Icons have been an integral part of the Orthodox Christian Church for centuries. These distinctive pieces of religious art are known not only for their beauty and importance for prayer but also for their many symbols hidden in every detail. Color, in particular, is a very symbolic and expressive instrument in iconography, which sometimes expresses just as much as words.
Below is a quick guide to the main colors used in iconography and the spiritual realities they convey, which will help you understand Russian icons better.
Color as an expressive instrument in iconography
The blue color symbolizes the mystical life, mystery, majesty, and heaven. It stands for the Kingdom of God and is also associated with the infinite sky seen from the earth. Besides, the dark blue color in icons usually symbolizes the Mother of God.
Red plays one of the most important roles in iconography. It has two opposite meanings. On one hand, it is the color of fire, blood, heat, love, godly energy, life-giving strength, and glory. In antique Orthodox icons, it was often used to depict the saint warriors. On the other hand, red is the color of the earth and can mean humanity. The clothes of saint martyrs are also usually red, which emphasizes their sheer truthfulness.
3. Yellow & Gold
Yellow and gold occupy a special place in iconography. These colors are associated with the glory of God, splendor, sanctity, and divine energy. For this reason, icons and mosaics usually have a golden background. The golden color is also often used for depicting details, clothes, and certain attributes of the holy figures, such as bowls, candlesticks, and lamps, symbolizing the environment of the heavenly kingdom, sanctity, and cleanliness.
The purple color is often linked with wealth and power. It was the color of the emperor in ancient times, as only the emperor could wear purple clothes and shoes, sit on a purple throne, and write in purple ink. Thereby, the main Christian figures – Christ and the Holy Mother – are often depicted in purple to underline their glory and majesty.
White color is associated with purity, cleanness, simplicity, innocence, wholeness, and the divine word. The swaddling bands of babies, the garments of angels, and the burial cloths of the dead are usually depicted in white. The saints wear white robes, especially those persecuted for their faith, as a symbol of their righteousness. Only kind people who did good and walked in truth are depicted in white.
The green color is a symbol of natural living things, earth’s vegetation, hope, freshness, fertility, flowering, eternal renovation, and youth. In the clothing of martyrs, there are usually touches of green because their blood is meant to be the seed of the Church. Green can also represent new life and regeneration, as well as denote where life began.
Brown symbolizes inert matter, earth, dust, and everything perishable. It is the color of dirt, denoting the temporary nature of created things. Brown is usually mixed with other colors in clothing to underline the fragility of humanity. Sometimes, it is linked with holy poverty.
The black color typically represents sickness, death, evil, and other dark spiritual concepts. It is often found in association with demons. However, when it comes to the monks’ clothing, black means renunciation of sin and temptation.
One more interesting fact is that the gray color is never used in Orthodox iconography. Gray is a mixture of black and white, sin and righteousness. Symbolizing vagueness, it has no place in religion and iconography in particular.