Mary in Blue; Jesus in Red; Why so symbolic?

In artistic depictions of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, both characters are depicted in distinct colours. Jesus is regularly shown wearing Red robes, Mary in blue. Why those colours, what do they connote?

Good or evil?

Paintings of the nativity scene often bathe the baby Jesus in a brilliant divine white hue. This white hue would follow Jesus throughout later depictions.  However, as Jesus is depicted in his adulthood, he is adorned in bright red or vermilion robes.

At first the use of red suggests a sign of evil, of sin, of the devil or hellfire. However, it is also considered a symbol of Jesus’ sacrifice and the blood of Christ.

With Christmas, Red has two meanings. The first, also connotes the blood and death of Christ. It became customary to add red berries to the green wreath, the green symbolising the birth of Jesus. The second use of Red at Christmas recognises the red apples of the Paradise tree and the fall of Adam. With apple trees naked during the Winter period, people would customarily tie apples to the branches. Eventually this became such a custom that people began tying them to Christmas trees.

Pure and rare

With the rarity and expense of blue dye, the colour was often given a value much greater than that of gold. These facets of the colour soon featured heavily in the depictions of figures in art, for only the most pure and godly figures.

Blue became associated with the Virgin Mary in the early 5th Century, and she was painted using the Marian Blue. This became her official colour thanks to the prevalence of religious sects like the cult of the Virgin and Mariology.

Through paintings produced in the 15th Century, the Madonna’s image took on a more maternal image. She was also painted sporting both red with blue. For her painters of this time, Rogier van der Weyden ‘The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning’ and Gentile da Fabriano’s ‘Nativity’, Mary was depicted with the duality of being both a royal and pure figure, as well as one exuding motherhood and passion.

Biblical roots

According to Dr R Jared Staudt, blue is the colour of the Israeli people, as mentioned in the book of Numbers in the bible.

Passage 15:38-39 of Numbers says that, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put upon the tassel of each corner a cord of blue; and it shall be to you a tassel to look upon and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to go after wantonly.’

This goes further with the suggestion that the Virgin Mary was a second Ark of the Covenant, understood to contain the Divine Presence of God within her.

‘the Levites are to ‘spread over [the Ark of the Covenant] a cloth all of blue’ (4:6). And further: ‘And over the table of the bread of the Presence they shall spread a cloth of blue’ (4:7).’, Numbers.

Heavenly colours

In the Byzantine and Orthodox depictions of Jesus and Mary, the colours are painted together as either outer or inner wear. Blue in this case is show as the symbol of the divine and of transcendence. Red is then considered more connected with blood and connection with earth.

In this case, Jesus is dressed in red and wrapped in blue. This shows his humanity wrapped in divinity. Mary is the opposite and this supposedly shows that she gave birth to a divine being despite her humanity.

Gender roles

Writer Peggy Orenstein says that this use of colour in biblical depictions, helps us understand gender colours today.

Red or more Pink was considered a hue connected with masculinity. Blue on the other hand was infused with the purity and fidelity of the Virgin Mary and therefore feminine.

Orenstein proposes that, although we now recognise these colours as distinct to the male and female genders, they were in fact connected with the relationship between mothers and sons.

This is why in classical art, males including Jesus are adorned in a Reddish/Pink pastel shade.

Fast forward over a millennia, and the colours blue and pink are symbolic with children’s marketing, Orenstein says.