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Saffron and oranges

Orange is one of the brightest colours on the spectrum so obviously it has always captured the human imagination.

Pommes and oranges

It may not stun you to learn that the colour orange derives its name from the fruit of the same title, but where that word comes from is quite the globetrotting story.

Orange derives from Old French, in which the fruit was known as pomme d’orange, which in turn came from the Italian word arancia. Here’s where it gets confusing. Arancia is actually an adapted version of the Arabic word nāranj, which in itself is taken from the Sanskrit word naranga. Breathe.

The first recorded use of orange in the English language is in a will from 1512 which is now kept in the Public Record Office. Prior to the introduction of orange to the English language, saffron was in common use and described the colour. Most common though was the use of the words ġeolurēad and ġeolucrog which referred to a reddish orange and a yellowish orange respectively.

The King of Carrots

As well as its namesake citrus fruit, orange is a colour that in nature we often associate with autumn and tubers. Carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes are all orange and their colouration is thanks to a chemical called carotene. Carotenes are pigments that are used by plants to convert light energy into the chemical energy they need to grow. The leaves of deciduous trees turn orange in the autumn as the production of green chlorophyll ends leaving the orange pigmentation of carotene only.

Although carotene derives its name from carrots, prior to the 18th-century carrots were not orange at all. European carrots were usually white or red and carrots from Asia were purple. Orange carrots were actually bred by Dutch farmers to pay tribute to William I of Orange who had helped lead the Dutch in their independence struggle against the Spanish Habsburgs.

One side-effect of orange entering the lexicon so late is that a number of animals that are distinctly orange in colouration are often referred to as red such as foxes and squirrels. Orange may not seem an ideal colouration for these animals given they spend a lot of their time amongst green leaves, but it still provides useful camouflage amongst the brown of wooded areas.

Worth its weight in saffron

For a very long time it was difficult for orange pigments to be produced by humans in great quantities safely. From ancient times through to the middle ages, orange dyes were produced using realgar, orpiment, minium, and massicot, but these minerals are highly toxic.

Saffron was a natural source of orange pigment but proved far too expensive to be used to produce large quantities. Saffron is best known as a spice derived from the Crocus sativus (saffron crocus) and has been highly prized since the era of the Minoans at least. Saffron has always been highly prized throughout Europe and Asia for use as a spice, in perfumes, as pigment, and as medicine.

Saffron is so highly valued as it’s quite simply a case of there being too little to go around. Saffron itself is the stigma of the saffron crocus’ flower, with each flower only producing three stigmas. To put that in perspective – a pound of saffron is at least 70,000 threads. This rarity means that even in the modern day with all our intensive farming a pound of saffron can cost as much as US$5000.

As science progressed and orange pigments such as chrome orange could be made synthetically the colour took on importance for a number of artistic movements. Orange was highly popular with the Pre-Raphaelites of Britain inspired by the flowing red-orange hair of Elizabeth Siddal, a model and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists such as Monet, Van Gogh, and Gaugin, were also keen adopters of orange in their work. Colour theory dictated that placing orange next to blue brought out that vibrancy of both colours and so it is common to find these colours in many of the best known paintings of these movements.

  • Flaming June, Flaming June by Sir Frederic Leighton, a Pre-Raphaelite painter, Public Domain
    Flaming June by Sir Frederic Leighton, a Pre-Raphaelite painter, Public Domain

A "Glorious" colour

Due to the House of Orange-Nassau, one of the most important European royal houses in history, the political connotations of Orange are still felt across the continent. Although they are now known as the ancestors of the royal family of the Netherlands, the House of Orange-Nassau originated in the 12th century in the Principality of Orange in southern France.

The principality was not named for the fruit but rather took its name from a Roman city founded in 35BC called Arausio, for a local Celtic river god.

The Principality of Orange was inherited by William I, the son of the Count of Nassau, in 1544, who would unite the titles upon his father’s death to create the House of Orange-Nassau. William would become a particular favourite of the Habsburgs who ruled the Holy Roman Empire and was installed as governor of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht. However, outraged at the violence the Habsburgs were perpetrating against the Protestant population of the Netherlands, William would turn against his masters and lead the fledgling nation in its fight for independence during the Eight Years’ War.

  • William I, William I, Prince of Orange, Public Domain
    William I, Prince of Orange, Public Domain

Due to the actions of William of Orange, orange is now a colour associated with both the Netherlands and Protestantism. This connection between the colour orange and Protestantism in time spread to the British Isles as William’s descendant and namesake, William III of England, would depose the Catholic King James II alongside Queen Mary II during the Glorious Revolution.

To commemorate William and Mary’s victories, Protestants in Ireland adopted orange as their colour to honour the Dutchman. The orange of the Republic of Ireland’s flag represents the Protestant communities of the nation and in Northern Ireland, the Loyal Orange Institution, or Orange Order as it is more commonly known, is a Protestant and British unionist society named for William.


It is not just Protestants though who place specific importance on the colour orange. It is a hugely significant colour in both Buddhism and Hinduism too, and it is common to see monks of both religions wearing saffron robes across Asia.

In Hinduism, it is common to see Krishna adorned in saffron clothing, and the colour is associated with sacrifice, abstinence, and a search for salvation. The flag of India includes a saffron sash to represent the Hindus of the multicultural nation.

For Buddhists, saffron and orange is the colour of illumination and it was decreed by the Buddha himself that monks should wear saffron robes. Monks of the different branches of Buddhism have adopted different coloured robes, and it is the monks of Theravada Buddhism that is mainly practiced in southeast Asia that have chosen orange as their colour.

  • Buddhist Monks, Buddhist monks dye their robes not with saffron but most often with turmeric
    Buddhist monks dye their robes not with saffron but most often with turmeric

Safety first

For many of us, orange will be a colour associated primarily with safety.

Orange is the colour most easily seen in dim light or against water making it a colour that is commonly used when high-visibility is required. This has seen it used to colour lifeboats, life jackets, bridges, prisoner uniforms, and even astronaut suits.

Even black boxes used to record flight data on aeroplanes are actually coloured orange so they are easy to spot with the naked eye.

Playlist ORANGE

In recent years plenty of musical artists have turned to shades of orange for inspiration, check out our orange-themed Spotify playlist to see what we're talking about.

Whether it's Frank Ocean's debut "Chanel ORANGE" or R.E.M's more sinisterly named "Orange Crush", it's a great leaping off point for you to find out plenty more about this fascinating colour.


Don't forget though that you can learn plenty more about a whole spectrum of colours at our exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed.