Red and the Color of Martyrdom:
How does a martyred saint become the symbol of love in modern day? St. Valentine was a priest in the fourth century who was beheaded in 269 A.D. as punishment for marrying young couples, contrary to Roman law under Emperor Claudius II. He is interred in a church in Terni, Italy.
The Christian Church’s liturgical colors uses red as a symbol of martyred saints. Blood is the most common association with red. It is is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit and the season of Pentecost. The use of red as the color of cardinals in the Catholic Church referred to the willingness to go to death to protect the faith.
In secular life, red is the color of emotions: both love and hate. We think of fire and blood.
Red in History and Culture:
A wealth of information on color can be found in Victoria Finlay’s book, Color: A Natural History of the Palette. Her chapter on red gives a history of its use and manufacture with facts that are anything but boring. The color carmine was made from blood. Aztecs and Incas had found that the cochineal beetle’s blood was the source of this red. During the time of the Conquistadors, this beetle that feasted on the prickly pear was a very guarded secret of Spain. Competition had been fierce between the European countries for sources of dyes for cloth and it took a French spy to discover the source of Spain’s treasure.
Another source of red was cinnabar, loved by the Romans. Lipstick had cinnabar as an ingredient, made with heavy mercury and burning sulphur. The mines in Almaden, Spain was and is one of the most productive mercury mines in the world. In the sixteenth century, punishments for prisoners gave them the choice between the galleys or working in Almaden. With no protection, heavy metal exposure in the mine caused a gruesome and early death.
The driving force behind the quest for red fueled the textile, paint and cosmetic industry from early times up to the present day.