Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Symbolism of Color in Orthodox Iconography (Pt. 1)

“Two-Worlds in Old Russian Icon Painting” from Icons: Theology in Color by Eugene Trubetskoi.

We have seen just seen from several examples how the artists used color to separate the two planes of being, the heavenly and the earthly.

We have seen that these colors come in a great variety, from the red of the storm to the dazzling sunlight to the brilliance of a luminous apparition. But no matter how variegated the colors that separate the two worlds, they are always celestial colors, in both the direct and the symbolic sense. They are the colors of the real, visible sky, but they have acquired conventional symbolic meanings of signs from the other-worldly sky, that is, heaven.

The great icon painters of our antiquity, as well as the Greek masters with whom this symbolism originated, must have been profound and sensitive observers of the sky in both senses. They saw one sky with their bodily eyes; they contemplated the other with their mind’s eye, and it lived in their intimate religious experiences. Their creative art linked them together. The otherworldly sky took on the many hues of the sky we know. Nothing in this process was arbitrary or accidental. Every shade had its place, its reason, its meaning. If we are not always able to see the meaning, this is because we have lost it. We have lost the key to the understanding of this unique art.

The range of meanings is as infinite as the natural range of colors we see in the sky. First come the blues, of which the icon painter knows a great many—the dark blue of a starry night, the bright blue of day, and a multitude of light blue, turquoise, even greenish shades that pale toward sundown. We northerners often see these greenish blues after the sun has set. However only the background is seen as blue; against it unfolds an infinity of the sky’s other colors: the glitter of stars, the red of dawn, the reds of nocturnal storms or distant fires; and also the rainbow’s many hues; and finally, the gold of the midday sun.

In old-Russian icons we find all these colors in their symbolic, otherworldly meaning. All are used by the artist to divide the empyrean from our terrestrial plane of being. This is the key to the ineffable beauty of the icon’s color symbolism.

Apparently its guiding idea is this: the mysticism of icon painting is primarily solar, in that word’s highest spiritual sense. However beautiful the sky’s other colors may be, the gold of the midday sun remains the color of colors and the miracle of miracles. All the others are, so to speak, of subordinate rank, [and] form a hierarchy around it. In its presence, the nocturnal blue disappears; the stars pale, and so does the glow from a fire at night. Even the red of dawn is merely a harbinger of sunrise. Finally the play of sunrays produces every color of the rainbow, for the sun is the source of all color and all light in the sky and below it.

Such is the hierarchy of colors around the “sun that never sets.” Not one color of the rainbow is denied a place in these images of divine glory, but only the solar gold symbolizes the center of divine life. All the rest are its environment. Only God, “brighter than the sun,” emits this royal light. The surrounding colors express the nature of the glorified celestial and earthly creatures that form his living, miraculously created church. It is as if the icon painter by some mystic intuition had divined the secret of the solar spectrum discovered centuries later; as if he perceived all the hues of the rainbow as multicolored refractions of a single ray of divine life.

Part 2: Gold