Symbolism of Colors in Icon
|An introductory discussion on the symbolism of colors in
icons Byzantines considered that the meaning of art is beauty. They painted
icons that shined with metallic gold and bright colors. In their art each
color had its place and value. Colors - whether bright or dark - were
never mixed but always used pure. In Byzantium, color was considered to
have the same substance as words, indeed each color had its own value
and meaning. One or several colors combined together had the means to
express ideas. Being trained in Byzantine art, Russian master-iconographers
accepted and preserved the symbolism of color. Russian icons did not achieve
the same magnificence and austerity as the art of imperial Byzantium.
However, colors in Russian icons attained a brightness that was livelier
and more vibrant. The iconographers of ancient Russia learned to create
works close in inspiration to local conditions, tastes and ideals.
PurplePurple, or crimson, was a color very important in Byzantine culture. This is the color of the Celestial King and the Byzantine emperor, whom André Grabar called "God’s Lieutenant on earth." Only the Byzantine emperor could sign edicts in purple ink and sit in glory upon a purple throne, and it was only he who wore purple clothing and boots - for all others it was strictly forbidden. The leather or wood bindings of the Gospel in churches were sometimes covered with purple cloth. This color is present in icons on the clothing of the Mother of God - the Celestial Queen.
Dark-Blue and BlueDark-blue and blue indicate the infiniteness of the sky and is the symbol of another everlasting world. Dark blue was considered the color of the Mother of God who combines in her self both the terrestrial and celestial. The backgrounds of mural paintings in many Byzantine churches dedicated to the Mother of God are filled with a celestial dark blue.
GreenGreen is the color of natural, living things. It is the color of grass and leaves, youth, flowering, hope, and eternal renovation. Ancient iconographers often painted the earth green to denote where life began - such as in scenes of the Annunciation (Figure 4) and the Nativity.
BrownBrown is the color of the bare earth, dust, and all that is transient and perishable. Used in combination with the royal purple clothing of the Mother of God, this color reminds one of her human nature, which was subject to death.
Colors Not Used in IconographyA color that was never used in iconography is gray. When mixing black and white together, iniquity and righteousness, it becomes the color of vagueness, the color of the void and nonexistence. There was no place for this color in the radiant world of the icon.