What Colors Mean in Different Religions
As much as it’s an artistic technique, color choice is a cultural tool — one that influences and communicates. In history, colors signified social ranks: Reds and purples were a sign of nobility in the Western world; yellow was the royal color of imperial China. Some colors are sacred and life-giving, and others represent sin and death.
Nothing manifests this as clearly as religion does. To this day, people associate certain religious iconography with their color meanings. But these meanings vary throughout different religions: The implications of the Virgin Mary’s blue cloak were different from Lord Krishna’s blue skin. How have we appropriated these meanings over time?
Christianity: Expressions of the Faith
In medieval and Renaissance societies, religion governed all. Art, which is now generally considered an individualistic prospect, was an act of social service. Most religious artworks had to have some sort of societal purpose, and artists had to make use of techniques that were familiar and recognizable. Depictions of the divine were dynamic but consistent, and the use of colors was a way to maintain tradition.
Colors in Christian art helped people contextualize a Biblical character or a story. The blue cloak of Mary, for example, is tied with her identity. The color blue symbolized hope and purity and was the color of royalty in the Byzantine empire, along with red and purple. This gave believers an idea of who Mary should be: the embodiment of hope, the divine empress.
Sassoferrato, who painted one of the most iconic renditions of the Virgin Mary, painted her cloak in ultramarine, a shade of blue made from pulverized lapis lazuli. Interpretations like these further sealed Mary’s connection with divinity. In the words of Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kadinsky: “The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite.”
Themes like piety and passion were also highlighted in Christian art, often depicted in red. Besides the suffering of Christ, red was also the color of martyrdom — a fact recognized by pope emeritus Benedict XVI who wore this color during his tenure as a sign that he shared the faith.
Red also symbolizes the tongues of fire (a reference to Pentecost), thus representing spiritual awakening. Jean II Restout’s rendition of the Biblical event exhibited this clearly: Mary, the focal point of the piece, received the light of God in red and blue. Some apostles in the painting also wore red garments, which served as a stark contrast to the surrounding elements of white.
Although it’s not overtly expressed, the Catholic Church still makes use of color symbolisms. Every event in the liturgical calendar has a corresponding color. Red is for special Lenten days (such as Palm Sunday and Good Friday), Pentecost Sunday, and celebrations for martyrs. Violet indicates the Lenten and Advent seasons. White — the color of light and birth — signifies Christmas, Easter, and feast days of saints. Finally, green represents the rest of the calendar days.
Buddhism: The Colors of Enlightenment
For Buddhists, colors play an integral role in rituals. The Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism philosophizes that the world has five divine elements, each being components of “enlightened consciousness.” These intangible elements are personified by the Five Dhyani Buddhas.
- Vairochana is believed to be the most omnipresent buddha. Sometimes called the Supreme Buddha, he represents rūpa or the material realm. He’s portrayed with white, which is associated with truth and transcendence. White is also “universal” in the sense that it represents all colors and symbols of the other buddhas. Vairochana is indeed the embodiment of all cosmic elements, and this portrayal reflects that luminously.
- Ratnasambhava represents the fulfillment of equanimity and triumph against greed. Ratnasambhava is also often attributed with generosity, as seen in his gesture: the gift-giving varada mudra. His colors are gold and yellow, which are symbolic of enrichment and fertility.
- Amitabha, the “Infinite Light,” made efforts for the enlightenment of all beings. Having made a vow for himself and his followers, he reigned in a paradise called Sukhavati (the Western Pure Land). His popularity as “the savior buddha” brought about the practice of Pure Land Buddhism. He’s symbolized by the color red, which is associated with love and compassion.
- Amoghsiddhi is often called the Almighty Conqueror and embodies courage and fearlessness. For believers, meditation upon him relinquishes fear, envy, and jealousy. He’s attributed to summer and the color green, which reminded believers of his strength and vigor.
- Akshobhya was a monk renowned for his temperance and humility. Known as “the Immovable One,” Akshobhya was strong and stable in reaching his goal of enlightenment and encouraged the same values to those who meditate upon him. He reigns Abhirati, the Eastern paradise, and his color is blue, which symbolizes wisdom.
Monks who conducted rituals for the divine beings wore crowns with their corresponding colors. These crowns were also worn for other purposes such as public performances and ceremonies.
Colors are also representative of core values: yellow, the closest color to daylight, represents enlightenment. It’s especially sacred because it was chosen by Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, to separate himself from the materialist society. Previously worn by criminals, this color, which was appropriated by Buddha, was indicative of humility and desirelessness.
Hinduism: A Celebration of Colors
No other religious tradition reveres color as much as Hinduism does — they have ceremonies and festivals dedicated just for it.
The Holi Festival is also known as the festival of colors, celebrated during the full moon of the 12th month of the Hindu Calendar. Vibrant and joyful, this festival welcomes spring and honors the triumph of good over evil. The revelry begins on the eve of the festival, where a bonfire is lit as a symbol of burning evil spirits. People gather around it to dance, pray, and playfully chase each other around with colored powder and water.
Another vibrant tradition is Diwali, the festival of light. Here, people decorate their homes and the streets with folk art called rangoli. Makeshift flower markets sell garlands of marigolds, which symbolize the sun and positive energy. At night, fireworks serve as a commemoration of light, hope, and high spirits.
The Hindus associated the color blue with divine creation as it made up two of nature’s most majestic domains: the sky and the sea. As such, this color was attributed to Vishnu, preserver and protector of the universe. His avatars Krishna and Rama, who also spent their lives protecting humanity, had blue skin to indicate their divine connection with him.
Although the meanings of colors vary across branches of Hinduism, saffron (a hue of yellow or orange, like that of fire) is considered a sacred color for all believers. Derived from the spice of the same name, it’s a symbol of religious abstinence and cleansing. It’s such an auspicious color that it makes up one of the tricolors of the Indian flag.
Islam: Hues of Holy Traditions
In the Muslim tradition, green is sacred. It’s believed that Islam founder and holy prophet Muhammad donned a cloak and turban of this shade. This color has been appropriated all across the contexts of the religion, including in art, ritualistic practices, and architecture (such as the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina).
It was also referenced several times in the Quran, especially when pertaining to the afterlife. It’s said that those who reach this paradise will be adorned in “green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade.”
Muhammad himself had said: “The people will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment, and my community and I will be on a hill. God Most Exalted will then clothe me in a green garment and permit me to supplicate Him and I will say whatever He wills I should say.”
White is also monumental in Muslim belief. It’s the color of ihram clothing, which one must wear before going on the Hajj Pilgrimage. The color signifies peace and holiness, which helps believers observe solemnity during the journey.
Colors in the Modern Context
Today, color is used less for its symbolic significance and more because of its psychological impact. But this impact is also largely due to the meanings we have attached to them over time: blue is still a universal color of calmness; orange is still associated with energy. These were ingrained through centuries of tradition and repeated imagery.
“I finally came to consider colors as forces, to be assembled as inspiration dictates,” Henri Matisse told the Getty Research Institute in 1941. Indeed, the use of colors is no longer required to meet religious conventions, but it still upholds the same principle: to express emotions and human values in tangible ways.