San Xavier Mission del Bac Madonnas and blue

San Xavier Mission del Bac Madonnas and blue

,Grotto at San Xavier Mission del Bac, photo by M. LaFreniere
Grotto at San Xavier Mission del Bac

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge for the week is Blue.  So I got to thinking I always see the Virgin Mary in blue and wondered why that is.

In The Color Blue: A May Tribute to Our Lady, Staudt points out in Numbers blue symbolized obedience to God, not following personal desires, a tradition going back to Moses

San Xavier Mission del Bac, photo by M. LaFreniere
San Xavier Mission del Bac painting

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue: And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring: That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God. (Numbers 15: 37-41)

Beyond the Old Testament of blue, blue is a popular color across cultures world wide often meaning tranquility, peace, and other soothing feelings.  It is often associated with skies or oceans which in the past were places where gods resided. Hinduism associate blue with Krishna.  In ancient Egypt, gods and kings were depicted with blue hair and beards. In Turkey, Greece and other countries, blue eye-shaped amulets protect against the evil eye.

San Xavier Mission del Bac, photo by M. LaFreniere
San Xavier Mission del Bac mosaic

Some cultures, of course, saw it differently.  For Cherokees, it is the color of defeat or trouble while for Iran and South Korea, it is the color of mourning. In ancient China, blue-faced creatures were often ghosts or demons.

For European cultures, historically, blue was the color of royalty.  Blue was an expensive paint created by crushing lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, into powder to create the color “ultramarine” to be used in frescos and oil paintings. Italian traders would sail it in during the 14th and 15th centuries from Afghanistan.  The painter Cennino Cennini (1360-1427?) wrote: “Ultramarine blue is a glorious, lovely and absolutely perfect pigment beyond all the pigments.”

Azurite was much more plentiful so it was often used instead of lapis lazuli but was not as stable as it would blacken with heat.  It wasn’t until 1826 when a synthetic substitute was created for lapis lazuli that ultramarine became a color anyone could use.  Of course, there were other blues but ultramarine was the coveted blue. For a time, ultramarine was  color reserved for royalty and the holiest of people like Christ and Mary.

San Xavier Mission del Bac, photo by M. LaFreniere
San Xavier Mission del Bac statue

Within the Catholic color associations, blue is associated with divinity and red is associated with being human.  So Mary is often seen as wearing blue with a red cloak meaning she is carrying a divine being, Christ, within her human mortality.  Christ, however, if clothed is seen as wearing red with a blue outer garment so his humanity is enveloped by his divinity.  However in Mission San Xavier, I also saw Mary with a red inner garment and a blue outer so I’m not sure if different periods had different conventions on how to dress her or if some areas saw her as a human who was made divine birthing her son.  I know that there was some who said upon her death or just before her death, her physical body was taken into heaven and resurrected there. So maybe red on blue is when she is alive and blue on red is after she passed?  I don’t really know but it’s interesting to me the using of clothing and color to tell a story.

San Xavier Mission del Bac, photo by M. LaFreniere
San Xavier Mission del Bac statue

So there you have it.  The Virgin Mary and the color blue.


The Color Blue: A May Tribute to Our Lady
by R. Jared Staudt, Catholic Exchange, May 28, 2015

Why is the Blessed Virgin Mary always wearing blue?
by Philip Kosloski, Aleteia, Jun 24, 2017

Meaning of Colours Across Cultures
by Deborah Swallow, February 20th, 2010

by Hui-Chih Yu, Chang Gung Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 7:1 (April 2014), 49-74
Mario De Bortoli & Jesús Maroto

originally published as “Translating colours in web site localisation” in 2001 in the Proceedings of the European Languages and the Implementation of Communication and Information Technologies (Elicit) conference. University of Paisley

Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge: Blue


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