“Two-Worlds in Old Russian Icon Painting” from Icons: Theology in Color by Eugene Trubetskoi.
The blues animated by the winged bodiless angel heads are a relatively simple mystery, compared with the bright celestial red [purpur] that makes the Novgorod icons so beautiful. Here the mystery is much more complex, and perhaps much deeper, compounded as it is by the extraordinary variety of reds. As we have seen, the artist knows the red of the storm spiritualized by the figure of Elijah hurling down thunderbolts; he knows the red skyglow above a fire at night and uses it to light the abysmal darkness of hell; he places a flaming cherub at the gates of paradise. In ancient Novgorod icons of the Last Judgment we even see a whole fiery barrier of cherubim directly under the image of the future world and above the heads of the seated apostles. These images of heavenly fire are still fairly easy to interpret. The question becomes much harder and more involved when we consider the mystical implications of the red of Saint Sophia the Divine Wisdom.
Why did our icon painters use this bright paint for the face, hands, wings, and often the garment, of the eternal Wisdom that has created the world? No one so far has given a satisfactory answer. It is often said that Sophia’s red represents a flame, but this does not really explain anything. As we have seen, there are many kinds, and therefore many meanings, of otherwordly flame, from the sunny radiance of assist to the sinister glow above the fires of hell. Which specific flame is meant here? What is the fire with which Sophia flames, and how does it differ from the other mystic revelations painted in the same red color?
The answer can be found only in the solar mysticism of colors described above, through which the otherwordly mysteries are symbolically expressed. A study of the best Novgorod images of Sophia leaves no doubt about this…they all have one thing in common: Sophia always appears against the dark blue background of a starry night sky. This contact with the dark of night lends the heavenly red its surpassing beauty—and explains its symbolic meaning.
Part 5: Dawn