“Two-Worlds in Old Russian Icon Painting” from Icons: Theology in Color by Eugene Trubetskoi.
We hear in our churches, “In wisdom hast thou made them all” [Psalm 104:24]. This means that the Wisdom embodied in Sophia is the design of God that preceded creation and called all celestial and earthly creatures forth from non-being into being, out of the darkness of night. That is why Sophia appears against a background of night. And this dark background makes her brilliant celestial red from the night of non-being; it is the eternal sun rising over all living things. Sophia is what precedes the days of creation….
The painter’s deep knowledge and love of the sky—in both senses of the word—told him that when the sun rises out of darkness, or comes into contact with darkness, it inevitably turns red. He saw and felt this every day, he was used to it. Does it matter whether he consciously painted dawn, or whether unconscious reminiscence influenced his art? In either case, Sophia for him took on the color of dawn. He saw the dawn of the world and he painted what he saw….
One more detail in these icons confirms the solar nature of “Sophia.” I have already mentioned the fine cobweb of assist that covers her. Clearly her fiery visage appears to the artist in the brilliance of sunrays.
Let us compare this image with that of Christ enthroned in glory. Obviously it would be sacrilegious to paint a red Christ! Why is it that the color that would be so wrong for Christ is fitting and beautiful for Sophia? Because in the solar sphere of the icon’s mysticism only one color befits the Lord, the one that stands highest in the hierarchy of colors, the royal light of eternal day. For Sophia on the other hand, in view of her subordinate place in the heavenly hierarchy, the suitable color is red since it heralds the sun’s supreme revelation.
This is not the only instance in Russian icon painting where red marks the contact of sunlight with darkness. The same can be observed in an icon…[of the] “Transfiguration.” Usually the Transfiguration is painted against a daylight background, but in this icon the ground is a starry sky; the light of Tabor wakes the apostles sleeping in the dark [Luke 9: 32]. In this night picture the colors are different from those used in day icons of the Transfiguration. Novgorod icons always depict the light of Tabor in the shape of a star around Christ. At its center, Christ is always bathed in the golden light of assist, in accordance with the Gospel’s words, “And his face did shine as the sun” (Mat. 17:2), but the edges of the star are usually filled with other colors of the sky—dark and light blue, greenish and orange…The light of Tabor turns red and not blue as it touches the surrounding darkness. This expresses a bold and profound conception of the artist’s: In the symbolic darkness of night that envelops the universe, the lightning that wakes the apostles announces the dawn of God’s day and thus puts and end to the heavy sleep of sin.
This dawn differs, however, from “Sophia’s” in one notable way: the red that colors her face, hands and wins expresses her very essence; in the Transfiguration icon, the red appears only in the star around Christ, and then only at its edges: it is but one of the background colors of the Transfiguration.
Part 6: The Rainbow