Draft 1.0 as at November 8 2007


Prior to the late 1990s, if I thought of the Classical or Medieval world, I envisioned it as a rather black and white world, enlivened perhaps with some dull reds. Like most people, I suspect, my impressions of ancient human-created colour revolved around the black, white, and red clay-ware of the Etruscan period, the white marble statues of the Greek and Roman period, and the dark-grey stone Medieval cathedrals and castles remaining in our current world. Clothing seemed to be either in neutral colours of natural wool or in pale tones achievable with natural dyes. The only exceptions I was aware of which dated from prior to the Renaissance were in jewellery and mosaics, especially Egyptian.

This picture started to change when I visited Vienna, Austria on a business trip in 1998. Vienna is a city full of Medieval and Renaissance architecture and a feature of this is what seemed to be thousands of statues mounted on the edges of the rooves of these buildings. I found the experience of these lowering grey observers to be quite oppressive. Until, that is, in search of a cyber-cafe I exited the Underground near the University, and spotted an amazing sight: a Gothic cathedral which was half white and half black, divided vertically between the two halves. Naturally I went to investigate, and discovered that in fact the cathedral � the Votiv Kirche � was actually half-way through being cleaned of the grime of centuries! The original colour of the stone was actually a lovely glowing pale whitish-grey (perhaps of Caen stone).

Photo sourced from:

In 1999 I took the opportunity to visit the J Paul Getty Museum when I was in LA on business. I was surprised and delighted to discover that those boring white marble Greek and Roman statues were originally painted, usually in bright primary colours. A marble archway had the remains of sky blue, bright pink, lemony yellow, light orange, and emerald-y green paint. A statue had reds, blues, and yellows, and the notice said that the blank (and therefore blind) eyes we are used to seeing were originally either painted or inlaid with stones to create the iris and pupils.

In November 2004 The Guardian carried a story on the restoration of some Vatican marbles, and this is the result:

Restored Vatican Marble:
Caesar in Armour1

It wasn�t until I got involved with the Wellington Medieval Guild (Inc) in early 2003 that my partially revised picture of the colours of the Ancient and Medieval worlds took on some depth.

I joined the Guild with the sole intent of "learning to swing a sword" and instead got led into a whole new world of learning. I thought I�d just need some basic garb and a sword and that would be enough�� Our then Combat Instructor, Peter Lyon, who is an accomplished swordsmith, pointed out that before I could even consider purchasing a sword I needed to decide what style of armour I would use, the sword and garb falling out of that decision.

That advice has led to a whole range of research using the wide and freely shared knowledge of Guild members, the collections of the City Library, the increasing resources available on the Internet, museum visits etc. I�ve ended up studying armour and armour making, weapons, combat, battles, castles and fortifications, clothing, weaving, and heraldry, to name a few.

As a result, my involvement in the Guild has expanded to the extent that I am a Senior Combat Instructor, an Apprentice Weaver, and an Apprentice Armourer (Leather)16, and assist with public displays and education work.

All this is by way of a background to my research into colour in the medieval period. A more in-depth article on creating the colours will form part of my artisan work for my Weaving Apprenticeship. The key points which are relevant for choosing the colours for my armour follow. The actual colours are those of my arms.



  • There is/has been a mis-perception about the dominance of browns and other neutral colours in clothing as a result of the various burial finds. Analysis techniques now available indicate that the generally dark colourations of textile fragments results from seepage/leachage from the swamps and bogs in which many of the artefacts are found. Molecular analysis now indicates that the original dyes were of much brighter colours2.
  • We could therefore alter our mental picture of the upper classes wearing coloured clothing whilst the lower orders were stuck with greys, browns, and neutrals. We would be closer to the mark to see the upper classes in brighter or more intense colours and the lower classes wandering round London dressed in a rainbow of pastel hues: yellow, pale green, sky blue, coral, and pink, because bright or intense colours require multiple "dips" and take more time and/or use up the dye-stuff. The less expensive cloth would likely have had fewer dips or would be the last through the dye-bath, resulting in paler colours. A secondary source of the pastel-coloured lower classes would be from hand-me-downs from their masters or via the thriving second-hand clothing trade. (Dyes weren�t as colour-fast as they are now so colours would fade before the material wore out. As textile making was very labour intensive, recycling was a necessity rather than a choice for most people).
  • Natural dyes on woollen fibres generally tend to produce less intense colours, but those same dyes on silk or linen produce the depth of colour (if not the same shades achieved with chemical dyes) as we see today.

