The Icon Speaks with Colors
When I took piano lessons as a boy, the teacher reminded me that music was a language that’s read and spoken by the performers. She said that through the notes they play and how they play them, musicians reveal the underlying meaning of the written text.
The same idea exists in praying and reading of icons, especially in relation to colors. In gazing upon the icon, contemplating the meaning behind the various displays of color can inform and enhance our prayer experience, revealing the message of redemption.
Let’s begin with the color of Mary’s outer garment. At first glance the color appears to be black. It’s actually hyacinth blue, a shade that represents the cosmos. As the Mother of God, Mary is the vessel who carries the seed of redemption. Through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, God will redeem all of creation.
In the Book of Sirach is a passage believed to identify Mary as the fulfillment of the promise God made to Adam and Eve. “From the mouth of the Most High I came forth, and covered the earth like a mist. In the heights of heaven I dwelt, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. The vault of heaven I compassed alone, and walked through the deep abyss” (Sirach 24:3–5). In contemplating this unique color blue, we also experience the reality of this promise and see in Mary an image of ourselves as someone who has been redeemed by Jesus Christ.
The next color to contemplate in the icon of Mary’s image is her inner garment. Red symbolizes redemption. Mary reveals to us the redeeming love of Jesus, which we see in her arms. This color continues the theme of God’s promise of redemption.
In her arms, her Son, Jesus, is clothed in the colors of the paschal mystery, including green. In iconography, green represents the greening of the earth and it’s a symbol of our humanity. During December, we celebrate the clothing of Jesus in our human condition, and thus the green we see this month reminds us of our Lord coming to us. Also notice the red cincture around Jesus’ waist, again a symbol of redemption. Through his blood he redeemed all of creation, binding himself to our humanity. The bronze/gold color of the garment that covers Jesus’ lower half symbolizes his resurrection.
During this month when we await Jesus’ first coming and then celebrate his arrival on Christmas, let’s gaze upon the icon and meditate on the colors to help bring to mind God’s great love for us that is represented in our Lord’s Incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection.