As you look at icons of the Mother of God, and compare them to more familiar Western paintings of her, you will probably notice that the color of her garments differs between the two. Western artists, especially more contemporary ones, usually depict her in a white gown with a sky-blue robe/veil over it. Iconographers most frequently show her in a dark blue gown with a red outer cloak/veil. Often the red robe is decorated with gold, to indicate the presence of the Divine.
I did some research and reflecting on this, as I worked on my red-robed Annunciation icon of Mary. The use of color in the icon is more akin to modern abstract art than to realistic or representational genres of painting, in that color not only illuminates and enriches form, but communicates directly and symbolically. The modern abstract artist Kandinsky stated: “Colour provokes a psychic vibration. Its superficial effect is, therefore, only the means by which art reaches the soul.” He also commented that “Colour is a power which directly influences the soul.” Wassily Kandinsky “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”
There are no clearcut answers or rules about icon colors. There is Holy Tradition through the centuries, yet specific explanations concerning original prototypes seem to have been clouded over, even lost, over time. Very early images, and Serbian icons, sometimes show Mary in blue, but Byzantine canon is pretty consistent about clothing her in red. The red is a purplish red. This color often represents royalty. Mary is the Queen of Heaven, and her robes testify to her regal and exalted status in a way instantly identifiable to Byzantine Christians. (Interestingly, red also represents priestliness.)
I suspect that the Western blue clothing is an association with the skies and thus Heaven, in the Roman Catholic Church. While likewise honoring her as Queen of Heaven, we do not have the cultural association of royal colors, so we link her with the color of the sky in statues, illustrations and paintings. Blue is at times also used to suggest contemplativeness in both the East and the West.
An interesting Orthodox reflection that I came across also referred to the sky, in explaining the red color. Mary was honored as the bearer of the Morning Star, as ushering in the dawn of a new age. The red sky of dawn was equated with the color of the robe. Leonid Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons.
Another reflection mentioned not only that red was an Imperial color, but also referred to martyrdom and the Blood of Christ, and that it is indicative of suffering. John Taylor, Icon Painting.
A leading expert in iconography, Irina Yazykova, noted that Mary’s clothing is the mirror opposite of icons of the Christ Pantocrator, who always wears a red undergarment and a blue outer robe. She explained that this symbolized the unique status of Mary, the human being through whom God became incarnate. It testifies to the meeting of heaven and earth, divine and human. Just as Jesus took on a human nature with His divine nature, so Mary was transfigured by grace and reflected the Divine. Irina Yazykova, The History of Icon Painting.
Certainly the colors in the icon are rich with symbolism, with profound messages to convey to the prayerful viewer.