Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Great Blue Wave

The Great Blue Wave

To paint a picture of waves, you need blue paint.  To make thousands of wave prints at a time, as Japanese master printmaker Hokusai did in 1830 of this iconic “Great Wave,” you need inexpensive blue paint. 

But blue pigment has always been rare and expensive.  Blue artwork was only found in royal Egyptian tombs and the homes of rich Europeans. 

All that changed in the 18th century, because of an error by a German paint maker, the ingenuity of Dutch traders and new mass-produced woodblock printing.  Now the new urban middle class in Japan could buy a Hokusai print for their own home for the price of a bowl of noodle soup. 

This is Week 3 in my reflections on the color blue in art.  These weekly devotionals are about “Blue Theology,” my ministry of ocean spirituality and stewardship.  I agree with Dante, who said, “Art is the grandchild of God.”  I experience the divine in art as well as in texts, and blue seems especially holy.   So far I’ve looked at art from 3000 BC Egypt to Vermeer, all dependent on the rare expensive lapis lazuli mineral to make blue pigment. 

Today, finally, blue becomes cheap, mass produced and international.  

Hokusai’s blue wave comes from a pigment called “Prussian Blue” or “Berlin Blue.” In 1707 German paint maker Johann Diesbach was trying to make some red paint his usual way, mixing potash, blood and lots of cochineal, a red insect.  (That’s how I always make red paint.)  Something went wrong (read the Wikipedia article if you want to get the chemistry) and instead he made a deep rich blue, which turned out to be really easy and cheap to make.  Within decades Dutch traders were selling it throughout the world, and since they were the only foreigners then allowed into isolationist Japan, craftsmen there started making deep rich blue fans and kimonos.

Hokusai started adding blue to his very popular woodblock prints.  The Dutch traders took his prints back to Europe, where they influenced especially the Impressionists, calling their new style “Japonisme.” 

Theo Van Gogh saw a print of “The Great Wave” in Paris and wrote his brother Vincent that the wave looked like great claws.  Vincent agreed, writing back, “When Paul Mantz saw Delacroix’s violent and exalted sketch, ‘Christ’s Boat,’ at the exhibition that we saw in the Champs-Elysees, he turned away from it and cried out, ‘I did not know that one could be so terrifying with blue and green.’

“Hokusai makes you cry out the same thing, but in his case with his lines, his drawing, since in your letter you say these waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.  Ah well, if we made the color very correct or the drawing very correct, we still wouldn’t create those emotions.” 

But Van Gogh did create emotion with blue.  He used Prussian Blue extensively in “Starry Night” and was surely relieved it didn’t cost a lot.   Those night sky whorls sure look like waves.

Today’s Gospel of Blue:
-Blue and the ocean belong to everyone and no one.  Thanks be to God (and Diesbach) that artists can now easily create blue art.  Thanks also to printmakers.  Art should be everywhere, not just in museums.
-Thanks to artists like Hokusai and Van Gogh who remind us that nature is large and we are small.  (I don’t think I ever really noticed the fishermen in their boats before – I just saw the wave and mountain. Did they get home safely?)
-The world is full of danger and death.  We can’t think of Japan without thinking of tsunamis.  Our hearts go out to all who have lost their lives or their loved ones to the power of the blue ocean. 
-The ocean is for me a metaphor/icon of God – both are always moving, powerful, life giving, beautiful, deep, mysterious.  Oceanographers have studied this print and say it is not a tsunami wave, but a “plunging breaker wave.”  Scary yes, but I still say thanks for all the plunging in nature.
-God comes to us in waves.  Our regular benediction at the Blue Theology Mission Station, Christian Church, Pacific Grove is, “May wave after wave of love, God’s love, preserve you, embolden you, and always remind you that you are deeply valued.  Go in peace.  Serve the Lord.”

Come plunge into Blue Theology in Pacific Grove for an ocean service trip or pilgrimage, individual or group.  I post these “Tide-ings” every Wednesday here and at 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Somewhere, Beyond the Sea

Somewhere, Beyond the Sea

Vermeer went deep in debt to pay for the blue paint in this painting.  Rare and expensive and difficult to make, this pigment was called “ultramarine,” not because it is so “ultra” a color blue, but because it was imported by Italian traders from mines in Afghanistan, “beyond the sea,” not until the 13th century.

New product, new paintings.  First in the Middle Ages we start seeing all these detailed Annunciation scenes with the Virgin Mary wearing deep “ultra” blue robes, like this Botticelli gem.  But even 200 years later, in Vermeer’s day, this blue color was rare in art – the blue powder, arduously ground from this tough Asian rock, cost more than gold.  Artists with patrons itemized what they expected to spend “beyond the sea” and asked for payment in advance.

Mary’s medieval blue symbolized holiness and humility and royalty.  But for Pearl Girl– what does that blue turban say to you?

In these weekly devotionals on “Blue” Theology, ocean spirituality and stewardship, I am devoting some weeks to the history of the color blue in art and culture, inspired by my new favorite art book, “Blue: Cobalt to Cerulean in Art and Culture.”  Look back to my last week’s post about the small elegant ancient Egyptian blue faience bowl with fish symbolizing new life. 

Blue can be a “cool” color.  Mary and Pearl Girl are constrained, dignified.  But why are more women than men dressed in blue?  Does blue signify birth?

In my “Blue” theology it does – we all evolved from the blue ocean, our planet is (75%) blue, 3 of 4 breaths we take come from oxygen created by ocean plants, our own bodies are 75% water, we are blue men and women.  When I see blue art I am drawn in and deep - like these women I become still and yet I am transformed.  

Somewhere, beyond the sea, somewhere waiting for me, my lover stands on golden sands and watches the ships that go sailing.  Blue and still, dignified and deep, waiting for me, my blue lover, beyond the sea.
I write these ocean devotionals every Wednesday morning here and on Facebook.  At our Blue Theology Mission Station in Pacific Grove we’ve spent a great week hosting 15 high school youth from a Disciples of Christ and a United Methodist church in Ft. Worth TX.  We celebrate God’s gift of blue.  Come walk with us, for a service trip or pilgrimage by the sea, any age, group or individual.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Bowl is a Pool

The Bowl is a Pool

Ancient Egyptians loved the color blue.   Before 3000 BC they were importing lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and had already created faience, a non-clay ceramic that may be the earliest engineered material, by crushing quartz and adding a silica glaze tinted with blue copper.

This little faience bowl, 1.5 by 6 inches, is from an Egyptian woman’s tomb.  She didn’t use it for cereal but rather offered it as a “tomb gift” to the gods to encourage rebirth.  Now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, it is featured in my new favorite book “Blue: Cobalt to Cerulean in Art and Culture,” a lovely coffee table book of blue art ancient and modern. I plan to spend the next few weeks of these Wednesday “Blue Theology” postings celebrating the color blue.

From the Museum’s writeup about this bowl: “The marsh scene painted on the interior surface of this shallow bowl is perfectly adapted to its shape. The bowl is a pool: six curving stems with lotus buds radiate pinwheel-like from a central square, with four tilapia passing over and partly overlapping them to create a sense of depth. Three of the fish have other lotus stems issuing forth from their mouths; these also terminate in buds that float up to the vessel’s rim to join the others.
“In ancient Egyptian art no motif is too modest to be innocent of ritual symbolism. And so it is with this shallow bowl, for in Egyptian mythology, the marsh was the seething hotbed of creation. The blue lotus, whose flowers open from sunrise through midday and close at night, was closely associated with the sun’s rebirth each morning.
“The tilapia was a symbol of fertility and rebirth since Predynastic times, based no doubt on the creature’s remarkable habit of taking its newly hatched young into its mouth for shelter. The young fish appear to emerge from the parent’s mouth as though newly born, a phenomenon the Egyptians interpreted as spontaneous generation.
“This recalled the god Atum, whose own act of spontaneous generation initiated the creation of the Egyptian universe. The waters in which the fish swim are those of the boundless, life-giving Nun, the primeval ocean, while the central square motif is the primeval mound that rose above these waters.”
Blue is life and sky and ocean, primeval and fertile, seething, boundless.  Be Blue!!
I post these “Blue Theology Tide-ings” every Wednesday here and on Facebook.  Come visit us in Pacific Grove at the Blue Theology Mission Station for a blue service trip or pilgrimage by the blue bay.