Colour in the time of COVID
On Sunday April 5th, Queen Elizabeth came before the cameras in a rare national address. It was only her fifth in 68 years of rule. She wore green.
Green, a colour of decay and ill-health — pus, mould, phlegm, envy — yet a colour of rebirth, rejuvenation and life itself – tender sprouts and vast oxygenating forests and jungles. Ancient Egyptian mythology recognized this contradiction. The colour was Osiris’ to wear as god of both vegetation and death.
To the eye it is soothing. Pliny wrote that the green of “smaragdus delights the eye without fatiguing it.” Smaragdus has since come to be associated with emerald but at that time all green gems were smaragdus.
Pliny was ahead of the times on so many of his observations: green is soothing to the eye. Medical scrubs used to be white; clean, bright, antiseptic white. But bright lights and white sheets and scrubs in the operating room create eye strain. To ease the eyes, according to an article in a 1998 issue of Today’s Surgical Nurse, in the early 1900s an influential surgeon switched to green cloth.
There are two reasons why the green helped. To begin, it’s opposite red on the colour wheel and in an operation, well, there’s red. Looking at green gives the surgeon’s eyes a respite, allowing their focus to re-sensitize to the variations of inner corporeal red.
Secondly, a concentrated focus on red can produce after-effect green phantoms against a white background. (Try it). When the surgeon glances away from the red of his work to, for example, white surgical cloth, a green after-image can appear. Green scrubs hide the green gremlins.
The shared speculation among Royal watchers is that the Queen wore a ‘scrub’ green dress in solidarity and honour of all medical professionals and support staff working around the clock to combat COVID.
The Queen also wore a green-blue turquoise and diamond brooch. It too has come under symbolism speculation.
Queen Elizabeth inherited the brooch and other jewellery in 1953 on the death of Queen Mary her paternal grandmother. Mary herself had received the brooch as a gift from her parents-in-law when she wed King George V in 1893. While not lacking in a selection of jewellery (understatement), Queen Elizabeth apparently did not wear the brooch publicly until 2014 and has since only worn it a handful of times. It’s understood that the Queen and her dresser often consider colour and history in choosing her ensemble. The rarity and gravity of this recent appearance certainly demanded such consideration.
Possibly, Vanity Fair has speculated, it was its provenance as Mary’s jewellery. In 1892, Mary was engaged to Prince Albert Victor, known as Prince Eddy, who was second in line to the throne when he died at Sandringham from the Russian flu aged 28. His mother, Queen Victoria went into mourning for four months then set the stage for Mary to wed Eddy’s younger brother George. Together they were monarchs during World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 228,000 Britons and infected thousands of others, including King George.
The first cases of COVID-19 hit England at the end of January, exactly a year after the Museum of London was wrapping up a prescient exhibit entitled Disease X: London’s Next Epidemic? Included among the displays was the mourning dress worn by Queen Victoria after Eddy’s death. In a November 2018 pre-exhibit review the Belfast Telegraph quoted Vyki Sparkes, co-curator of the exhibition, that displaying the dress showed “…the impact that influenza can have, that nobody is immune from an outbreak. It changed the course of history with [George] becoming king. But it also changed the way epidemics were seen. Influenza, before that, was seen as not very serious. This really drove home that influenza was a serious and virulent disease.”
And what calming message can we glean from turquoise?
Turquoise is one of the oldest gems of adornment. Chinese artisans carved it 3000 years ago. Rulers of Egypt wore it 4000 years ago. They called it mefkat meaning ‘joy’ or ‘delight’. In the time of the encyclopaedic Pliny the Elder in the first century AD, it was callais, and by the 13th century it attained its modern name from the French pierre tourques or Turkish stone. By then it had also been fully ascribed with the power to protect from falls, especially those from horses.
More rightfully, it should have been called Persian stone, its true provenance, only passing through Turkey on its way to Europe. Iran has the arid, barren conditions that encourage the sedimentary process of copper-rich groundwater seeping into the ground to react with minerals containing phosphorus and aluminum. For more than a millennium, some of the finest turquoise ever mined was that from the Iranian district of Nishapur.
While there’s no expectation the Queen turns to other cultures for symbolic sources when her own is fully endowed with symbols – in European tradition the gift of a turquoise ring means ‘forget me not’ – the gem is highly esteemed by Persians, Tibetans, and native Americans.
Persian mythology claims that to escape evil and attain good fortune one must see the reflection of the new moon either on the face of a friend, on a copy of the Koran or on a turquoise. The 11th century Persian manuscript Nozhat Namah Ellaiy, pronounced the turquoise to be a stone of good omen, bringing good luck, indeed its name piruzeh means ‘victorious’.
In Tibet it is considered a national treasure, prized for its beauty and talismanic powers. It imparts peace to those who wear it. Writes gemologist and scholar George F. Kunz, turquoise for Tibetans is believed “to bring good fortune and physical well-being to the wearer and to afford protection against contagion.”
Were it so simple.