I was in Astoria, Queens over the weekend, and after spending some time there and was walking back to my car, I noticed this unusual architectural detail on a brick home near the edge of the park. There’s something about the way these white columns and balustrade* act as a dramatic focal point on an otherwise typical brick structure that grabbed my attention. But as I walked by, I also noticed the decorative urns with blue flames, and had to zoom in for a closer look.
(* A “baluster” is an upright support found in architectural features; a group of balusters supporting a handrail – as seen surrounding this second story terrace – is referred to as a “balustrade.” I had to look that one up, so I could know how to refer to what I was seeing here)
The choice of blue for the flames made me curious – is there some specific meaning to this? A gas flame might appear blue, but I don’t think this particular use of the color is meant as any sort of reference to gas flames. Astoria has long been known as having the largest Greek community in New York, so an internet search for “blue flame Greek art” came up with this unexpected tidbit: “In Greek mythology, blue flame usually represents opposition, probably due to blue being the “opposite” of yellow/orange. Scientifically, blue flame is produced by burning sulfur, something Christians usually associate with hell.” This led my curiosity to dig deeper, and I learned there’s something known as “Greek Fire,” which was a flame-throwing weapon used by the Eastern Roman Empire in the 7th Century. There’s a question as to what color it might have been, as the original recipe for Greek Fire has been lost to history, with some suggestions that it included potassium nitrate, or perhaps calcium oxide. All they know is that it was some sort of mysterious chemical concoction which would continue to burn on water, which explains its use in naval battles – check out this image from an ancient manuscript which describes a fleet of the Romans using “Greek Fire” to set ablaze the fleet of their enemies (but – of course as you can see, the flame is not blue).
Okay, I know I’m going way off on a tangent as to why there might be sculptural flames painted blue on a terrace of a home in Astoria, it could simply be the result of a Greek homeowner using a shade of blue that is quite common throughout all of Greece, as one has no doubt seen in pictures such as these or pictures like these. Even though that could be the simple answer, the whole aspect of Greek history and chemical weapons and ancient manuscripts seemed like an interesting detour to share here.
If anyone has any other theories as to why these flames are blue, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.