The Color Blue: A May Tribute to Our Lady

I recently heard a piece on NPR about the color blue. At first, I thought “you have to be kidding me.” Maybe that’s what you’re thinking right now as you begin this article. A reference to Homer caught my attention and pulled me into the rest of the piece. I have been intrigued by Homer’s use of color. How can anyone forget his reference to the wine dark sea?

If certain images of color stand out in Homer due to their repetition, color is nonetheless used sparingly in his epics. Mostly he refers to black and white. And here is the kicker—never to the color blue. In numerous linguistic studies, it has been established that there is a general pattern of development in which languages introduce words for certain colors. Though there are some variations, one thing remains constant, blue is the last color name to be named as a language progresses (when it is differentiated from green). Blue is a rare color in nature, appearing only in a small percentage of plants and animals (listen to the NPR piece for an explanation of how the sky’s color was perceived in ancient times).

At this point, an interesting article on blue would be something easily forgotten, but then I came across another piece online, “Why Is Blue the World’s Favorite Color?” Color preferences differ across nations, except for the most popular color, which is common across the world and by a large margin: blue of course. Why is blue so popular? A basic internet search reveals some common trends (see this site for instance). Blue signifies stability, trust, tranquility, and purity. It can also represent piety and transcendence with its connection to the skies.

How does the color blue relate to the faith? First, there are some interesting observations on blue in the Bible. First, like in Homer’s corpus, there is no mention of blue in the New Testament. The more ancient, Old Testament, however, which you would expect to conform more closely to Homer in composition, mentions blue many times, though these references are clustered mostly in Exodus (chs. 26-28, 35, 36, 38, 39) and Numbers (4, 15) concerning the articles created for worship. For instance, the priestly garments and ephod were to be made of blue, purple, and scarlet, with “the robe of the ephod woven all of blue” (Ex 39:22). The last reference in Numbers specifies that blue should be worn by all the people, which may signify a broader priestly role for Israel:

Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put upon the tassel of each corner a cord of blue; and it shall be to you a tassel to look upon and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to go after wantonly (15:38-39).

Here blue is a symbol of following the Lord’s commands and not one’s own will!

Both of these references, to the articles of worship and to the tassel, relate directly to Our Lady.  For instance, when the ark was to be moved, Numbers specifies that the Levites are to “spread over [it] a cloth all of blue” (4:4). And further: “And over the table of the bread of the Presence they shall spread a cloth of blue” (4:5). Clothing Mary in blue, following the Old Testament, clearly signifies Mary’s role as the new ark and presence of the Lord, as well as his handmaid, who, unlike Eve, perfectly fulfills the Lord’s commands, rather than following her own will.

There are other reasons as well, some of which are explained by the Director of the Marian Institute at the University of Dayton:

“The older, classic and more representative color is dark blue,” according to the Rev. Johann Roten, S.M, director of the Marian Library-International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. “Mary’s dark blue mantle, from about 500 A.D., is of Byzantine origin and is the color of an empress.” Blue has stayed in vogue, but red has also become a prominent color for Mary as represented by artists since the tenth century. Blue calls to mind the color of the skies (which is not only limited to light blue), and red is the color of kings, Roten says. “However, there are a great variety of blues and other colors for Mary,” he says.

Blue was a rare and precious color (and thus very costly to use for paint), which evokes the purity of the skies, has been a symbol of virginity and active receptivity, but also speaks so deeply to the human heart, which is why it resonates so popularly with people throughout the world. Blue may have been overlooked by Homer, but God clearly made blue a sign of his presence and obedience to him, which ultimately is why Mary should be clothed in blue (think of her blue sash at Lourdes in relation to the blue cord of the tassel specified in Numbers).

The great poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, offers a poetic reflection on blue in relation to Our Lady, in his poem “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe.” This selection from the poem may be the most fitting way to conclude:

WILD air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that ’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

  I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.
If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.
Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.
So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.
Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

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R. Jared Staudt, PhD serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90. He is author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN, 2023) and The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture Yesterday & Today (Angelico, 2018), as well as editor of Renewing Catholic Schools (Catholic Education Press, 2020).

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