). So I had to make it linear (or as close to it as someone like me can get) in order to be able to chop it up into shorter posts, of which this functions as the introduction. It took longer to reorganize than to write or research, so the work has been languishing a little. But I really wanted to finish at least one of my book length “blog posts” so the reorganization had to be done. Someone asking about the towla on fb motivated me to wax nerdy again. Anyway hoping I succeeded in being more greek, but I really prefer hebrew thought. If you see some repetitions and lack of clarity, blame your western linear mindset--I had to do this for YOU so don't whine. I also left out a lot to keep it from being even longer.

 Follow for the next posts and you'll see why a trip to Morocco would be worth it.