In Phoenician times, the source for this color was obtained from the murex shells found along the Mediterranean, in what is now Lebanon. The dye made from the mollusk was odiferous but highly sought. The Old Testament describes the ten curtains that were to be made for the Tabernacle. They were to be blue, purple and scarlet. Christ, when he was crowned with thorns, wore a purple robe before the crucifixion. In the Book of Acts, Lydia, an early Greek Christian, was a merchant of this valuable color. In Christian liturgical uses, purple is worn by bishops. It is also for the seasons of Advent and Lent. Mary wore purple in Byzantine art in the seventh century.
In much of the world, it was, above all, exclusively for royalty. For instance, Cleopatra’s sails were richly dyed in this hue when she met with Julius Caesar. The color was symbolic of the emperor in the Roman Empire. This color is also used for sorrow and penitence, because of the association with Christ’s suffering. In England, it was worn for mourning up until the 1950’s.
Modern Synthetics of Purple:
Perkins discovered a synthetic source of purple using coal tar in 1856. He called it Tyrian Purple, hearkening back to the dye from Tyre in Lebanon.
In today’s artist pigments, a variety of purples can be found in watercolor: Rose of Ultramarine, Quinachridone, Imperial, Cobalt violet, Ultramarine red, Ultramarine Violet, Carbazole Violet, Permanent Violet, Perylene Violet.
Lightfastness of Modern Pigments:
Daniel Smith’s ratings of extra fine watercolors, all of the above named pigments have a “1” or excellent rating for lightfastness. In my own mixing, my “go to” choice is Quinachridone Rose and Prussian Blue. For a less intense violet mixture, try substituting Cobalt Blue for the Prussian Blue. Both combinations are transparent and pleasing.