Art
Why Jesus and Mary Always Wear Red and Blue in Art History
Even as we increasingly tout progressive ideals about the many complexities of gender and sex, we continue to hold tight to traditional values. Case in point: the colors—pink and blue—that signify the two most common gender identities.
But the idea that pink and blue represent feminine and masculine qualities, respectively, is less entrenched in our culture, and less static in meaning, than we might think. It was only in the early part of the 20th century that these pastel tones were first associated with baby boys or girls. As Peggy Orenstein has written, originally, “pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, was thought to be dainty.” When exactly the switch occurred—blue for boys, pink for girls—isn’t clear. But by the mid-1980s, “amplifying age and sex differences became a key strategy of children’s marketing,” Orenstein explained.
The meanings of red and blue as they apply to gender have their origins, as Orenstein proposed, in Christian theology. Yet the duality between these colors didn’t initially suggest a split between male and female children, but rather a different sort of relationship—that of mothers and sons, or more specifically, that of Mary and Jesus. Take a close look at religious art from the past 700 years. Notice anything consistent? Mary is almost always decked out in blue, while Jesus typically wears red.
Throughout history, blue has been considered a sacred and valuable hue. It’s not a naturally occurring pigment, and is thus particularly mystical and rare. One of the earliest “true blue” pigments produced was ultramarine, a color made from lapis lazuli, a costly stone once more precious than gold. In art, it was reserved for only the most elevated subjects. The Egyptians began importing lapis lazuli from Afghanistan around 6,000 years ago, but it was in the early 5th century that blue became associated with the Virgin Mary.
Marian blue, as the shade has become known, became the Madonna’s official color with the rise of Mariology and the cult of the Virgin. After she was inducted into the uppermost echelons of the canon, declared “Queen of Heaven, Spiritual Mother, and Intercessor” by the Church in 431, Byzantine artists, using the less expensive mineral azurite, began to churn out stylized icons depicting the holy mother dressed in Marian-blue robes against flattened, gold-leaf backgrounds.
These icons typically showed the Madonna as doting mother, holding the infant Jesus on her lap. Although it was not a fashionable color at the time, in the 13th and 14th century, , , and were among the first to picture the baby Jesus in glowing pink. Later on, however, pink became a symbol of marriage. In ’s The Madonna of the Pinks (1506–7), the infant Jesus presents a pink flower to his mother, illustrating the spiritual union between them.
As the Renaissance progressed, the types of scenes featuring the Virgin expanded to include more narratives from Mary’s life, such as the Annunciation, Nativity, and the Assumption. ’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1512–15) features a less expected story, and focuses almost entirely on the rich blue clothing that drapes around the centrally positioned Madonna, tenderly nursing her baby.
Depictions of Jesus later in life, as an adult, almost always show him dressed in bright red, or vermilion, a color with many complex meanings. In Christianity, it can represent sin, hellfire, or the Devil. But it can also connote martyrdom, or the blood of Christ. Even the ancient Greeks and Hebrews thought of red as a romantic symbol, as well as one of sacrifice.
In ’s The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning (c. 1460), Mary’s pastel-blue robes suggest a certain maternal meekness; Saint John, in blush pink, gracefully supports the grieving mother as she faints. Interestingly, the artist here underscores Jesus’s martyrdom and Mary’s love by adding deep-red tapestries against the stone wall directly behind the cross and the collapsing Virgin.
As Van der Weyden shows, the combination of these colors could endow a painting with multiple, complicated readings. In ’s Nativity (1420–22), Mary wears her signature blue cloak with a red chemise underneath. While the blue represents the Virgin’s purity, and connotes her royal status, the red garment signifies traits connected with motherhood, including love, passion, and devotion.
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In one oddball example, Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim (1452), oversaturated the figures, blanching the skin of the Virgin and child so that they are albino, the sumptuous blue of her gown framing her protuberant, milk-white breast and ermine cloak. It is the chorus of waxy, red and blue cherubim that surround the pair, however, that elude clear signification.
Still, today, the balance of red and blue, male and female, remains key to upholding Christian-defined gender norms—traditions we don’t seem fully yet able to let go of. Whereas in an earlier age, the color-coding of Jesus and Mary linked red to masculinity and blue to femininity, values that eventually flipped. But who knows where the symbolic meanings of these colors will take us in the future as we continue to evolve our ideas about gender roles, religion, and art.
Julia Wolkoff is Artsy’s Editor, Art History.