Sacred and Legendary Art – Of the Significance of Colors

In very early Art we find colors used in a symbolical or mystic sense, and, until the ancient principles and traditions were wholly worn out of memory or set aside by the later painters, certain colors were appropriate to certain subjects and personages, and could not arbitrarily be applied or misapplied. In the old specimens of stained glass we find these significations scrupulously attended to. Thus:

White, represented by the diamond or silver, was the emblem of light, religious purity, innocence, virginity, faith, joy, and life. Our Saviour wears white after His resurrection. In the judge it indicated integrity; in the rich man humility; in the woman chastity. It was the color consecrated to the Virgin, who, however, never wears white except in pictures of the Assumption,

Red, the ruby, signified fire, divine love, the Holy Spirit, heat, or the creative power, and royalty. White and red roses expressed love and innocence, or love and wisdom, as in the garland with which the angel crowns Saint Cecilia. In a bad sense, red signified blood, war, hatred, and punishment. Red and black combined were the colors of purgatory and the Devil.

Blue, or the sapphire, expressed heaven, the firmament, truth, constancy, fidelity. Christ and the Virgin wear the red tunic and the blue mantle, as signifying heavenly love and heavenly truth. (In the Spanish schools the color of our Saviour’s mantle is generally a deep rich violet.) The same colors were given to Saint John the evangelist, with this difference, that he wore the blue tunic and the red mantle; in later pictures the colors are sometimes red and green.

Yellow, or gold, was the symbol of the sun; of the goodness of God; initiation, or marriage; faith, or fruitfulness. Saint Joseph, the husband of the Virgin, wears yellow. In pictures of the apostles, Saint Peter wears a yellow mantle over a blue tunic. In a bad sense, yellow signifies inconstancy, jealousy, deceit; in this sense it is given to the traitor Judas, who is generally habited in dirty yellow.

Green, the emerald, is the color of spring; of hope, particularly hope in immortality; and of victory, as the color of the palm and the laurel.

Violet, the amethyst, signified love and truth: or passion and suffering. Hence it is the color often worn by the martyrs. In some instances our Saviour, after His resurrection, is habited in a violet instead of a blue mantle. The Virgin also wears violet after the crucifixion. Mary Magdalene, who as patron saint wears the red robe, as penitent wears violet and blue, the colors of sorrow and of constancy. In the devotional representation of her by Timoteo della Vite (Bologna Gallery), she wears red and green, the colors of love and hope.

Gray, the color of ashes, signified mourning, humility, and innocence accused; hence adopted as the dress of the Franciscans (the Grey Friars); but it has since been changed for a dark rusty brown.

Black expressed the earth, darkness, mourning, wickedness, negation, death; and was appropriate to the Prince of Darkness. In some old illuminated manuscripts, Jesus, in the Temptation, wears a black robe. White and black together signified purity of life, and mourning or humiliation; hence adopted by the Dominicans and the Carmelites.

The mystical application of attributes and colors was more particularly attended to in that class of subjects I have distinguished as devotional. In the sacred historical pictures we find that the attributes are usually omitted as superfluous, and characteristic propriety of color often sacrificed to the general effect.

These introductory observations and explanations will be found illustrated in a variety of forms as we proceed; and readers will be led to make comparisons and discover analogies and exceptions for themselves. I must stop here; yet one word more.

All the productions of Art, from the time it has been directed and developed by Christian influences, may be regarded under three different aspects.

1. The purely religious aspect, which belongs to one mode of faith;

2. The poetical aspect, which belongs to all;

3. The artistic, which is the individual point of view, and has reference only to the action of the intellect on the means and material employed.

There is pleasure, intense pleasure, merely in the consideration of Art as Art; in the faculties of comparison and nice discrimination brought to bear on objects of beauty; in the exercise of a cultivated and refined taste on the productions of mind in any form whatever. But a threefold, or rather a thousand fold, pleasure is theirs who to a sense of the poetical unite a sympathy with the spiritual in Art, and who combine with delicacy of perception and technical knowledge more elevated sources of pleasure, more variety of association, habits of more excursive thought. Let none imagine, however, that, in placing before the uninitiated these unpretending volumes, I assume any such superiority as is here implied. Like a child that has sprang on a little way before its playmates, and caught a glimpse through an opening portal of some varied Eden within, all gay with flowers and musical with birds, and haunted by divine shapes which beckon onward; and, after one rapturous survey, runs back and catches its companions by the hand and hurries them forward to share the new-found pleasure, the yet unexplored region of delight; even so it is with me: I am on the outside, not the inside, of the door I open.