The Chasuble & Lutteral Psalter3



Roger�s Coronation Robe4)

Manuscripts and Paintings

When we examine surviving manuscripts and paintings we begin to move closer to documenting my colour choices for armour.

  • Manuscripts were typically of velum or parchment5, both of which are processed leather. Painting with pigments suspended in a fixative were standard practice.
  • Writing about the year 1000 C.E., Theophilus6) goes into detail on grinding and mixing various minerals and earths to achieve the wide range of colours used by the illustrator and painter, and wonderful facsimiles in Grabar and Nordenfalk7 show the intensity of colour still remaining over a millennium later.
  • Painting for much of the period was typically gesso plus minerals (c.f. manuscript paints), frequently on a base of boards8 - modern acrylic-based house paint seemed a reasonable substitute in comparison with oil-based paints (for discussion on dyes see below).

Book of Kells9

Paint versus Dye

  • If I had been working with dry leather, I would have chosen to dye the leather rather than paint it. The colour would likely have been less bright as a consequence, but no less intense. Lamb�s textbook from 190910 contains dyed leather samples and even with the passage of nearly 100 years the organic dyes are strong and solid (being inside a book may help prevent fading from sunlight of course, but won�t stop chemical decomposition.
  • As the first step of the cuir bouilli process is to immerse the leather in boiling water, any colour applied during or after tanning would bleed out of the leather. (For interesting discussion on period dyes see Stefan's Florilegium11, Marc Carlson12, Ron Charlotte13 and more modern but still organic dyes in early and later USDA publications14))
  • An argument can be made that any colour applied post-tanning is effectively �painting� the hide as the penetration is limited (unlike dyeing during tanning which colours all layers of the skin).
  • Painting after the cuir bouilli process has the advantage of providing some weather-proofing.
  • As with colour applied to armour in period, it is expected that "touch ups" will need to occur from time to time as a result of impacts and normal wear and tear.

Women in Armour

Just a note for fun: Amazons in coloured leather armour!

Detail from Tapestry of the
Battle of Troy15)


  • (To be completed.)


1 The article is at:,11710,1356700,00.html

2 Personal correspondence with the Lady Theadosia, WMG Master Weaver

3 �5000 Years of Textiles�; Harris, Jenifer ed; British Museum Press; 1993

4 ibid

5 �Ancient skins, parchments and leathers�; Reed, R; London, New York, Seminar Press; 1972; 0129035505

6 �Theophilus � On Divers Arts: The Foremost Medieval Treatise of Painting, Glassmaking and Metalwork�; Hawthorne, John G and Smith, Cyril Stanley translators; Dover Publications; 1963, 1979; 0-486-23784-2

7 �Early Medieval Painting (The Great Centuries of Painting series)�; Grabar, Andre and Nordenfalk, Carl; Translated by Gilbert, Stuart; Editions d�Art Albert Skira; 1957; (hand done individually inserted colour plates)

8 �Painters (Medieval Craftsmen series)�; Binski, Paul ; British Museum Press; 1991; 0-7141-2052-9 and also Grabar and Nordenfalk.

9 �Treasures of Early Irish Art, 1500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.�; Cone, Polly (Editor); Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art; 1977; ISBN 0-87099-164-7; plate 37/38.b (The Book of Kells, fol. 32v: Portrait of Christ)

10 Leather dressing including dyeing, staining, & finishing; Lamb, MC; 2nd ed., rev. and enlarged; London : Anglo-American Technical Co., 1909. (Contains plates of coloured leather samples.)

11 - use search feature with keywords -leather dye-

12 � Painting and Dying

13 Leatherworking in the Middle Ages - Medieval Leather Dying. Copyright � 1996 Ron Charlotte, coded by I. Marc Carlson -

14 Home Tanning And Leather Making Guide; Farnham, Albert Bertam, US Dept of Agriculture, 1922; 0936622113

15 �5000 Years of Textiles�; op cit

16 Now Artisan, awarded at the Guild's 21st Anniversary Arts and Sciences Competition November 10, 2007, on the basis of the first nine sections of this work.

© 2007 - links allowed with permission - email me on leader AT leader DOT gen DOT nz.
Created by Sue Leader - November 8 2007