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COLORS . Like other forms of religious symbolism, the symbolism of color emerges from the immediate material experience of human beings. Common elements of life are the basis for reflections on the meaning of color. Various plants (flowers, trees, medicinal herbs, etc.), animals, insects, the human body, celestial and climatological phenomena are just a few things that orient the meanings of color symbolism. This implies that there are universal themes in color symbolism that are involved with local knowledge of particular geographies. The naive and immediate experience of color gives rise to complex speculations about the nature of the cosmos. Beginning with a basic distinction of primary from secondary colors, one is soon led on to such notions as warm and cold colors, for example. There are no set universal characteristics of color symbolism just as there are no completely cultural-specific meanings of color. Nevertheless, exploring color symbolism of religions other than one's own is valuable because it informs commonly held meanings. Indeed, various artists and cultures play with the organic connections between colors and their referents.

For example, in Paul Klee's (18791940) work primary colors are associated with different sounds, geometrical forms, and even subjective experiences. According to Klee, blue is associated with the circle and with the experience of stability; yellow, with the triangle and the sensation of speed; and red, with the square and the experience of power. Similarly, Wassily Kandinsky (18661944), one of the greatest abstract painters, observed that a yellow circle seemed to develop outward in an expansive movement so that it appears to approach the observer, whereas a blue circle seemed to contract and move away from the viewer. In the world of fashion, it is well known that the colors of black and white have opposing effects on human perceptions: White is experienced as expansive whereas black is contractive. Both Klee and Kandinsky played with associations that were well-grounded in specific phenomena to induce a perceptual experience in the viewer. In other words, they played with human associations between color and its various conceptual meanings. This strategy has been utilized in various cultural contexts as well.

Red, white, and black are the three most used colors in Ndembu ritual. At first glance these colors are representative of blood, milk (or semen), and feces. In different contexts, however, (e.g., in ritual or artistic contexts) these representations expand to other associations. For example, in the context of the circumcision rite, red is a prominent color and could certainly be associated with blood. From its specific and universal association with blood, however, are formed other meanings having to do with lineage, male potency, hunting, and warfare. Likewise, during the Ndembu female initiation rite, red has equally powerful but opposite meanings such as menstruation, childbirth, and matrilineage. From the specific associations of red and blood other meanings of the color have developed that are specific to particular cultural contexts. Over the course of several weeks of seclusion, young boys and girls are formed into adult members of Ndembu society through color symbolism.

Mesoamerican Color Use

As is true for many ancient monuments around the world, in Mesoamerican archaeological sites the gray and lifeless stone monuments seen today were originally plastered in white and awash in vibrant colors. The architectural remnants of today are but dim reminders of the vitality of these ceremonial centers. Colors of black, blue, red, and yellow decorated ancient Mesoamerican temples and palaces. Murals of deities, animals, kingly exploits, as well as numerous other topics, were painted with an assortment of colors. Ancient cities such as Tikal, Bonampak, Tula, Teotihuacan, Cholula, Chichén Itzá, and Tenochtitlan were all brightly painted.

Pre-Columbian picture books and texts were composed of a series of images. Often these images depicted the activities of gods, heroes, divinatory calendars, and conquests and tribute. Invariably, artisans who crafted these books used brilliant colors to better communicate their messages. Ceramics, stone carvings, and other art objects were also adorned with an assortment of colors. Pre-Columbian texts often feature body painting, and specific colors and arrangements of colors represented the activities of gods and humans. For example, a red-striped body represented human sacrifice. Black stripes on the face and yellow hair were associated with the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli or Ixcozauhqui (Yellow Face). White was often associated with the bleached bones of the god Mictlanteuchtli, the lord of the dead who resided in the underworld. Painted images in these books indicate that body painting was an important feature of Mesoamerican ritual life. Just as colors adorned the temples that served as the central focus of ceremonial activity, likewise practitioners of the ceremonies used colors to adorn their bodies.

Color was therefore an important feature of Mesoamerican symbolism. At the level of practice, colors could symbolize specific material phenomenon, including yellow for the sun, red for blood, and blue for water. Often certain colors were associated with specific cardinal directions. However, no one-to-one correlation existed between color and a particular aspect of material life. Colors would often be associated with several things at once, thus the meaning of specific colors was multivalent. At the level of ideology colors could be intimately associated, for example, with a deity, a geographical location, or a specific ritual activity.

