The 100% Non-Definitive Guide to Colour in Icons

Icon of St Bertram

Vincent van Gogh said of the Mediterranean: “[It] has the colour of mackerel, changeable I mean. You don’t always know if it is green or violet, you can’t even say it’s blue, because the next moment the changing reflection has taken on a tint of rose or gray”.

His comment reveals how ephemeral colour is in the created world.

In our more regimented world we have fewer problems with colour and so are able to assign specific meaning to specific colours. Yet this has not always been so, and this fact affects how we read colour in Orthodox Icons.

You will find guides to the meaning and symbolism of colours in Orthodox Icons. I even give a couple of links at the bottom which give excellent summaries. Here, I will only write a few brief notes on why none of them should be considered completely definitive.

This post owes a lot to a talk on colours in Orthodox liturgical vestments given by Krista West. Though talking mainly about vestments, it does touch on icons and makes the general point that colours vary with time and location, as does the meaning attached to them. The second of the guides I link to at the bottom of this post also makes this point, and adds that paint fades over time and can be retouched later with colours different to the iconographer’s original intent.

So, like the colours on a lake’s surface, the colours of Icons are transitory. Location, culture, the ravages of time, availability of natural dyes, expense, and even just plain ignorance (of symbolism in colours) all influence the colours used in Orthodox Icons. Nevertheless, the vagaries of colour can be overemphasized, and within Tradition there are guiding principles:

Light and Dark

Christ Enthroned

Christ Enthroned, with Gold Highlights

The overriding theme of colour in iconography, and in almost every religion, is the distinction between light and dark. This distinction is clear in the Scriptures, where the Divine is light and illuminating, and the absence of God is considered as darkness. This distinction is carried over into iconography and can be considered a fixed “rule”. In icons, therefore, graves, Hades, and the demons (e.g. the demons in the Ladder of Divine Ascent Icon) are always depicted as black, or as dark as possible with natural pigments.

Consequently, Christ, His Angels, and the Saints are all depicted as light and illumined. To do this, it is not simply a case of using the colour white, as opposed to black. White is seen in numerous Divine revelations, and is always associated with purity, and it is this purity which affects its use in Icons. Quite simply, it is difficult to create a white that is white enough to represent the Heavenly Glory. It is much easier, and more impressive, to use natural light to reflect the Heavenly Light which is even more illuminating. This is primarily done with gold.

Traditionally applied to icons as a thin layer of gold leaf, this colour is used as the background for many Icons (I have never seen an icon with a white background), is often used for halos, and otherwise as a means of highlighting. In the Icon of Christ Enthroned on the right, gold is used to highlight the vestments Christ is wearing. The cloak itself is green, yet with the gold highlighting the whole image of Christ shimmers with light, as though the image itself were the source of light. This says exactly what we believe about Christ being the Light of the World. Using a certain colour to represent light means we must expect people to know this symbolism; on the other hand, the best Icons literally shine, and that is something which speaks to everyone.

The use of gold and other precious materials leads on to the next principle for using colour in Icons:


Christ wearing Tyrian purple

Christ Mosaic, Ravenna (6th Century A.D.)

Icons must be beautiful. Whilst standards of beauty may change from place to place, the simple piety in trying to make Holy Images as beautiful as possible is constant. And so gold, as well as reflecting light, is also a precious metal – which must also influence its usage in Iconography of the Heavenly Realms. From Scripture, through the Traditions of the Church, and even today, gold is a symbol of royalty, the sun, and therefore of light. However, other colours can change meaning. This is why in the 6th century mosaic on the left, Christ is clothed in purple.

Tyrian purple was a colour made using dyes made from molluscs near Phoenicia. It was extremely expensive to produce and therefore only those of great wealth, usually nobility and sometimes only the Emperor, could afford it or were permitted to wear it. By 400 AD, less than half a kilo of cloth dyed with Tyrian purple, cost in excess of £12,000 in today’s money. Given its expense, and given its exclusive association with royalty, it becomes suddenly clear why the mosaics in Ravenna show Christ wearing purple.

The Tradition of an Unorganized Religion


Icon of Pentecost

The Icons of Pentecost show us that the Church’s unity is not based upon being under a single, autocratic, hierarch. Orthodoxy is not an organized religion. The Faith remains unchanged, but people in different countries and continents differ. It is understandable, therefore, that from place to place, the expression of “the Faith” will differ, so that all may receive the same message in a way they can understand. What Tyrian purple was to a 6th century Byzantine might be what gold is for us today: a symbol of kingship. The important thing is that the kingship of Christ is communicated.

