The History of the Color Yellow: Divine, Cowardly, or Downright Disgusting?

Divine sky with light and stars in yellow colors

It’s funny how merely thinking about a particular color elicits so many emotions. The truth is, there is an interesting and sometimes checkered history involved with almost every color conceivable to the human mind.

In this particular case, it is time to delve deep into the history of the color yellow. By doing so, it is possible to discover more about the ways that different cultures viewed this color. It also becomes quite apparent why the color is still used in certain circumstances to this very day.

In order to truly disseminate its history, it is necessary to first go back to the earliest times when the color yellow was used.

The Color Yellow in Prehistoric Caves

Prehistoric cave painting of yellow bison

It probably won’t come as any surprise that the color was actually used in prehistoric caves to denote important things about hunting, culture and life that existed on a daily basis. While this color isn’t found as frequently as other colors in prehistoric caves, it is by no means absent. The question is, were the individuals who painted these caves using the color strictly for aesthetic purposes or were they trying to convey some type of meaning by choosing this particular color in the first place? Some individuals think that they used it simply because it was readily available, although there isn’t a lot of proof to back up this theory. In reality, they could have very well been trying to convey something important by specifically choosing the color yellow. However, it is also possible that they could have been doing essentially the same thing that many artists do today – choosing a color that would complement the rest of their work and be aesthetically pleasing.

Yellow in Ancient Art

Papyrus with elements of Egyptian ancient history in yellow and red colors

The color yellow has been used for centuries, most notably in major pieces of art. It was first used in this capacity during the prime of the Roman Empire. Similar pieces have also been found in ancient Egyptian pyramids. Clearly, the color was very popular, as it was in great demand by many of the best artists of the time. However, it was not a color that could be easily obtained. More will be discussed about the reason that it has been used in so many pieces of art throughout the years later on. For now, it is time to focus on the lengths people had to go through in order to obtain the color.

From Cattle and Other Things

Cow standing under a mango tree

Surprisingly, the pigment that allowed individuals of note to create bright yellow colors was only available by feeding cattle a strict diet of leaves from the mango tree. Unfortunately, this caused the cattle to slowly starve to death. It was done so that their waste could be ground up and boiled into a disgusting concoction of yellow pigment. This is how one of the most widely used shades of yellow was created. It was called Indian Yellow. It is a color that shows up in a wide range of celebrated pieces of art. While the very idea of allowing cattle to starve in order to obtain a pigment is disturbing beyond measure, things become even stranger as time goes on. There are a number of sources that claim that some artists decided to take things a step further and use their own urine to create the color of yellow they wanted. To that end, they would sometimes soak their works of art in urine until they achieved the desired result.

Cultural Beliefs and the Use of the Color Yellow

Ancient painting of the Egyptian sun god Ra and goddess Maat in a tomb

There is no doubt that certain cultural beliefs have had a tremendous impact on the use of the color yellow over the centuries. It is interesting to note that in some cultures, the color is viewed in a positive light. In these cultures, it often represents starting something new. It isn’t uncommon for the color yellow to represent the warmth and protection of the sun. This was important in ancient Egypt, as many people worshipped Sun gods. Therefore, the color yellow was often associated with these deities. As such, many individuals in ancient Egypt viewed the color itself as something divine.

Different Points of View

The Betrayal of Christ or The Kiss of Judas in yellow clothes

However, that hasn’t always been the case with every culture. While those in ancient Egypt often associated the color with the deities that were most highly respected, Christianity has often linked the color yellow with Judas, the disciple who betrayed Christ. As such, the color itself has often been used to represent someone who is cowardly. Even more pointedly, the color yellow is often seen in religious paintings that depict Christianity. More specifically, it is frequently used to denote individuals who are not Christians themselves. For example, many paintings depicting Christianity use the color yellow to depict those of the Jewish faith. In short, the same color that was associated with Judas is now used to signify someone that is considered to be outside the circle of Christ.

World War II

Male hand and yellow Jewish star of David on wooden board background

This point was driven home even more harshly during World War II when Nazi Germany was in control of Jewish concentration camps. Once again, the same color that was used to depict Jewish individuals in paintings of Christianity was used to physically mark those of the Jewish faith while they were inside the camps. The Germans would use paint with a yellow pigment to color-code Jewish people and make them wear yellow Star of David badges. Since the concentration camps were operated specifically to incarcerate those of the Jewish faith, many experts believe that this was done as a means of ceremoniously declaring the Nazi belief that Jewish people were beneath them.