Blue and red were often directly associated with water and blood. For example, on temples in which human sacrifices took place and on picture books that represented the activities of the gods, blue and red consistently refer to water and blood. Ceremonies dedicated to fertility deities, such as Chac for the Maya and Tlaloc for the Aztec, underscored the relationship between water and blood. Thus, stylized depictions of these deities and adornments on their temples, in particular, prominently utilized blue and red.

The use of colors was part of the total sensual experience of being in the city. One's participation in ceremonial events, as well as everyday activities, meant being surrounded by rich sensory stimuli including music and sound, light and dark, smells and tastes, and colors. The affective use of color, therefore, gave people the sense of being intimately integrated into Mesoamerican social and cosmological realities.

Christian Symbolism

In contrastand yet relatedto Hellenistic and Roman traditions, Christian color symbolism was generally based on white, which was associated with purity and innocence. In the Catholic Church color most often symbolized the virtues of purity and spiritual hierarchy. As such, more attention is paid to the universal aspects of color associations. White was the color of the martyrs, the candidatus exercitus (white-clad army). Opposed to white was black, considered to be the color of sadness and later introduced into funeral liturgies. Cobalt blue was the color of darkness and the devil, whereas red was the color of the empyrean sky and of the angels. Purple, the imperial color of ancient Rome, became the color of the cardinal's robe. The comparative difficulty in attaining purple led to its associations with social prestige and power, which became connected with the spiritual hierarchy of the Catholic church. In addition to these associations, color is also associated with the yearly passage of time. Use of color in the vestments of officiant, on the altar, and in the attire of the attendants also leads to symbolism that is part of the Christian liturgical year.

From the ninth century on, colors were a constant element of Christian ritual. Despite early attempts to standardize church usage, variations persisted. In Greece, for example, red was the color of mourning (perhaps associated with blood), but in Milan, where the local Ambrosian ritual was celebrated, red was connected with the Holy Sacrament. In France, red was the liturgical color on All Saints Day (November 1; a clear reference to the blood of martyrs) whereas in Rome white, the symbol of triumph, was used for the same feast.

The first codification of the liturgical colors began under Innocent III (11981216) and reached its definitive form under Pius V (15661572) after the Council of Trent (15451563). In the final codification, white is a primary color and is used in the great festivities of the liturgical year to symbolize triumph, innocence, and purity; red is reserved for the feast of the martyrs, symbolizing the blood of sacrifice and eternal life; green is a symbol of hope and is to be regarded between white and red; violet is used during periods of penance (i.e., Lent) and in funeral services; and black has fallen into disuse (except on Good Friday, when it is used to symbolize Christ's descent into death prior to his resurrection) because of its associations with the devil by Church Fathers, particularly during the late Middle Ages. On occasion silver may replace white, and gold may be used instead of white, green, or red. In other words, the symbolism of white, silver, and gold have a preeminent place in the color symbolism of the Catholic Church. Codification of the ceremonial uses of color attempted to reduce the local associations for the sake of maintaining global unanimity.

The Color Gold

The polyvalence of gold is worth noting. Throughout Christendom, mysticism is often expressed by use of gold. Byzantine mosaics and icons, as well as medieval paintings utilize gold to articulate the high spiritual value of specific individuals In his Speculation in Colors (1915), the Russian Orthodox philosopher Evgenii Trubetskoi (18631920) noticed the influence of a solar Christological mysticism in the golden backgrounds of the icons, because only the color of gold can reflect the supreme sunlight of the heavenly world. Artists devised the assist the insertion of shining golden lines radiating the dress of divine figuresfor this reason. The assist is especially common in depictions of Christ and, above all, in depictions of the transfiguration, the resurrection, and the ascension, and the other post-resurrection events. It is clearly intended as a symbol of Christ's superhuman glory. Behind it lies the speculative metaphysics of light exemplified in the golden backgrounds of the Byzantine mosaics in churches in Ravenna and Byzantium (modern Istanbul) aimed at turning the inner space of the Roman basilicas into space-light and lightening the heaviness of the architectural material. The golden background produces an atmosphere pervaded with immaterial light (phos to aulon ) and draws the believers out of material concerns toward the contemplation of the divine mysteries. Gold symbolism in the development of Christianity associated solar symbolism with the universality of Christ's liberating presence in the world. The promise of Christian salvation was directly associated with the heavensabove and outside earthly confines. Many of the world's great and global religions have utilized solar symbolism to promote the universality of their message. For example, in the Buddhist text, the Supreme Sūtra of the Golden Brilliance, the Buddha's immaterial body is presented as shining gold and is identical with the dharmakāya (the body of the Law). The essence of the universe is thus compared to a golden light that shines forth like sunlight. In several Gandharan traditions (defined as an area of Afghanistan and Pakistan from the first to fifth centuries ce), they speak of the Buddha's shadow as golden and shining.