Iconography, like many aspects of Orthodox practice, took hundreds of years to develop. The Truth communicated was unchanging from the beginning, but its expression has taken time to become established. And, again, because Orthodoxy’s Vicar of Christ on Earth is not an incarnate human, but the invisible Holy Spirit, acting throughout the world, we must respect and accept differences in practice. We are called to unity, rather than uniformity. After all, even at Pentecost the Apostles are shown in robes of many colours.

With all that in mind, I offer these guides of on colour in Orthodox Icons. They are still useful, as much of the symbolism is taken from Scriptures, which are themselves merely intuitive reflections on colour in nature (blue = sky/Heaven; white = clean/purity etc). Yet the traditions of colour in Orthodox Icons are rainbow-like in their diversity.

Icons: Symbolism In Color (from

Icons and Iconography (from

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6 Responses to The 100% Non-Definitive Guide to Colour in Icons

  1. Poppy says:

    PLease do something about the unreality of the Orthodox icons. That would be really interesting as well ^.^

  2. iconreader says:

    I could do that, but others have already done it better than me:

    • Atif Hameen says:

      Jesus’ faith should be the true basis of Christianity not his face! His face has been the basis of racism and imperialism…

      • iconreader says:

        Thank you for your comments. I think the subject you raise is for another topic. Here, I am discussing the symbolism of colour as used in the clothing of Christ, the Saints, and Angels – not the colour of his skin (or, indeed, anyone else depicted in icons).

  3. Mario says:

    Hello .
    Right now I am in posesion of the Green Mother of god – I had never soo Icon like that on any photos and I had see many of them. What do you know about this Ikon. Is a hand crafted by lady in Ukraine in 2006 and some how it found her way to Calgary and than in to my hands and I am weary happy about that.

  4. Trish Ashby says:

    Hello….I hope I get some sort of response here as I am completely enthrawled in icons and really confused at what IV come to understand (rather what I don’t understand at all!) Of icons. Let me explain; I assumed my boyfriend in his dumpster diving escapades had brought home another freaking painting or junk when he came in shaken and gently cradling a kinda cloth like wood like old as heck “painting” of what we assume is Mary holding a black Jesus lol. It looked as suck at time please forgive my ignorance on what may be a very important icon of faith. Anyways, I assumed the baby was black and automatically thought “hmm that’s different” but past that thought it was junk. when he kept coddling it and holding it so genly I began to look closer as he told me about a house he passed durring his normal dumpster diving trips and how he’d been offered pick of any unwanted items left behind if he’d help clear out house of an elderly couple that had been gone (one passed the other was put in home due to severe Alzheimer’s about 2 years ago) with kids getting mail checking locks and leaving their home to sit for last two years. Upon talking to the long distance it only available grandchild wiling to bother to take care of business he learned that the lady had died and they were finally able to peacefully clear house without feeling guilty and needed everything out asap. So as my boyfriend helped pack “old worthless” things that these people collected from all over the world, he saw old books old artifacts from all over world and ALOT of things u can tell these people treasured being tossed aside and thrown out. When he saw the painting it was under feet of movers and headed for trash when he saved it and so carefully picked up and dusted off. My boyfriends not ever gentle he’s like bam bam times 10 but he held this painting like he was holding a baby and with a slight sadness and hint of love for it he said “they’re spoiled babe they just care about a money and they were stepping all over the Mamma Mary! I had to save it babe SOMEBODY cherished it and look! Don’t u feel her sad at how home is being treated?! I know dis is a worth something even stepped on but its very old and. Needs to go to someone that loves God like Mary loves dis baby in picture” so..I give I’m and start looking at it and on back it is signed idk but has a date dated 1645….its on wood and its deff old and I don’t doubt its from 1645….and now I know its most likely considered an icon. He had the antique shop offer him 500 but continue to call to see if he’s changed his mind. So I believe it’s valuable although pawn shop laughed when we showed young 20 year old employee lol. But what good is a pawn shop for learning value anyway?! What I want to know is, is what I have an icon and is it rare to come across one as old as I’m sure this one is? If so what would be a value one could put on such a thing if real and who would best give that answer? And I’d like to know what it means or represents or however icons work? I’m very confused as to what an icon even is and where to get answers. I’d greatly appreciate any feedback and apologize for long drawn out background on my …well ill say my “painting” till sure. Thanks for taking time to read and await any and every reply ready to come my way and appreciate any feedback! Thanks everyone have a good day!

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