What Colour Altar Cloth Today

Posted on

Colour Through the Ages in ‘Stand Out’ at Frieze Masters

Stand Out this year asks a fundamental but curiously neglected question: how much does colour matter for three-dimensional art? The intrinsic colours of metals, stones, clays and woods can be key to the aesthetic of art objects and sculpture from all over the world. The desire to capture artificially the bright colours of nature drove technological discovery. And, when applied, colour can either enhance or disrupt. Colours can be staunchly permanent, or subject to fascinating change. The origins and exploitation of colour tell a global art history. Stand Out explores the back-and-forth relationships of colour to nature, innovation and geography, deliberation and accident, to substance and surface.

LF Laudian Altar Cloth/Plain or with Embroidery
LF Laudian Altar Cloth/Plain or with Embroidery

The desire to capture artificially the bright colours of nature drove technological discovery.

Galerie Chenel

Vrinda Altar Cloth Flower of Life,  chakra colors approx
Vrinda Altar Cloth Flower of Life, chakra colors approx


Imperial Romans were mad for richly coloured marbles, sourced from across the vast empire to create opulent microcosms of their territorial power. The stones were named after their places of origin. Moralists had anxieties about the use of thin coloured marble layers that disguised less valuable materials. But properly used for solid building and sculpture, the stones’ intrinsic hues assumed potent meaning, generating a symbolic chromatic language through comparison. Two of the most celebrated marbles from the Roman era were renamed in the 19th century as rosso antico (‘ancient red’) and giallo antico (‘ancient yellow’), and successfully marketed to Grand Tourists. The ancient poet Martial thought giallo antico from Numidia (present-day Tunisia and Algeria) looked like the flanks of the lions at the Coliseum in Rome, also imported from North Africa, so the perfect medium for sculptures of these magnificent beasts. And the golden-yellow of this stone made it ideal for the temple columns of the sun god Apollo. Wine- or blood-red rosso antico from Cape Tenaro on the wild Mani Peninsula in Greece was brilliantly apt for sculptures of wanton satyrs and fauns, fierce centaurs and masked Bacchic revellers celebrating Dionysus, god of debauchery.

Vrinda Altar Cloth Flower of Life,  chakra colors approx
Vrinda Altar Cloth Flower of Life, chakra colors approx

Bust of a Satyr, Roman, 1st century CE, 18th century bust and pedestal, rosso antico marble, 62 × 35 × 23 cm

Gisèle Croës s.a.

Why are there different colored altar cloths?
Why are there different colored altar cloths?

Nature and Ingenuity

When humankind first sought to depict our interactions with nature, and to make the objects in our lives more beautiful with pattern and colour, the earth itself provided. Seven thousand years ago in northern China, Yangshao potters ground up minerals, yellow and brown ochres and red vermilions, to adorn clay vessels with rhythmic, sweeping brushwork. Later, when the Chinese started fashioning objects from bronze, they discovered that surfaces took on rich dark patinas, or were stained with vivid green verdigris as the copper alloy reacted to air, water and earth. As mining and metallurgy evolved, and as kiln technologies advanced, the ways of producing and applying colour multiplied. In China, stunning Han blues and purples, created from barium copper silicate, were developed prior to 800 BC, while red minium – a pigment made by heating white lead – may have been manufactured as early as 300 BC.This expanded range of colours enabled artists to reproduce skin tone and eye colour on sacred sculptures more faithfully, renewing the paint as it faded or dropped away, and to paint the natural world around them with ever greater vitality.

Wine Vessel with Cover (Bianhu), China, Han dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE, bronze with blue and green patina, malachite and azurite encrustation, 36 × 31cm

Raccanello & Leprince

Blue and White

One colour combination achieved worldwide success over the course of centuries. Pure white porcelain wares, developed using clays rich in pale kaolin, were first made in any quantity in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907). From there, they were exported to Abbasid Iraq, where local potters added patterns and inscriptions using the finest inky blue cobalt from the Karkas Mountains in Persia. By the 13th century, making its way back to China, this pigment would be known as huihui qing (‘Muslim blue’). Imitations of widely exported and highly valued blue-and-white porcelain produced during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) appeared everywhere: from Turkey, Japan and Italy to France, Mexico and Britain. The whites might be achieved by different, cheaper means but the use of cobalt oxide, now more readily available, was consistent. Gradually democratized, by the 18th century blue-and-white ceramics had reached a widespread popular market, their global history absorbed and celebrated in each piece.

