Colors, Christian Symbolism of

Colors, Christian Symbolism Of Colors are made use of in religious symbolism among the Jews, and in several branches of the Christian Church. Specific directions were given in the O.T. for the colors to be used in building of the tabernacle and the making of the dress for the Jewish priests. Colors are also introduced in giving moral or spiritual lessons, and in describing scenes in revelation, as in Isa 1:18, in the description of the Transfiguration, and often in the imagery of the Apocalypse. See article above.

Very early in the history of Christianity the symbolism of colors was introduced in the ritualism and the art of the Church. In the Greek Church this symbolism has been worked out to such a degree of minuteness that little or no discrimination in the use of colors is allowed to the painter. In the Romish Church somewhat more latitude is allowed to the artist. Five colors are recognised as having a theological meaning or expression: White, Red, Green, Violet, and Black.

I. White is the most often referred to in the Scriptures. As the union of all the rays of light, it is the symbol of truth and spotless purity. It is applied to:

(1.) God the Father, the source and essence of immutable truth. In Da 7:9 the Ancient of Days has garments white as snow, with his hair like pure wool. The manna in the wilderness, being white, has been considered as the emblem of the Word of God.

(2.) Christ, at the Transfiguration, appeared in garments "white as the light" (Mt 17:2; Mr 9:3). As the Great Judge, he will be seated on a great white throne (Re 20:11). In works of art, when Christ appears as the Lord of truth among the doctors of the law, he is represented in white garments.

(3.) The angels are never represented in the Scriptures as clothed otherwise than in white — as at the sepulcher of Christ (Mt 28:3), at the Ascension (Ac 1:10).

(4.) The saints in glory shall walk in white (Re 3:4), shall be arrayed in white (Re 4:4; Re 7:9; Re 15:6, and Re 19:8, where the fine linen, clean and white, is the righteousness of the saints), and they shall receive a white stone (Re 2:17).

(5.) The priests, at the consecration of the Temple, were "arrayed in white linen" (2Ch 5:12). In the fourth century the priests of the Christian Church wore white garments while performing their offices. In the Romish Church white is yet retained for the alb, the cope, the amice, etc., and in the entire priestly garments on the festivals of the Nativity, Epiphany, Easter, etc. In the Church of England the white surplice of the Romish Church is retained. It is the same as the alb, except that the sleeves are broad and full.

(6.) The catechumens formerly were dressed in white for one week from their baptism, and white is yet usually the dress worn by girls in their confirmation.

II. Red is a symbol of fire and of glowing love. It was used in the dress of the Jewish priesthood. It is usually adopted largely in painting Christ performing his miracles or other labors of love, or as he is giving to his disciples the mission to carry into the world the fire of his word (Lu 12:49). On the famous standard or labarum of Constantine, the monogram of Christ rested on a purple cloth. Bede says that at his time the holy sepulcher was painted white and red. Some angels have been painted with red wings (perhaps from the word seraph — plenitude of love). The priestly vestments in the Romish Church are red on Whitsuntide and on days of the martyrs. The Ambrosian rite prescribes red during the consecration of the host, and the Ambrosian and Lyonnese rites during the festival of the Circumcision. The red dress of the cardinals is professedly intended to keep before them constantly the love and passion of the Savior. The pope wears red on Good Friday. The Greek priests wear red ornaments during funeral services.

The red spoken of above is always scarlet. Crimson red is appointed for certain days in certain rites of the Romish Church.

III. Green, from its analogy to the vegetable world, indicates life and hope, especially in the future life and in the coming of our Lord. The perpetual youth of angels is often indicated by painting them in garments of green. The saints, and especially John the Evangelist, were often represented in green by painters and sculptors (who often colored their works). The tree of life in Paradise is painted green. An old tradition has it that a twig of the tree of life was transplanted, and produced the tree from which the cross of Christ was made! John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary are often represented in mantles of green. Branches of cypress, laurel, and other evergreens are often placed in the coffins or over the graves of the dead, as emblems of the hope in a future life. The Romish Church directs the priests to wear green from the Epiphany to Sexagesima Sunday, and from the third after Easter to Advent. The Ambrosian rite orders the cloth that covers the host to be green.

IV. Violet is considered the color of penitence and sorrow. The Romish Church orders it to be worn during all times of penance. In painting, this color is, often applied to John the Baptist, who preached repentance; to the Virgin Mary, as the mother of grief; and to the angels, who are sent to call men to repentance.

V. Blue is forbidden by the Romish Church, but it is sometimes used as the color peculiarly appropriate to the Virgin Mary.

VI. Black is the universal representative of sorrow, destruction, and death, and is considered only appropriate on mourning occasions. It was also appointed in one of the later reforms of the Benedictine order of monks as the dress of that order. The students of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge thus were given the black gown, which they wear yet. This gown was adopted by the Reformed Church of England as the dress of ministers, who were all students of the universities, and thus it passed over to the Protestant Episcopal Church of America, and, further, gave the color of clerical dress to all Protestant churches. Kreuser, Bilderbuch (Paderborn, 1863); Martigny, Dictionnaire des Antiquites Chretiennes (Paris, 1865); Palmer, Antiquities of the English Ritual; Pariser Messbuch:(1766); Jamieson, Sacred and Legendary Art, 1:35 sq.

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