Rustic Brown

Posted on Posted in History

It’s hard to imagine, assaulted as we are by bright colors and flashing screens, the dullness of life in Luther’s era. No, there was plenty of character. But there were also lots of browns, grays, and greens. Flowers lightened up the atmosphere, and so did the blue sky. But the human environment was not very colorful, literally speaking, especially those 6 months of the year when not much was growing.

Walking through the countryside for the past few weeks has made clear to us again and again how short-lived order is, how powerful are the laws of entropy. Think how solid a stone castle is; yet a few centuries (and a few attacks, especially) can render it a ruin. A sturdy Bavarian farmstead might weather a few decades, but as soon as the first tile on its roof cracks and falls away, the inevitable rot and decay begin.

Civilization requires maintenance. And lots of it. Constantly. We don’t really sense this because we are surrounded by a built environment the feels cancerous both in its ugliness and its speed of self-replication. But fragile it is, both architecturally and intellectually.

Which is why painters and patrons of the Renaissance wanted lots of blue in their paintings. Not the dull, navy blue that quickly faded, but the brilliant Giotto kind of blue. This lasting blue was of course very valuable as a pigment: the lapis lazuli from which it was made had to be brought by camel caravans and across great oceans to find its way, pulverized, into frescoes. The amount of it in certain paintings is simply obnoxious, and it would have seemed that way in the 14th century too: that was the point.

But more importantly the blue, and the gold that often accompanied it, were highly symbolic. They represented the sky and the sun, those two constant objects of the natural environment that were permanent, unchangeable, stable. The sun would never cease its rotations, nor the sky fall until the earth should perish at the end of all things. The sun and the sky are also two brilliantly colorful things that require no human maintenance at all—unlike the labor-intensive world of greens and browns, the gold of the sun and the blue of the sky are simply given.

As we pass into the land of the high Renaissance and begin to see its blue frescoes, we will be contemplating this contrast between rustic brown and these symbolically charged colors. It’s a contrast we can see in Martin Luther, too. The monastic life, Luther’s included, had at its heart a desire to begin to participate in eternal things now. The constant prayer, the fasting, the celibacy—we are wrong to think of these as privations. They are ways of stepping into the blue and gold world of eternal salvation.

Of course, Luther came to reject monastic life and most of Christianity’s attempts to grab onto the eternal while still among living. But not all. God’s promises are eternal gems, and His Word stands fast. It’s no surprise that an ex-friar would recall the words of Isaiah as a kind of motto: the grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord endures forever.

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