The Middle Ages and The Renaissance
The early Christian church adopted the Roman symbolism of white as the color of of purity, sacrifice and virtue. It became the color worn by priests during mass, the color worn by monks of the Cistercian order, and, under Pope Pius V, a former monk of the Dominican order, it became the official color worn by the Pope himself. Monks of the order of Saint Benedict dressed in the white or gray of natural undyed wool, but later changed to black, the color of humility and penitence.
In Medieval art, the white lamb became the symbol of the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of mankind. John the Baptist described Christ as the lamb of God, who took the sins of the world upon himself. The white lamb was the center of of one of the most famous paintings of the Medieval period, the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck.
White was also the symbolic color of the transfiguration. The Gospel of Saint Mark describes Jesus' clothing in this event as "shining, exceeding white as snow." Artists such as Fra Angelico used their greatest skill to capture the whiteness of his garments. In his painting of the transfiguration at the Convent of Saint Mark in Florence, Fra Angelico emphasized the white garment by using a light gold background, placed in an almond-shaped halo.
The white unicorn was a common subject of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, paintings and tapestries. It was a symbol of purity, chastity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin. It was often portrayed in the lap of the Virgin Mary.
During the Middle Ages, painters rarely ever mixed colors; but in the Renaissance, the influential humanist and scholar Leon Battista Alberti encouraged artists to add white to their colors to make them lighter, brighter, and to add hilaritas, or gaiety. Many painters followed his advice, and the palette of the Renaissance was considerably brighter.
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, white was commonly worn by widows as a color of mourning. The widows of the Kings of France wore white until Anne of Brittany in the 16th century. A white tunic was also worn by many knights, along with a red cloak, which showed the knights were willing to give their blood for the King or Church.
The monks of the order of Saint Benedict (circa 480-542) first dressed in undyed white or gray wool robes, here shown in painting by Sodoma on the life of Saint Benedict (1504). They later changed to black robes, the color of humility and penitence.
The white unicorn frequently appeared in Medieval art, often as a symbol of virginity and purity. This the unicorn hunt from the Rochester Bestiary, from about 1230, in the British Library.
Under Pope Pius V (1504-1472, a former monk of the Dominican order, white became the official color worn by the Pope.
The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck. (1432)
The Transfiguration by Fra Angelico (1440-1442)
Lady with an ermine, by Leonardo da Vinci (1490). The ermine symbolized nobility and purity. It was believed that an ermine would rather die than allow its white fur to become dirty.
Mary Stuart wore white in mourning for her husband, King Francois II of France, who died in 1560.
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