Continuing the derivation of the previous post, three more figures from Benson’s The Inner Nature of Color, these illustrating the coloration of the four elements (or processes).

Black figure skyphos with gods, ca. 500 B.C.E (plate III). Click for larger version.

“Although the canonical four color grouping of black, white, red, and yellow is not documented in ancient literature before the first half of the fifth century, it can easily be noticed that these same four colors, separately, together, or in mixtures giving the so-called earth colors, predominate not merely in Greece but all through early cultures. The Greeks, specifically the Attic ceramic craftsmen, had a special relationship to this ‘canon’ in that they refined their color choice, presumably out of a passionate attachment to it, to a glossy black and orange-red as an aesthetic norm. Beings and objects in the pictorial freeze [e.g., above] are shown in black, suggesting the obvious conclusion that this color represents the corporeality, the density, of earth substance. And the frieze itself, be it noted, is reserved in the black density of the pot, also fire earth-substance.

“The orange frieze used in black figure work misses maximum contrast value with the black, so why was it chosen? Perhaps a kind of instinctive insight has always led people to refer to red, or reddish hues, as the color of life… In the circumstances we are considering… the reddish hue can really only represent air (atmosphere), in which all beings and things are bathed. For example if we consider animals or men, they unremittingly draw in life force for the blood through breathing air, whereupon the blood maintains both physical and emotional existence. Red, therefore, represents the air on the macrocosmic plane and in the extended microcosmic sense it represents soul life.

“We can now take stock. The two opposite fix-points, earth-air, provide a contrast that is more spatial than dynamic, for earth and air are fundamentally contiguous, and in an undisturbed state do not act on one another but simply preside over, as it were, the spheres of below and above, respectively. (Fire and water, on the other hand, are by nature hostile to one another, eliminate themselves when, forced together, they must attack each other.) Just as in the relationship of earth and air, the colors black and red have a complementary, not an adversarial, relationship, and it cannot be accidental that as prismatic colors of the Dark spectrum, black and red are precisely contiguous. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition is decisive: black is heavy, immobile, hence can function as support; red as a chromatic color has also a certain density but, as Goethe already noted, it is the least mobile color, so that without forcing a point we could say that it hovers over black. In this way once can feel why the Archaic painters remained so long satisfied with this combination: it gave superb expression to their passionate pursuit of physical reality in a way that no other color and background, e.g., white, could have.

“During the Archaic and Protoclassical periods the Ionian philosophers consistently pondered the nature of the elements on the basis of the polarity principle. Similarly, the colors black and white were seen as polar opposites, like cold and warm, but these colors could not be connected with the actual pair of polar opposites in the elements (fire and water) in view of the factors discussed above. Indeed, apart from black-earth, we shall find that a little leeway must be allowed in assigning color to elements (even red-air). In any case, at this point fire and water are open to appointment to white and yellow. According to the criterion of density already established [in the previous post], yellow, visually the stronger of the two colors, will go to water, the denser element, leaving white for fire (warmth) as the most rarefied substance of all (just as Empedokles took for granted).

“Yellow accordingly is the expression of the principle of fluidity, the functional principle (circulatory system) of the earth planet and all its creatures. Yellow therefore can be called the active color par excellence… White, on the other hand, characterizes the element which is the least physical — which in fact can almost not be conceived of except as an invisible connective (warmth) of the other elements. And indeed on the visual plane white is passive, lacking specific expressionality. It does not in any sense importune us but kindly provides without preconditions an empty space for inner freedom. This makes it highly suitable to represent, at the macrocosmic level, the sphere of pure thought, the goal of nous; the relative loftiness of this sphere may suggest, but does not compel, a connection to the Godhead. I say not compel because the Godhead is logically prior to and beyond all color. Moreover, white can be sullied by the admixture of impure elements, as can pure reason” (p31-33).

“Having established a structured visual paradigm for the relationship of the four elements among themselves [see previous post], we can now consider the associated colors when the paradigms are repeated to show the effects of the respective dominant process… [As] Empedokles himself envisioned: ‘Those elements and forces are to be understood as equally strong and coeval, yet each of them has a different function, each has its own characteristic and in the rounds of time they take their turn being dominant” (p46).

Macrocosmic progressions (p47). Click for larger version.

Fire is the creative principle in (B), (C), (D), hence white; it materializes only in (A), hence red (physical).

Air expands in (A), (B), hence yellow and increases its efforts to do so in (D) hence really a deeper yellow; it loses this quality by taking on weight in (C), hence red (immobility).

Water is the least stable in color. In (A) it is white (diminshingly physical). In (B) water signifies (retains) liquidity even in distillation (oxygen) hence red, yet it also becomes gaseous (hydrogen) thus tending toward yellow; in (C) it achieves maximum movement (yellow) and in (D) it tends toward immobility (red).

Earth is always stable to the extent that it remains the darker part in any condition. In principle, yellow is the color of dispersal, black of concentration, red of intensity or arrested movement and white of non-physicality or minimal physicality.

In all cases the colors share the tendency of the elements to mix themselves constantly and must therefore be taken as in constant gradation from one to the other.

“It must be emphasized that the progressions in [the figure above] relate to the macrocosmos, that is, more precisely, the universal, external and objective — as it were — basis of physical/physiological processes… [Whereas] the implications of elements and colors on the specific level of the human being, whose form and functions — physical, physiological, psychological and mental/moral — constantly interact with the macrocosmos. This is shown in [the figure below]” (p46-47).

Microcosmic progressions (p48). Click for larger version.

Earth is implcit in life processes at all stages providing physicality or its shadow, hence always black.

Water is more subject to movement in (F)-(G), hence yellow but more balanced and stable in (E) and (H), hence red.

Air is more subject to movement in (E) and (H), hence yellow but more stable and dense in (F) and (G), hence red.

Fire is the invisible presupposition of all processes, hence white throughout.

“In structuring the macrocosmic pictures, I employed… the hierarchical evolutionary principle of organization: fire, air, water and earth (as solid matter, the finished product of evolution). By contrast, since the psychological and mental/moral effects of interaction can be realized only by an individual consciousness, the microscopic series is therefore organized according to the biological principle. The order is exactly reversed since the human being begins with earth (physicality) at birth and rises in the end (ideally) to mental/moral ripeness” (p49).

3 Responses to “The Colors of the Four Elements”

  1. A Picture of the Four Elements « Unurthed Says:

    [...] in microscopic terms, the reference to men, whose highest earthly member is nous (fire) [see following post], translates into an overlapping of the circle of the four elements by a higher circle of which [...]

  2. PolyMathicus Says:

    The fundamental tenet of hermetic science, namely that ultimately there is only ONE SUBSTANCE, holds true: the same substance is condensed (earth), liquefied (water) , rarefied (air), and combusted (fire). As for colors, I think it is proper to leave both White and Black out of the 4 elements equations, as they are not properly colors. Black and White PREDATE colors, they are the basic duality of the world (Yin-Yang). This state of affairs is apparent in photography: sometimes black & white is MORE, not less: colors add “flavors”, but also dis-tract from the main play, the polarity Black White.

    However, it is also true that the four elements appear by mythosis of this primeval duality:
    Black-Black (E), Black-White (W), White-Black(A), White-White (F)..

    PS keep posting, good job…
    PMac

  3. The colors of asana « Unurthed Says:

    [...] Compare with the coloration of the Classical four elemental processes (see previous post): [...]

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