Mary and the Importance of the Color Blue
One of the most common colors used in statuary and iconography for the Blessed Virgin Mary is blue. With a quick image search online, nearly every image that pops up has Our Lady wearing something blue. It’s so common that many Catholics take it for granted. The color blue has enough general associations that we can apply to Mary: it is the color of the sky/the heavens, and represents peace and tranquility. Tranquility befits Our Mother, who kept all the events of her Son’s life in her heart (cf. Luke 2:19, 51). Use of the color blue for the Virgin Mary goes beyond those basic associations. It has its roots in the Old Testament, Church history, and her apparitions throughout the last several centuries.
Blue in the Old Testament
The color blue had brief but significant mention in the Old Testament. Priestly garments were to include some blue, as well as altar cloths that covered the Ark of the Covenant and other sacred vessels in the tabernacle (Num 4:6-12). We could look at the blue cloths that cover the sacred vessels as a representation of her Immaculate Conception. Mary was full of heavenly grace from the instant of her conception. Only the purest articles were used in the tabernacle, the dwelling of God on earth. God chose the purest woman, then, when “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). He specifically dwelt within one person, Our Blessed Mother, the New Ark of the Covenant! And, as the blue cloths protected the sacred vessels for thirty years, the ultimate Sacred One was enclosed by Mary; covered from the world, in a sense. Only at the appointed time (John 2:4) did He reveal Himself to the world.
The key point of the color’s significance is eleven chapters later:
“The Lord said to Moses: ‘Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God.’” (Num 15:37-40)
The fringes (or tassels) described in Numbers 15 fits Our Lady perfectly! The tassel served to remind the Israelites of their priorities. There is no greater example of following the will & commandments of God than Our Blessed Mother. At the word of an angel, she offered herself and her fiat to God. Taking the Lord’s will as our own is a tremendously difficult task for those of us not immaculately conceived. Yet it is still within our reach, with the help of grace—and Mary’s fiat guides us in the way of grace.
Early Church History
Church history informs the discussion, by answering a more fundamental question: where did sacred imagery of Mary come from? Lest we be tempted to think that sacred art of Our Lady is a recent or medieval phenomenon, it dates back to the early days of the Church. The earliest depictions of the Blessed Virgin Mary date back to the early 3rd century in the Catacomb of Priscilla, in Rome. About a century later, the heresy of Nestorianism unintentionally resulted in the further veneration of Mary. The ecumenical Council of Ephesus was convened in A.D. 431 to address the issue. Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople at the time, was teaching that the Blessed Virgin Mary could only be called Christokos, the “birth giver of Christ,” and not Theotokos, “birth giver of God.” Even though the question focused on the proper title of Mary, the implications affected Christology. All dogmas have their source and end in the person of Jesus Christ! (Tim Staples, Behold Your Mother, p. 9) Everything about Mary’s life points to Jesus. To venerate her is to glorify Jesus; to honor her unique role in salvation history honors the Divine Author of salvation history. Once Nestorius raised the question, the Church had to clarify Our Lady’s proper title. After it had been clarified, images of Mary became more common.
From this period comes one of the origins of the color blue. “Mary's dark blue mantle, from about 500 A.D., is of Byzantine origin and is the color of an empress.” In addition to the cultural significance, the color blue later took on a financial significance. During the Middle Ages, European artists began importing lapis lazuli from present-day Afghanistan—as had artisans for thousands of years, back to the days of ancient Egypt. The cost was immense, so the color was reserved to either angels or the Blessed Virgin Mary. Merchants and artists would have had to pay a high price for importing a costly stone dye.
Over the centuries, the portrayal of Mary in sacred art developed gradually. “Pre-Renaissance Mary is represented as queenly: ennobled, enthroned, surrounded by angels and engulfed in celestial light. In the late Middle Ages she becomes more approachable, appearing more often in the garb of an unassuming peasant. The humanist conception of Mary gained further traction in the Renaissance: she is less empress of heaven, more mother—sewing, nursing and playing with the infant Jesus.” The Counter-Reformation resulted in exalting Mary’s role again, as Protestant iconoclasts in some countries destroyed sacred art and churches.
As the centuries passed, the sacred imagery of Our Lady developed more still: with her direct involvement.
Colors in the Marian Apparitions
Although blue is Our Lady’s most common color in images and statues, she hasn’t worn blue in every apparition. Rather, her choice of wardrobe relied more on the people she appeared to. Guadalupe (1531) is a good example of that: Our Lady appeared in a dress and mantle like a local mestiza woman. The mantle is blue-green, and adorned with stars. The heavenly light surrounding Our Lady recalls the appearance of the woman in the Book of Revelation: “a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” (12:1).
At Lourdes, France (1858), the Blessed Mother wore a white mantle over a white gown, with a blue sash. As at Guadalupe, Mary’s style of dress aligned with that of local women. Not even twenty years later in Pontmain, France (1871), she appeared in a blue gown emblazoned with gold stars. One of the most common images of Mary today is Our Lady of Grace—standing in a position with her palms forward, arms reaching out, and rays of light coming from her hands. In that image, she wears a blue mantle.
The use of blue in portraying Our Lady has many layers of significance, starting with the blue cloths used in the tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant. Cultural uses and the precious rarity of blue dye for paint further distinguished Mary as the pinnacle of creation. She has but one desire—coming across silently in artistic portrayal what she tells all of us at the wedding at Cana. “Do whatever He tells you.” (John 2:5)