Pigments, hues, colors! The way light bounces off objects and shines into our primate brains is rife with emotional and moral meaning. Each color has historical dimensions and conveys allusions to different times and places. Colors evoke feelings and thoughts in a way that almost nothing else can.
In continuing celebration of Holi, the festival of colors, I’m writing about some of my favorite colors starting today with chartreuse. Half way between green and yellow, chartreuse plays tricks on the brain–sometimes looking like one or the other. It is a quintessential color of spring, appearing in the first buds of willow and the tip of the crocus as it pokes up from the ground. However a summer field glowing in the sunlight is also chartreuse as are aspen leaves when they begin to change in fall.
The historical roots of the word are as colorful as it is. Chartreuse is named after a delightful herbal liquor made by Carthusian Monks. Wikipedia tells the story as follows:
According to tradition, a marshal of artillery to French king Henry IV, François Hannibal d’Estrées, presented the Carthusian monks at Vauvert, near Paris, with an alchemical manuscript that contained a recipe for an “elixir of long life” in 1605. The recipe eventually reached the religious order’s headquarters at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, in Voiron, near Grenoble. It has since then been used to produce the “Elixir Végétal de la Grande Chartreuse”. The formula is said to call for 130 herbs, flowers, and secret ingredients combined in a wine alcohol base. The monks intended their liqueur to be used as medicine. The recipe was further enhanced in 1737 by Brother Gérome Maubec.
Just why the artillery marshal had a magical longevity elixir is unclear. Twice the monks have been evicted from their monasteries and deprived of their properties (in 1793 because of the revolution and in 1903, thanks to an anti-monastic law). But even in exile, they kept the secret recipe and they have always come back to distilling stronger than ever. Because it is so well known around the world, their delightful (and extremely alcoholic) concoction has loaned its pretty name to the lovely color.
Perhaps it is appropriate that chartreuse bears the name of a spirit. Despite the fact that it is a color frequently seen in the natural world there is also something otherworldly about it. Think of how many ghosts, aliens, and mystery substances are colored a crazy yellow-green and you will immediately see what I mean.
You can probably tell that Chartreuse and similar yellow greens are among my favorite colors. Nothing combines the feeling of vibrant, thriving life with a hint of mystery and ineffability like chartreuse. That’s enough writing I am going to go out and revel in a world of golden-green shoots!