The golden backgrounds of mosaics, icons, and paintings on wood were created by applying very thin sheets of gold to a prepared surface. Because this method cannot be used on the larger scale of frescos, some painters, notably Giotto (12671337), filled the backgrounds of murals with a blue pigment made by powdering the gemstone lapis lazuli to create the most precious color of that time. In Giotto's frescoes the blue of lapis lazuli can be compared to the golden backgrounds of the Byzantine Siensese tradition, with the resulting orientation toward a heavenly mysticism and away from the fundamental realism of the paintings. Nevertheless, in the ancient Christian tradition, azure and blue had a negative value. The high values of gold, silver, and lapis lazuli over and against other materials are connected with their associations to salvation, resurrection, and heaven. Not only were the materials that were used for making these colors com-paratively rare in the West, but their associations with the spiritual values of the church make them seem intrinsically valuable.

Compared with blue, gold is free of the ambiguity associated with other colors, but the blue of lapis lazuli was widely used in the area of Central Asia. Many Buddhist paintings found in the area of Kuqa have this blue appearing alongside green. On one hand, it was used in Tibetan Buddhist art to depict terrifying gods with enormous powers. In the sole surviving wall painting of Tumshuq, and in several others around Kuqa, inauspicious figures either are completely blue or have blue beards. On the other hand, ascetics and monks are also depicted with blue beards.

Alchemy and Native American Traditions

Color plays an important role in the Western alchemic tradition. According to this tradition, the alchemic process passes though four stages, each associated with a color: the nigredo (black) or initiatory death, the albedo (white) or beginning of rebirth, the rubedo (red) or sublimation, and the auredo (gold), the almost unreachable final stage that represents spiritual perfection. The series seems to coincide with the elementary set of colors that the Greek philosophers Pythagoras (571497 bce) and Empedocles (492432 bce) regarded as the only ones allowable on a palette, namely, black, white, red, and yellow.

As with the Mesoamericans and alchemy, the Lakota-speaking people of the Great Plains of North American associate colors with different aspects of life. In the Pipe Ceremony, the colors red, yellow, black, and white are associated with the cardinal directions. A variety of ceremonies performed for the fertility of the earth, for healing, human life stages, and so on utilize this color symbolism. The Oglala healer Black Elk's vision emphasized the colors associated with the six grandfathers, which were the deities associated with foundational elements of the universe. During these difficult times of the early reservation, Black Elk's community performed his Great Vision in a ceremony. A tipi was erected in the middle, elaborately painted to reflect his boyhood vision. Horses of specific colorsyellow, red, black, and whitewere used in the ceremony. Black Elk's vision was performed by his community and thereby brought out of the realm of the human mind into activity. His Oglala people invested significant resources in reproducing the colors of the vision accurately so as to reestablish proper relationships with deities that controlled their world.

Similarly, for the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse; better known as the Iroquois), of upstate New York and Canada, the colors purple and white have deep significance. These are the colors of wampum, which is a bead carved from the quahog shell found along the New England Atlantic coast. As with ancient people of the Mediterranean basin, purple is regarded as a precious color. The colors of wampum symbolize cosmological attributesblack of night and light of day. The purple and white signify the opposing forces of the universe that come together in the working of creation. Wampum belts and strings, therefore, are items of human manufacture that establish proper relationships with the Creator. Wampum has been used continuously by the Haudenosaunee in Longhouse ceremonies. Because of the religious significance of wampum, it has been used in forming international and intercultural alliances between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch, English, French and American governments, as well as a number of indigenous nations. Today the purple and white Confederacy Belt, which symbolizes the unity of the original five nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk), can be seen everywhere throughout Haudenosaunee territory and serves as the flag of the Haudenosaunee.

The meaning and use of color is a universal human phenomenon. Yet the orientations that individual human communities have to color symbolism is specific to their local contexts and environments. Color has a powerful effect on human emotions and can unify and divide groups of people. It is an integral part of ceremonial life triggering a range of emotional responses that is often referenced to a sacred reality. There is no color code of religious meanings but rather specific colors can mean a range of things depending on the context of their use. Certainly, without color religion would be a much less urgent and powerful phenomenon in human life.

See Also

Alchemy, overview article; Art and Religion; Christian Liturgical Year.


Barreiro, José, ed. Indian Roots of American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y., 1992.

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln, Neb., 1932; reprint, 1979.

Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y., 1967.

Philip P. Arnold (2005)