I am the sort of person geeky enough to not only buy but read the little souvenir books published by art museums, so after we saw Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco cycle The Cavalcade of the Magi (1459-62) in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi last week in Florence, I bought a booklet that promised to reveal the meanings hidden in its princes in gold-embroidered dress and its predatory animals rampant in a Tuscan-like landscape. The three Magi’s color schemes turned out to be easy to explain: Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior wear white, green, and red respectively because these are the colors of the “theological virtues”: white for faith, green for hope, and red for charity. “Colours are symbols,” writes Lucia Ricciardi, “and as such have multiple significations—sometimes contradictory ones.” (Before I continue the quotation, I should perhaps warn you that I was, in the end, an American tourist, and that I’m going to descend abruptly from early modern symbology into tawdry relevance to the current election cycle.)
There were in fact no entirely ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ colours: it was the combinations and the juxtapositions that established their meaning. Yellow, which in antiquity represented the divine light, retained this positive connotation, and in addition referred to gold; but the combination of yellow and green, for example, suggested treachery, disorder and degeneration—even madness. Since ancient times red had signified strength, courage, love and generosity, but also pride, cruelty and anger, especially—from a certain period—when associated with blue.
So it wouldn’t, from a medieval perspective, be the redness of red America that’s problematic. It’s only the juxtaposition with blue. Perhaps if the Democrats were recoded green, which, by the way, I learned on this trip was thought by Dominican monks to be the most suitable color for the walls of a library.[Source: Franco Cardini, Lucia Riccardi, and Cristina Acidini Luchinat, The Chapel of the Magi in Palazzo Medici (Florence: Mandragora, 2001).]