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Question 120.


Dear Fr Christopher,
I have noticed that on most Orthodox icons of Christ and the Theotokos (Virgin Mary, the 2 main colours I see on their garments/clothes are blue and red. Why is this? What do the colours red and blue signify?

Regards, John

Answer to Question 120.


Dear John,
Christ’s colours are blue and purple. Sometimes purple is replaced by red: this is quite acceptable because true purple was made from a shell fish and can vary from a dark red to a brownish of bluish red. (The ancients took the live shell fish and placed it in the sun, This produced a yellowish liquid which they collected and again exposed to the sun until it turned red, They then heated the liquid for ten days whereby it was ready to use as a dye. Sometimes they added other pharmaceutical substances to produce various shades. The purple colours were bright and permanent) In ancient times, purple was worn by Kings and wealthy people and during the Byzantine era, purple cloth was made and reserved only for royalty. For this reason, Christ was given a purple tunic [inner garment] because He too is royalty as our King. Blue is the colour of the sky, so from the earliest times, it represented the heavens and the divine world. In Icons, blue represents purity, heaven, holiness and divinity. Christ was given a blue himation [outer garment], for as our God, He is pure holy and divine. We also see on Christ’s purple tunic, a strip of cloth starting from His shoulder and disappearing inside His blue himation. In full length Icons, we see that it continues all the way down to the hem of the tunic. This is called in Greek the ‘apostolikon’ and in Latin the ‘clavus’. It may be that the true explanation for the apostolikon has been lost through the centuries, but one explanation is that the kings and judges of the Old Testament wore this as a sign that they were a judge of the people, therefore it was given to Christ who is the One True Judge. It seems a logical explanation, but another explanation that derives from the Greek word apostolikon is preferable. To have an ‘αποστολή’ means to have a mission of a great teaching; therefore, the apostolikon shown on the Icon refers to Christ’s teaching in the world. We also see the apostolikon on Icons of the prophets, the Apostles and angels, which confirms its meaning, for they too had a mission. It is very possible that the first Icon painters to use the apostolikon had this understanding in mind, In Christ, it usually has an orange/red colour with gold highlights.
The colours of the Mother of God are similar shades given to the Icon of Christ. The purple maphorion [veil, the outer garment], proclaims her royal throne as the Queen of Heaven, and the blue chiton [inner garment], her purity and holiness. On the maphorion are three stars: one on the forehead and one on each shoulder. The three stars are a sign of her ever-virginity: before conception, during confinement, and after giving birth, and should be seen on all Icons of the Mother of God as they confirm her title ‘Aeiparthenos [Ever-Virgin] given to her at the General [Ecumenical] Council held at Constantinople in 553A.D. Another of her titles, and perhaps the most important of all, was decided at the Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431A.D. At that time, the heretical patriarch Nestorius taught that Mary was only the mother of a man and that she did not give birth to the pre-existing, pre-eternal Son of God, who already had a Father with whom He shared His divine nature. To put an end to this heretical teaching, the Fathers of the council, assigned to the Virgin Mary, the title ‘Theotokos’ [Birth-giver of God or Mother of God]. On all Icons of the Mother of God, we see the inscription 'ΜΡ ΘΥ ' which is the abbreviated Greek form for Mother of God [ΜήτηΡ ΘεοΥ].

In Christ
Fr. Christopher