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Painting of rainbow with four colors: teal, pink, green, dark red

Rainbows: A Journey Through Their History in Art


The inspiring power of rainbows is evident in a collection of images that shows their role in our imagination and subjectivity.

The translucent silhouette, the unexpected, ever-premonitory quality; all have made rainbows the protagonists of myths and legends since time immemorial. Intuitively, they’re associated with a path leading to heaven, to light, and with other symbols of that connection between our own world and others. Their explanation as a natural phenomenon may seem simple, but humankind has long marveled at their ephemeral existence. And thus, humankind has also honored rainbows by representing them in works of art and in nearly every kind of narrative.

Mythology touches, even, the rainbow’s very name. In Greco-Roman cosmogonies, the arch of color was a path, drawn by the messenger Iris, to connect heaven and earth. For the Chinese, it was a crack in the sky, made by five colored stones cast by the mother goddess Nüwa. For the Hindus, it was Rama’s, (an incarnation of Vishnu) arch. And in Norse mythologies, the phenomenon represented a bridge connecting Asgard and Midgard, the kingdoms of gods and men respectively. Thus, it was called Bifröst.

In the Buddhist world, the rainbow symbolizes the highest state an aspirant may reach before Nirvana or enlightenment. For Mayan cultures, the arch was actually a tiara worn by Ix Chel, a mother goddess associated with the jaguar and with rain. Finally, the rainbow, or rather, its birthplace, is also a place of mischievous leprechauns – the elves of Irish mythology – and where they hide their pots of gold, still a nod to the value attributed to the singular event of a rainbow.

Our own time finds a flood of rainbows in popular culture. Not least among these is as a symbol of diversity and respect. The children of light, in art, rainbows have been a motive for peace, for nature and often, for mysticism, especially in religious art. Below are myriad rainbow images from Western art, to enjoy in their many and always opulent representations…

Medieval painting of rainbow with mythical creatures on either side.

1. Folio 2 (Genesis), Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch (1550).

Medival painting of people in boats on river with blue-white rainbow overhead.

2. De zielenvisserij, Adriaen Pietersz (1614).

Old world sketch of rainbow with hero fighting monters.

3. Et apprehendit Draconem in Thesaurus Thesaurorum et Secretum (1725).

Old-world sketch of waterfall and rainbows refracting light.

4. Physica Sacra, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer (1731).

Poem by William Blake and rainbow illustration in background.

5. A Pindaric Ode (illustrations for Thomas Gray’s poems), William Blake (1797).

A Double Rainbow over the Fields in the Country, Royce (1805).

6. A Double Rainbow over the Fields in the Country, Royce (1805).

Landscape with Rainbow, Alexey Savrasov (1881)

7. Landscape with Rainbow, Alexey Savrasov (1881).

Abstract painting of rainbows by Wassily Kandinsky.

8. Cossacks, Wassily Kandisnsky (1910-1911).

Illustration of man with camera and pilot falling out of old plane.

9. Rainbow Obstacle, Hindernis Regenbogen (1911).

Abstract painting of rainbow by Paul Klee

10. With the Rainbow, Paul Klee (1917).

Images: Public Domain Review

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