Red Mary, Blue Mary

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.

About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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3 Responses to Red Mary, Blue Mary

  1. Biltrix says:

    Nice post. I just thought I’d share this photo I took with my iPod this morning of “Our Lady of the Rosary” (lousy photo; beautiful painting). I’m actually not sure that this is the name of the painting and I can’t remember the name of the artist, but she’s a contemporary Russian painter. I can get that information later.

    The reason I think this painting is relevant to your post is that the artist fuses the eastern and western traditions in this painting. Mary is robed in red and blue — red outer garment, blue inner garment.

    The painting depicts the ushering in of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary (which may be the title of the painting). The angels in the painting represent the four mysteries of the rosary. The angel in the right corner, blowing the horn, represents the glorious mysteries and the announcement of the Luminous Mysteries introduced by Blessed John Paul II. Although you cannot see it clearly in this photo, John Paul II’s image is reflected inside the bell of the trumpet.

    I will probably post an article on Biltrix about this piece next Thursday (the day dedicated to the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary), but first, I need to get all my facts straight about the painting itself and the artist. At any rate, I hope you don’t mind my sharing this link to the photo here:

    God bless!

    • reinkat says:

      Thank you, Biltrix. It is a lovely painting and I look forward to reading about it on the future post. There are icons with Mary in blue gowns, and Rennaisance-type paintings with her in red ones . . . art is a bridge between the Eastern and Western churches.

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