Symbolism and History

Hand holding yellow autumn leaves with sad and happy face

There is no mistaking the idea that the symbolism of the color yellow and its history are forever intertwined. Just as the color has been used in religious paintings to declare certain groups of people cowardly or unfaithful, the color itself is considered by many to represent those same things in modern times. While certain cultures revered the color yellow, others have practically loathed it. The people of ancient Egypt may have believed that the color yellow represented everything they wanted to be close to in life. However, people in the Jewish faith see it as a color to be avoided. This is largely because it was so closely linked to the concentration camps and the atrocities that occurred there. By the same token, some Christians make a conscious effort to avoid the color because of its association with Judas.

The Color Yellow in Secular History

Scared cowardly brunette girl posing on a yellow background

Religious history isn’t the only time that the color yellow has proven pivotal. In reality, it plays just as big a role in secular history. For instance, those who are well-versed in the English language often use it to denote someone who lacks bravery. This is where the phrase “he has a yellow streak down his back” comes from. It is meant as a slight. By the same token, Italian culture often utilizes the term yellow to refer to anything that is related to a crime. In fact, it is frequently used to denote any type of written word that talks about criminal activity. This might be a news piece that talks about crime. It could just as easily be a novel written about a criminal. There is also a link to the term yellow journalism. This refers to journalism that has been painted by someone who wants readers to adopt their views. As opposed to simply reporting the facts and allowing people to make up their own minds, it leans heavily in a particular direction. The end goal is to influence those who read it. Yellow journalism is unethical and in some cases illegal.

The Popularity of the Color Yellow in Art

Yellow oil paint brush strokes isolated on a white background

This has already been briefly touched on before, but as promised, it is time to dive deeper into the reason that so many artists have gone to such great lengths to create pieces of artwork that contain yellow pigment. Any reasonable person would probably agree that starving cattle in order to control the color of their waste is an extreme measure. If that’s not enough, there is scarcely a sane person in the world that would support the idea of soaking a painting in one’s own urine in order to create a certain aesthetic. Without a doubt, these measures are indeed extreme, so much so that many people find this information rather shocking. Despite that fact, some of the world’s most famous paintings have utilized exactly these types of techniques in order to achieve the desired outcome. The question is, why is it so important for artists to use a color that is so difficult to obtain? Clearly, this isn’t a question for modern times. In today’s world, achieving the right color is as easy as making a purchase and then working with various colors in order to create one that is unique. In ancient times, this was not the case.

Famous Pieces of Art

The Angel Standing in the Sun painting by William Turner

One such painting, JMW Turner’s “The Angel Standing in the Sun,” was completed in 1846. Despite the fact that this does not match up with any timeline of an ancient culture, Turner still used the ancient technique of soaking the painting in urine in order to achieve what he thought was the ideal piece of religious artwork. According to Turner himself, it wasn’t done merely for aesthetic purposes, but instead to convey a deeper meaning. The painting depicts an angel rising above a group of people who appear to be left behind by the angel. Turner apparently wanted to drive home the point that individuals who live less than a virtuous life could find themselves in exactly this type of situation. He chose to do so by soaking the painting in urine in order to supposedly depict the unclean lifestyle of those individuals being left behind. While some individuals have been supportive of his views, others were outraged, saying that it bordered on blasphemy.

Turner is definitely not the only person to use these types of techniques in order to create a piece of art. In 1788, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted a portrait called “The Age of Innocence.” It depicts a small girl sitting peacefully with her hands clasped over her chest in a brilliant white dress. There are hints of yellow in the painting, mostly designed to create an almost ethereal glow in the girl’s face. It is believed that he utilized the same techniques as Turner. Interestingly enough, it was later discovered that Turner was a protégé of Reynolds. This may explain why both of them used similar techniques to achieve a finished piece.

How History Affects Modern-Day Perceptions

Happy woman filled with joy is celebrating the warm yellow colors of the sun

Today, some people still have a tendency to avoid the color yellow for all of the reasons that have already been discussed. In fact, that is one of the reasons that the color was chosen to represent caution in traffic circles. Traditionally, it has been used to signify potential danger. This goes back to ancient history where it was closely linked to things like cowardice and betrayal. That said, not everyone avoids the color yellow, nor does everyone believe that the color only represents negative qualities. In more modern times, the color is frequently seen as something to be celebrated. It is bright and colorful, denoting feelings of happiness and optimism. There is no doubt that the majority of the population in today’s world has a completely different outlook on the color yellow than those who came before them.

At the end of the day, it is possible to see how the color is sometimes used in modern times because of previous influences. Fortunately, it is no longer necessary to use urine or starve cattle in order to achieve the pigment. As a result, it is much more readily available. As far as the cultural and religious connotations are concerned, it has become less widely associated with certain negative qualities. This gives individuals all over the world an opportunity to identify with the color yellow based on their own personal associations. However, certain religious and cultural beliefs will likely continue to influence how the color yellow is used for decades and perhaps even centuries to come.

Yellow is all around us. If you’re interested in learning where you can find this uplifting color, here’s a list of yellow things in nature.