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Marian Blue, the Color of Angels, Virgins, and Other Untouchable Things

From The Paris Review:

In a strip mall, next to a CVS Pharmacy, and tucked behind a Burger King, I learned about my angel. While I waited for a prescription to be filled, I wandered into the only New Age store in this small northeastern city. A woman with long gray hair led me into a back room—I suspect it was a repurposed broom closet—for a fifteen-minute psychic reading. The walls were covered with Turkey-red-calico fabric and faded yellow-ditsy floral tablecloths hanging from a constellation of multicolored thumbtacks. We sat together on a set of metal folding chairs, and she held my cold hands in her warm wrinkled ones. She told me in hushed tones that I had an angel, a ball of light that beamed out from behind my left shoulder. My angel, she said, was with me always, glowing steadily like a frosty star, invisible to everyone but her. She had always been able to see angels, she explained, and they were always the lightest, purest, sweetest baby blue.

. . . .

Whether it’s glacier pale or Mediterranean bright, blue is a color with long-standing mystical associations. Perhaps this is because blue is the color of the sky, something we can always see but never reach, or perhaps it’s because, as chemist Heinz Berke points out, early humans “had no access to blue because blue is not what you call an earth color … You don’t find it in the soil.” Blue was elusive, and this made it valuable. The earliest stable blue was made from lapis lazuli, the mining of which began in Afghanistan around six thousand years ago. Egyptians loved this bold cobalt blue and would pulverize lapis lazuli stones and mix the resulting powder with animal fat or vegetable gum to create a thick blue paste, which they used to adorn the dead bodies of royalty. (Lapis lazuli was used for the inlaid eyebrows and kohl on Tutankhamen’s funeral mask. The living wore blue too: Cleopatra reportedly wore on her eyelids to a brilliant and sparkling effect a fine dust made of lapis lazuli, which, I imagine, was nothing like the wan powdery-blue eye shadows so popular in the 1980s.) For millennia, blue has been a sacred and costly hue, more valuable even than gold. And in the Christian world, the most valuable color was reserved for the most elevated of virgins. Enter Marian blue.

. . . .

Marian blue became the official color of Jesus’s mother in the early fifth century. This color, unlike my supposed angel, is bright and vivid. It’s a Mediterranean blue, a stony-jewel blue. During the first few centuries after Christ, worshipful painters typically depicted Mary in a red gown or wrapped in a pink mantle. But slowly, blue began to replace red as the color of choice. The shift happened in tandem with the rise of Mariology and the cult of the Virgin.

. . . .

This tradition continued into the Renaissance, when the Madonna enthroned and the adoring Madonna became two major modes of art. A particularly vivid example of Marian blue comes from the Italian Baroque painter Sassoferrato, whose The Virgin in Prayer is draped in rich, sumptuous color—rose pink, deep blue, and folds of creamy white.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review


Jungfrun i bön, The Virgin in Prayer
Artist: Sassoferrato
Date made: 1640-50

Books in General

One Comments to “Marian Blue, the Color of Angels, Virgins, and Other Untouchable Things”

  1. Can someone who knows more about painting help me about this?

    The OP seems to imply that only “earth colours” were used for artists paints and that vegetable based colours don’t work. Is this true? In East Anglia in particular there were sufficient woad dyes for ancient Britons to paint themselves blue and it still makes a nice dye for wool so why not for paint?

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