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flgdecl1000004758_-00_isreal-flag-decalHey! It’s the flag of Irsael: a blue Star of David on a white background between two blue stripes.  What’s the story with all of that blue anyway?  Well, like most stories involving Judaism, the story goes back a long, long way to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, where the high priests wore a robe dyed a deep midnight blue.  In fact, this color, known as tekhelet, was a sacred color which appeared in temple hangings and in the twined fringes known as tzitzit which hang from the corners of Jewish prayer shawls.

A High Priest with Tekhelet Robe

A High Priest with Tekhelet Robe

The Tanahk (the sacred books of Judaism) are pretty specific about tekhelet.  It is mentioned nearly 50 times and it is specifically and explicitly stated that the special blue dye must be made from a shellfish called chilazon (rather than from the less expensive indigo).   And so it was for many lives of men.  Unfortunately everything went wrong in the first and second centuries AD when the Roman Empire destroyed the temple, defeated a Jewish revolt and exiled Jews from Jerusalem.  During this period of chaos and diaspora, the fine nuances of dyes were not of tantamount importance, and the way to make tekhelet were lost as was knowledge of exactly what sort of mollusk a chilazon actually is.

Oh, also, during travel, the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be covered in a cloth of tekhelet

Oh, also, during travel, the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be covered in a cloth of tekhelet

The Talmud demands that tekhelet be used for crafting the fringes of prayer shawls and it stipulates that counterfeit dyes must not be (knowingly) used.  This has left devout Jews with a conundrum as to how to proceed.  Since the Roman exile, Orthodox Jews have most commonly setteld plain white tzitzit, however there have also been several attempts to rediscover the mysterious chilazon and recreate tekhelet.   In the late nineteenth century the Grand Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner researched the subject and proclaimed that the common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, was the missing mollusk.  The dye he created, however, did not seem to fit Talmudic descriptions and chemists later determined it was simply Prussian blue (although the holy man proudly wore his blue fringes, as did many of his followers).

Common cuttlefish - Sepia officinalis (photo by David Nicholson)

Common cuttlefish – Sepia officinalis (photo by David Nicholson)

Hexaplex trunculus

Hexaplex trunculus

Another Talmudic scholar cross referenced his ancient religious text with modern malacology texts and concluded that the chilazon was actually Hexaplex trunculus, a murex snail which is a close relative of  Murex brandaris (the source of Tyrian purple).   The dye which he created from the secretions of Hexaplex trunculus was also purple and thus did not seem to fit the bill.  Only with the help of a chemist in the 1980s was it determined that the proper blue color could be obtained by exposing a solution of the snail slime dye to sunlight.  So if you are an orthodox Jew (or a high priest of the Temple) you might want to look into getting some tekhelet clothing.

Actual Tekhelet dyed wool (probably...)

Actual Tekhelet dyed wool (probably…)



Five Shells Mounted on a Slab of Stone (Adriaen Coorte, 1696, oil on paper mounted on wood)

Here are three tiny paintings of seashells by the great Dutch still-life master Adriaen Coorte.  I would love to tell you more about Coorte, but I am unable to do so.  The date of his birth and his death are both unknown.  Aside from his apprenticeship to Melchior d’Hondecoeter (which took place in Amsterdam) it is believed that Coorte spent his entire life in Middelburg, Zeeland.   His signed paintings date from 1683 to 1707 and, according to records, he belonged to the Guild of Saint Luke.

Seashells (Adriaen Coorte, 1696, oil on paper mounted on wood)

Everything else we know about Coorte comes from his beautiful jewel-like paintings–which were also largely unknown until the 1950’s (when a fashionable art-historian publicised them to the world). The compositions are minimalist with dramatic lighting and exquisite object arrangement.  Coorte painted on paper which he then glued to wood (an unusual technique now and even more so during the 17th century).

Still Life with Shells (Adriaen Coorte, 1697 oil on paper on wood panel)

Along with Balthasar van der Ast and Antoine Berjon, Coorte was one of the greatest painters of seashells. He gives an emotional context to the shells while capturing their alien beauty. For example in the painting below, there is something about the spatial relationship between the spiny murex, the tiny red shell, the spiral, and the cowry which transforms the inanimate shells into actors in a tragic play.  The mysterious Coorte seems to know something about the fundamental nature of things that he can only reveal through these tiny charged tableaus, but like Coorte, the message remains a mystery.

Still Life with Shells (Adriaen Coorte,1698, oil on paper on wood panel)

A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color.  The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.

I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna.  But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color?  A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog.  According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph.  While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.

La Découverte de la Pourpre (Peter Paul Ruben, ca. 1636, oil sketch)

Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct.  Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family.   Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.

The mucous secretion of a murex: the snail s use the discharge for hunting and to protect their eggs from microbes

Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite.  To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment.  Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.

Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used.  In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators.  By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian the Great

The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century.  The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.

Tyrian Purple

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

January 2023