Aztec Red

Think Red

What images come to mind when you think red? Little red dress? Red lipstick? Blood?

Red has a diversity of symbolism.

  • Sin – (red-light district)
  • Salvation – (The harlot Rahab and her family are spared when she places a scarlet cord in her window. Joshua 2:17-20)
  • Power – The British army had red coats to denote virility during the American Revolutionary War.
  • Red stimulates hunger, so it’s is a great color to use in the dining room. (Conversely, if you’re on a diet, blue suppresses appetite).
  • Red attracts attention. Stop lights are red.
  • Love – I had red roses and the bridesmaids wore red dresses at my wedding

In the movie The Sixth Sense, the door knob to the basement is red. Why do you think that is? In the book The Great Gatsby, red, along with a myriad of derivatives (rose, wine, crimson, pink… etc.) depict power, passion, wealth, and of course, death.

Red is beautiful, but extracting it to make natural dyes and paints requires ingenuity. And Colonial Spanish monarchs loved a splash or red… or more.

Seeing Red

Before synthetic dyes, the color came from carmine lakes. This general term applies to natural substances used to make dye, such as red ochre, brazilwood, safflower, cinnabar, and madder. When the Spanish arrived in Aztec Mexico, they were very interested to discover that part of Montezuma’s tribute included bags of bugs they called cochinilla, or cochineal. (European oaks have a type of cochineal once used by Hebrews to color curtains for tabernacles.) And these little guys create deep, rich red, a perfect gift to bring back home.

The Cactus Connection

Cochineal is a little bug that attaches itself to certain cacti, and there they stay. The bugs are harvested, dried, ground into powder, and used as dye in many products including food!

During the Colonial period, Oaxaca, Mexico is said to have exported almost two-million pounds of cochineal to Asia, Africa, and Europe—most of it used exclusively to dye fabrics for the wealthy. After gold and silver, cochineal was a highly sought commodity. Therefore, the Spanish did their best to hide the source and encourage misinformation about the source of their red dye. I wonder how many French came looking for berries when they should have been searching for bugs?

Mission Santos

A predominant artifact in Colonial Spanish Mission churches is the santo, or statue of a saint, including the crucified form of Christ. Today, santos that have not been repainted are rare. The original artists would often use oil paints or paint in egg yolk called tempera. As the santos were cleaned, the paint usually rubbed away, which necessitated a repaint. To study the layers of paint is to look at history.

To read about Santos construction, click here.

To learn more about cochineal, click here.

To see a video, click here.

Centuries ago, peasants were forbidden to use red dye since it was a status symbol. Most of the populace wore greys and browns. I really do love the color red, but I love it sparingly, as an accent. For example, my black and white dog has a red leash

What is one thing in your home, piece of clothing, furniture or display item that is red?

Red is the ultimate cure for sadness. ~ Bill Blass


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