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White

White is the color of pure snow or milk. It is the color of light that contains all of the wavelengths of the visible spectrum without absorption. It is the opposite of black.

Culturally, white is associated with holiness, goodness, and purity.

White in history and art

White was one of the first colors used by paleolithic artists; they used lime white, made from ground calcite or chalk, sometimes as a background, sometimes as a highlight, along with charcoal and red and yellow ochre in their vivid cave paintings.

In ancient Egypt, white was connnected with the goddess Isis. The priests and priestesses of Isis dressed only in white linen.

In Greece and other ancient civilizations, white was often associated with mother’s milk. In Greel mythilogy, the god Zeus was nourished at the breast of the nymph Amalthee. In the Talmud, milk was one of four sacred substances, along with wine, honey, and the rose.

In ancient Rome, the priestesses of the goddess Vesta dressed in white linen robes, a white palla or shawl, and a white veil. They protected the sacred fire and the penates of Rome. White symbolized their purity, loyalty, and chastity.

 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, it became the official color worn by the Pope himself.

The white unicorn was a common subject of Medieval and Renaissance mansucripts, 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.

Eighteenth and nineteenth Centuries

White was the dominant color of architectural interiors in the Baroque period and especially the Rococo style that followed it in the 18th century. Church interiors were designed to show the power, glory and wealth of the church. They seemed to be alive, filled with curves, asymetry, mirrors, gilding, statuary and reliefs, unified by white.

White was also a fashionable color for both men and women in the 18th century. Men in the aristocracy and upper classes wore powdered white wigs and white stockings, and women wore elaborate embroidered white and pastel gowns.

Associations and Symbolism

Innocence and Sacrifice

In Western culture, white is the color most often associated with innocence. In Biblical times, lambs and other white animals were sacrificed to expiate sins. In Christianity Christ is considered the “lamb of God,” who died for the sins of mankind. The white lily is considered the flower of purity and innocence, and is often associated with the Virgin Mary.

The beginning and the new

White is the color in Western culture most often associated with beginnings and the new. In the Bible, light was created immediately after the heavens and the earth. In Christianity, children are baptized wearing white, and, wear white for their first communion. Christ after his Resurrection is traditionally portrayed dressed in white. Eggs, another symbol of the new, are used to celebrate Easter.

The Queen of the United Kingdom traditionally wears white when she opens the session of Parliament. In high society, debutantes traditionally wear white for their first ball. A new project is often described as beginning with a “blank page.”

Cleanliness

White is the color most associated with cleanliness. Objects which are expected to be clean, such as refrigerators and dishes, toilets and sinks, bed linen and towels, are traditionally white. White was the traditional color of the coats of doctors, nurses, scientists and laboratory technicians, though now a pale blue or green is often used. White is also the color most often worn by chefs, bakers, and butchers, and the color of the aprons of waiters in French restaurants.

White in Other Cultures

Throughout Asia, in China, Japan, Korea and other countries, white is the color of mourning and funerals. In traditional China, white clothing is worn at funerals, small sacks of quicklime, one for each year of the life of the deceased are placed around the body to protect it against impurity in the next world, and white paper flowers are placed around the body.

In China, white is associated with the feminine (the yin of the yin and yang); with the unicorn and tiger; with the fur of an animal; with the direction of west; with the element metal; and with the Autumn season.

In Japan, white robes are worn by pilgrims for rituals of purification, and bathing in sacred rivers. In the mountains, pilgrims wear costumes of undyed jute to symbolize purity.

In India, the color white was traditionally reserved for the Brahmin caste. It is the color of purity, divinity, detachment and serenity.

In Tibetan Buddhism, white robes were reserved for the lama of a monastery.

In Mongolia, the Buddha is represented in white, symbolizing transcendental wisdom.

In the Bedouin and some other pastoral cultures, there is a strong connection between milk and white, which is considered the color of gratitude, esteem, joy, good fortune and fertility.

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