Prahlad Bubbar


Colours have different characters, quiet or bold, hot or cold, and gain extra meaning from the places they can be seen in nature, in fire or the heavens, in spring or autumn. So, separately or combined, they could come to represent abstract concepts, virtues and ideals, the unseen and unseeable. For the designers of meditative mandalas in Buddhist Tibet, red was symbolic of vitality and strength, while blue should provoke thoughts of life, purity and infinity. For those knotting elaborately patterned carpets in the city of Kerman in Safavid Persia, the dominant colour was normally red – here invoking happiness, courage, riches, good fortune and, again, our inner life force – while blue symbolized honesty, power or the afterlife. Altar cloths painted in Rajasthan to honour the Hindu god Krishna conveyed the deity’s huge compassion and protectiveness by depicting him as blue-black in reference to rain-bearing monsoon clouds and to the all-encompassing sky, its size beyond human comprehension. During the 9th and 10th centuries, potters from the silk road city of Nishapur, in present-day Iran, made brightly coloured ceramics. When they wanted to prioritise the inscriptions, however, they applied them to white-slip-covered clay vessels in an angular, deliberate black Kufic script, enabling their uplifting messages to sing with clarion precision.

Krishna, Radha and Yamunaji Dance in the Lotus Ponds of the Yamuna, c.1840, Kota or Nathdwara, Rajasthan, India, pigments on cotton heightened with silver and gold, 2.2 × 2.3 m​

Sam Fogg


In medieval Europe, theories of beauty cherished an abundance of resplendent materials. Churches were filled with jewel-like colour, while sculptures were painted and gilded to make them appear both lifelike and glorious. One exception to this rule was ivory, rare and valuable in its own right, which was prized as a marvellous monotone. Applying colour would have detracted from the exquisite craftsmanship of the 14th century French sculptors who delicately carved combs, mirror-backs and jewel coffers to stimulate the imagination and delight the eye. When its raw material was not intrinsically precious, however, Western Renaissance sculpture was invariably polychrome. That was until Bavarian woodcarver Tilman Riemenschneider pioneered the unpainted limewood figure in the 1490s. Perhaps he wished his figures’ facial expressions and dramatic draperies to remain unobscured. In an age that was increasingly worried by religious excess, he may have wanted to reinforce the emotional honesty of his work with a material truth, eliminating any colouristic trickery. Either way, Riemenschneider’s decision to favour monochrome made simultaneous statements of artistic ambition and religious modesty.

Military ceremonies and ritualized jousts pulsated with brilliant hues.

Peter Finer


Colour can speak loudly. In a time before drab camouflage, male courage was often expressed metaphorically through peacock dress, not least in battle, and brilliant weaponry. Fighting hand-to-hand, allies could be distinguished from enemies through colourful crests, shields and uniforms. Military ceremonies and ritualized jousts pulsated with brilliant hues. The Persians might impress with gilded shields and quivers, while European steel armour could be blued with heat. In Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey and tsarist Russia, the grips of swords and daggers were fashioned from jade or a bravura array of coloured hardstones – agates and onyxes – and the pommels set with gems. This was a fashion that would spread to Britain, particularly for the hilts of hunting swords, originally used in the Middle Ages for dispatching wounded game. By the 18th century, bearing such a wonderfully adorned weapon signalled social status and functioned like jewellery. Small surprise, then, that their hilts were often supplied by the same specialists who made snuff boxes and other trinkets for men who wanted to convey simultaneous messages of boldness and luxury.

The Baird Casket, an Ivory Casket with Wild Men, The Storming of the Castle of Love, and the Quest for the Holy Grail, c.1330–50, Paris, France, ivory secured with metal straps, 11 × 25 × 13 cm

Ronald Phillips


Colour can transform a mundane setting into a place of the imagination. From the late 16th century, imports of Chinese and Japanese lacquerwork led Europeans to develop an appreciation for furniture with pictorial or decorative gilding on coloured grounds, rendered hard and glossy by layer upon layer of a highly toxic resin. By the 18th-century, fantasy ‘Chinese-style’ interiors were all the rage, especially for women, with imported lacquered furniture cut up and inserted into lavishly conceived desks and commodes. Seeking to create alternatives to these prohibitively expensive imports, in 1695 a group of British cabinetmakers obtained a patent for what became known as ‘japanning’, in which Chinese tree lacquer was substituted by insect-based shellac, covering deep greens and cheerful, lucky reds. In the later 18th century, British architect Robert Adam designed classical revivalist plasterwork and furniture in pastel shades to resemble stones or the matte colours of Josiah Wedgwood’s highly fashionable ceramics. Offering settings that were dignified yet theatrical, full of novelty and enchantment, Adam’s designs were as escapist as any chinoiserie interior.

