Blue on Blue: Indigo and Cobalt in New Spain

Saltillo Serape / <em>Sarape de Saltillo</em>

Saltillo Serape

The color blue has always held a special place in history. The color of both water and sky, it is no wonder that its symbolism reverberates through time and space. Among the pre-Columbian Maya, blue was the color of Chaak, the rain god, and of human sacrifice. In classical Rome, blue eyes were considered demonic and blue was associated with death and the underworld. In China, blue has long represented immortality. Among the Navajo, blue is the color of South, one of the four sacred directions. Blue Lake in Taos is a lake sacred to the Taos Pueblo Indians. Blue has long been the color of the Virgin Mary’s mantle, symbolizing her virtue.  Today, blue is often used to signify spirituality and contemplation. If our mood is blue, we may “sing the blues.” We have blue jeans, blue grass music, blue collar workers, blue bloods--it is a versatile color.

In colonial New Spain and 19th century New Mexico, blue was a vital part of the artistic palette. Indigo and cobalt were just two of the sources of blue. Indigo is a plant, grown in tropical areas around the world, whose leaves produce both a blue dye and a blue pigment. Cobalt, a by-product of silver mining, is ground into a powder for pigment.  Indigo dyestuff and indigo-dyed fabrics, as well as cobalt-decorated ceramics, were shipped on the supply wagons up the Camino Real from Mexico City to Santa Fe.

The fabric business was substantial in the colonial period, and all varieties of dyed garments and fabrics were brought north. Some of this fabric was destined for the vecinos, the Spanish and criollo residents of New Mexico, some for the soldiers of the Presidio, some for the blue-robed Franciscan friars, and some—after 1786—for Indian allies. In 1788 alone, 731 varas (yards) of blue cloth were delivered to the Santa Fe presidio to be made into clothing and uniforms. Vecinos and indios alike used the dye to color their textiles and art: frazadas, or blankets, were used for warmth and for seating; Saltillo-style ponchos were thrown over the shoulder or covered herder, vaquero, and merchant at night on the trail; embroidered colchas or bedspreads adorned both home and altar; and santeros used indigo to paint their holy images.

For the three centuries of the colonial period, potters in New Spain flooded the market with blue-and-white ceramics decorated with cobalt glaze. As in Europe, pottery in the Chinese style was the most valued, and guild regulations even specified that the finest grade of pottery was to imitate that of China—specifically the Ming dynasty blue-and-white porcelains. Jars to hold chocolate and medicinal herbs, inkwells, saltcellars, plates, platters, bowls and cups were decorated with motifs of cobalt blue inspired not only by China but by Spain, France, Italy and the Middle East as well. Few elite households could be found without pieces of this stunning blue-and-white earthenware, a new world interpretation of a centuries-old art form.

Today’s accomplished weavers and embroiderers have revived the use of natural indigo, creating textiles that are both functional and beautiful. Santeros have renewed the use of indigo as a pigment and experiment with this and other natural colors on their retablos and bultos. And the potters in Mexico continue to produce hand-made blue-and-white vessels that have lost none of their earlier appeal. Blue continues to permeate our world.

Blue on Blue: Indigo and Cobalt in New Spain