One of my many modern tendencies is to expect that anything, vast spiritual truths included, can be summed up in a spreadsheet or a simple chart. Teachers and professors use these methods as aids in understanding or remembering complicated concepts. My failure is that I both look for and am satisfied with quick, E-Z explanations, often forgetting that there is much more to these truths than what the chart conveys.
I used to think the symbolism of color in iconography was this simple. While perhaps there is a chart somewhere in a book I don’t own, I discovered something which made me realize two things. First, that a chart might have grossly circumscribed what to the Orthodox is a majestic and cosmic symbolism of colors in icons. Second, compared to what I have read in Eugene Trubetskoi’s book, Iconography: Theology in Color, any spreadsheet or simplified understanding would have been immensely dissatisfying.
I first learned of Trubetskoi’s book in a footnote on page 40 of The Meaning of Icons, Ouspensky & Lossky’s well-known book:
Although the icon is above all a language of colours, which are as symbolical as the form and the lines, we do not touch here upon their symbolism and deal very little with it in the accounts of individual icons because, with the exception of some fundamental colours, its meaning has been almost entirely lost in the centuries. Consequently there is a danger of individual arbitrary interpretations, which lead to the realm of conjectures, at times very tempting, but deprived of authenticity and therefore not always, or rather never convincing, although E. Trubetskoy has succeeded in noting down some general principals.
I have tried to find out more information about this author but nothing has been satisfactory. He was a Russian Prince (1863-1920) who wrote in the early 20th Century at a time when the Russian icon was being rediscovered. This was also a time when icons were being cleaned so that their original brilliance, previously hidden under the darkness of age and rizas (something Trubetskoi calls an “invention of pious bad taste”), was being revealed.
I want to share from this book what I discovered about the symbolism of colors. Icons: Theology in Color was published by SVS Press in 1973 and translated by Gertrude Vakar. I don’t think it is still in print, which is a pity. One more thing about what I plan to copy: Trubetskoi refers to particular icons in certain private collections which, as noted in the appendix, were later put into museums. As I read this part of the book I found the references to the collection to be repetitive and somewhat tedious. I’m just going to skip over them here.
This will probably take several posts to complete, but I believe it will be well worth reading. I will set them off on their own so if someone wants to Google “Eugene Trubetskoi,” he won’t have to read my drivel.