Koopman Rare Art

Restraint and Magnificence

Silver and gold are not just precious metals; they are colours in their own right, with their own precise associations. Polished silver reflects all wavelengths of light, lending the metal a desirable white lustre. Associated with the moon, its goddess Diana and her purity, silver graced the dinner tables of those who wished their wealth to be noticed but who wanted to indicate they had other moderating values and virtues. The golden, on the other hand, was always associated with majesty, even if a thin layer of gold itself were concealing another material. Golden was the colour of El Dorado and Jason’s mythological fleece, and of Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea in Rome – a site of huge interest to late-18th-century antiquarians and neoclassicists. Within a few years, a new emperor – Napoleon Bonaparte – was crowned in Rome. Liberally employing the golden to proclaim his power, Napoleon popularised the gilding of silver throughout Europe. After the British firm Elkington & Co. patented gold electroplating in the mid-19th century, monumental gilded silver was deployed to convey the empire’s creativity, riches and industry at the world’s great fairs. The golden was now modern and majestic both. (Stand C13)

Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, The Madame Mère, Inkstand, 1812, silver-gilt, 40 cm long​

James Graham-Stewart

Permanence and Transience

The ways in which colours remain stable, or can change or fade, contribute to their meaning. In 16th-century Florence, the skilled craftsmen of the Medici workshops took the art of pietra dura to new levels by combining local Tuscan limestone with hardstones from across Europe and Asia, not least bright blue lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. In this labour-intensive process, every element had to align precisely, with the final spectacular colour emerging only when the stone pictures were polished. Exported across Europe, and set into collectors’ cabinets, these brilliantly human-made stone panels usually depicted with extraordinary illusionism nature’s most ephemeral glories – flowers, fruit, birds, butterflies, made permanent in stone as nature could not, but also poignantly reminding us of life’s brevity. The related art of marquetry, with its pictorial or decorative arrangements of variously hued woods from around the globe, became popular in the 18th century. Similarly depending on long-distance trading routes and burgeoning empires, but from even further afield, for timbers such as South American amaranth and Indian ebonies, marquetry furniture was only for the wealthiest. Yet, while their initial visual impact would have been absolutely dazzling, the colours in these woods were often fleeting, gradually mellowing into golden-brown family treasures, pieces handed down from generation to generation and signalling stability rather than novelty through their increasing harmony.

Fritsch’s vessels convey the democratic notion that pottery provides joyous colour for all.

Axel Vervoordt


In 1960 – a quarter of a century after pledging his allegiance to the sky during a late adolescent ceremony – the artist Yves Klein registered a new paint, known as International Klein Blue, made from finely ground lapis lazuli suspended in a clear synthetic resin. In celebrating the qualities of a particular pigment, Klein demonstrated the universality of this colour, which is not only found in the stone itself but in the limitless heavens and the reflective sea. In his ‘Anthropometry’ performances at the time, the artist found a way to apply the pigment that distanced the finished canvases from deliberative human effort by directing paint-covered female models as ‘living brushes’. Klein’s ‘Anthropometry’ series bears a striking resemblance to the performance-based application of paint by Japanese Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga, in works such as his untitled ‘foot paintings’ of 1954, half a world away. Both artists sought surfaces that were not artistically calculated, where colour could become yet more elemental.

Yves Klein, IKB 115, 1959, dry pigment and synthetic resin on canvas on plywood, 64 × 30 cm

Guild Gallery

Earth and Accident

Colour can result from carefully calibrated balancing acts between the natural and the human-made, the anticipated and the unpredictable. 20th-century studio potters could exploit the intrinsic colours of different clays and embrace what might happen to their vessels as they were being fired. Revelling in his creative eccentricity, turn-of-the-century American ceramicist George E. Ohr referred to himself as the ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’ and his works – each one unique – as his ‘mud babies’. Naturally slow-drying, the red clay he dug up himself from the Tchoutacabouffa River in Mississippi enabled him to make the walls of his pots thin, ruffled and crimped into bizarre shapes and curious contours. He disliked any admiration of his glazes, finally preferring to direct attention to the forms of his pieces by eschewing them. Forgotten, then rediscovered in a family garage in 1968, his pots have inspired ceramic artists ever since. On the other side of the globe, equally important efforts were being made to reverse the sad decline in the production of historic Japanese Bizen ware. Especially in the years around World War II, potters returned to traditional methods. The high shrinkage of their red Imbe clay made their vessels unsuitable for glazing. Instead, they derived their colour from the clay’s naturally variated pigmentation, which emerged in multi-day, extremely high temperature firings using anagama (tunnel) kilns. Crucial too were the ways that different ashes, from dark woods or pale rice husk, might randomly settle and vitrify on the vessels. These strands, increasingly entwined, proved highly influential for ceramic artists all over the world, but especially in Japan and the US, making pots with personalities as individual as their own.

Eisuke Morimoto, Bizen Ware, 1996–98, ceramic, dimensions variable

Colour can transform a mundane setting into a place of the imagination.

Lullo · Pampoulides


Until recently, Renaissance sculpture was usually discussed as exclusively monotone – whether made from cool white marble or the warmer hues of bronze, terracotta and wood – seen as a means of deliberately differentiating its subjects from the viewer, elevating the sculptures above day-to-day experience. Yet there is a parallel history of polychrome sculpture – in Catholic churches, on ships’ prows, in fairgrounds – that sought to reduce the distance between subject and spectator, between art and life. Spanish sculptors in particular maintained and promoted a tradition of stunningly lifelike and vibrantly hued Madonnas, bloodied Christs and suffering saints with glass eyes and bone teeth. And this was not just about realism. The Baroque Spanish painter and sculptor Pedro Duque y Cornejo, for instance, produced figures so extravagantly energized by pose and colour that they appear almost to exist in altered states. His was an art that was trippy, ecstatic, and, in its own way, elevated.

Pedro Duque y Cornejo and Pedro Roldán, Saint John the Evangelist, 1678–1757, parcel-gilt and polychromed wood and glass, 91 cm

Adrian Sassoon


Elizabeth Fritsch is seriously playful. She messes with volume, making flattened pots with single viewpoints, then further complicating their surfaces with chromatic rhythms that operate independently of their form, and then often arranging them in colour groups where each piece contributes to a theme. Hand-built, biscuit-fired and painted with ready-made coloured slips, Fritsch’s vessels convey the democratic notion that pottery provides joyous colour for all. Her coloration can recall the intense hues of the blue rivers, green mosses and autumn leaves of the artist’s Shropshire childhood, and its iterative or percussive patterning is linked to her first training as a musician. As inspired by the Renaissance painter Raphael as by 1960s op art, Fritsch’s carefully calculated arrangements seem to vibrate and swell, fascinatingly contradicting the forms of her pots. Breaking with both the utilitarian and the emphasis on muted colours that had become such a convention of studio pottery, Fritsch’s remarkable approach to colour reminds us of how many different ingredients can come together to shape a highly individual artistic pathway.

Elizabeth Fritsch, Blown Away Vase Over The Edge; Fireworks V, 2004, handbuilt stoneware, 50 × 20 × 17 cm

Friedman Benda


Postmodern designer Ettore Sottsass was a first-rank disrupter. As his most celebrated items of furniture so startlingly demonstrate, one of his principal weapons was blazing colour. The unified structure of his totemic Carlton bookshelves (1981), made by the Milan-based Memphis Group, formed in 1981, was, for instance, deliberately confused by angled laminates of punchy colour, jangling the eye with their artifice and variety, a wrestling match between substance and surface. Sottsass’s radical rejection of the regimented clarity of utopian modernism was inspired by his childhood experiences of nature in northern Italy and a predilection for geometric and totemic colour reinforced by early trips to India and the US. His 1950s ceramic designs show the impact of abstract painting: more about mood than purpose, his objects feature blocks of strongly contrasting colour, resulting in a range of functional items with a tremendous new charisma. As Sottsass embraced a kind of colouristic anarchy, he held up a broken mirror to the world.

Ettore Sottsass, Totem, 1962, ceramic, 88 × 35 × 35 cm

Rose Uniacke

Structure and Improvisation

Found colour can be used to very different effect and, in the late 20th century, the long-standing question of the natural versus the artificial, the gentle as opposed to the declarative, was a crucial one for two highly innovative textile artists. Peter Collingwood was modest about his abilities as a colourist, but his deliberately muted hues are actually a crucial element in his practice. His linen works of the mid-1960s were made using a loom of his own devising, on which he could give angles to normally parallel and vertical warp threads. An admirer of bright diagonal Bedouin patterns, Collingwood pared back colour for his own ‘macro-gauzes’ to make superbly structured and highly sculptural textile abstractions, whose numinous hues draw the viewer into their method of making. Translucency is just as important for Simone Prouvé. Her colour journey began in the early 1960s, when the tones she found in existing fibres became the starting points for her abstract, or semi-abstract, tapestries, improvised like jazz. Since the 1990s, Prouvé has researched and incorporated non-flammable synthetic threads – like Clevyl, Kanekalon and Kevlar – into her work, allowing herself to be guided by their unexpected textures and colours, by how they behave in light, by their treasured irregularities.

Stand Out is on view at Frieze Masters throughout the week.

Main Image: Simone Prouvé, Panneau 031205, 2005, Kevlar, 1.9 × 1.1 m