Scarlet | Physis: How colour comes from nature
”Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
– Isaiah 1.18
There is always a story behind a story. Just as red’s power doesn’t come just from association but from the physiological reaction our neural pathways have to its long wavelength, so too the hue’s long association with the Judeo-Christian tradition does not arise from thought alone. The connection of love, blood and sacrifice intimately ties it in with the lifecycle of the kermes ilices – the tiny ‘crimson worm’. Kermes were a vital part of early Hebrew culture, both as a highly valuable red dye (tola’at shani), and as an illustrative lesson. When the tabernacle, the temple of Yahweh (God), was built, the only garments allowed were of scarlet cloth because of how beautifully it articulates of the mystery of faith, the new life that was to come forth from god.
Kermes ilices are barely a centimetre long, tiny red grublike scale insects that feed on the evergreen oak. In May after breeding, the female lays hundreds of pin-prick eggs, protecting them by attaching her body firmly to a branch of the tree in a protective casing above them. So firmly in fact, that she is unable to move again, this is her last act. The moment of birth is the moment of her death: as the newly-hatched kermes emerge from her shell/body, they are coloured red by her self-sacrificed remains and remain so for the rest of their lives, wearing their bloodline like a cloak. In the last, as her body disintegrates inside, the waxy white casings fall from the tree, leaving a snowy, woollen effect around the evergreen oak, little sins forgiven.
With 80 kermes required to make one gram of dye, scarlet was incredibly valuable. It formed part of tribute to Roman armies and was used to display power and wealth throughout the Middle East. In 1464 Pope Paul II decreed that all his cardinals wear robes of scarlet, as if the exclusive use of this fine cloth would give those who spoke the word of God more power. But its expense – and association with power – was its very undoing. When the Spanish conquistadors landed in Mexico, they found the Aztecs – who also associated the colour with power and wealth – were making brilliant reds from another variety of scale insect called the cochineal, which produced a better carmine. The first shipments were sent from Mexico to Seville in 1523, and before the century was over, it was being used to make dye for almost all the fine red garments of Europe and in painting. The original scarlet was replaced… but of course the associations remained. The extraordinary, symbolic lifecycle of a tiny bug that dies in a splash of crimson reveals a complex millennia-long thread of history, religion, power and control, redemption and love.