Mary, Mary, dressed in blue

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | May 10, 2019

Why a certain color became linked to the Blessed Virgin

Have you ever wondered why Mary wears blue?

The Marian icon of Salus Populi Romani (‘Health of the Roman People’) in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. In this sixth-century icon, Mary is shown robed in blue. (CNS photo| courtesy Vatican press office)

Yes, many images of the Blessed Mother show her in white: Our Lady of Fatima is robed in white, as are Our Lady of Good Help and Our Lady of Lourdes.

These apparitions of Mary may have revealed her in white because in the Bible white is the color of heaven — for example, when Jesus was transfigured, his clothes became “dazzling white” (Mk 9:3).

However, the color blue has long been associated with Mary in many paintings and in statues such as the robe of Our Lady of Grace.

This custom traces back to 500 A.D. and the Byzantine church in Constantinople. Blue was the color of the Byzantine empress, so images of Mary were painted in blue.

Blue’s rarity

Blue is a rare color in nature and it is has not been easy to make blue paint or dye throughout history. In the ancient world, blue was made from ground lapis lazuli, which was mined in what is now Afghanistan. (We can thank the Egyptians for that, dating back to thousands of years before Christ.) So the pigment was rare and expensive.

While most ancient cultures did not use blue — outside of Egypt — ancient Hebrews did use blue in their prayer lives. In the Book of Numbers, it is noted that the Ark of the Covenant and the table of Presence in the Tent of Meeting were covered with blue (sometimes translated as “violet”) cloth. This was ordered by God when the Israelites traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land. (Remember that Egypt was where the use of blue pigment was more common than elsewhere, so they would have known about blue pigment and dyes and how they were made.)

Blue prayers

Later in the same Book of Numbers, the Lord God directs Moses: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them that throughout their generations they are to make tassels for the corners of their garments, fastening a violet cord to each corner” (15:38).

This “violet cord” is the blue fringe on white Jewish prayer shawls that we see to this day. The same blue fringed shawls were worn in Jesus’ day as well.

In the Temple at the time of Jesus, the veil in front of the holy of holies was made of linen adorned with blue, purple and scarlet yarn. According to tradition, the girl Mary was one of the virgins living in the Temple who spun the scarlet and purple yarn for this sacred veil. This tradition comes to us today from the apocryphal Proto-evangelium of James, which deals with the birth and childhood of Mary.

Since Mary is often called the “New Ark of the Covenant” and was a daughter of Israel, it is easy to see how the color blue would have played a role in her life.

While the Byzantine Empire influenced the church, the development of icons (an Eastern Orthodox and Catholic form of prayer) also grew. Mary played a central role in these icons.

Color of heaven

In icons of Mary, the Blessed Mother appears dressed in blue, or with a blue mantle over a red dress. In iconography, blue is the color of heaven and represents the divine. Mary is a human (the color red in icons represents human life) who became clothed in the divinity of God by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.

By the medieval period in the West (starting in the 10th century), there was a renewed interest in influences from Byzantine art. And this led to the use of lapis lazuli for Mary’s clothing, especially her mantle.

At the same time, red also became associated with Mary in art. For example, almost all of the artwork of Mary by Raphael (one of the most notable artists in the 16th century, depicts her clothed in red, with a blue mantle.) And the 15th century master, Leonardo da Vinci, also often painted Mary in a red robe and blue mantle.

When Mary appeared to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, France, in 1858, the visionary said the Blessed Mother was wearing white with a blue sash. And St. Juan Diego said that Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared with a mantle blue-green in color.

When St. John Paul II came to the papacy, he took as his coat of arms a blue shield adorned with a golden cross and a golden “M” for Christ and for Mary. But the blue of the shield was also for Mary. John Paul’s devotion to the Blessed Mother was well known.

Blue flowers

Today, the preference for blue to symbolize Mary can be seen in some of the flowers grown in Mary Gardens. These are special gardens where all the flowers have some connection to the Blessed Mother, such as roses and lilies.

In these gardens, any blue flowers used — from forget-me-nots to delphinium to blue columbine — have names associated with Mary. Perhaps the best known is the blue-purple iris — sometimes called the “blue flag” — known as Mary’s “Sword of Sorrow.”

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