The Virgin Mary and the Color Purple

In the world of art, the Virgin Mary most often is depicted in blue or red clothing. I am interested, however, in the associations that Mary has with the color purple. It is not terribly common to see Mary depicted in purple, even though there is interesting symbolism and iconography associated with that color and the Virgin. One depiction of Mary in purple (borderline indigo?) that I particularly like is an encaustic icon from the 6th century (Virgin and Child with Saints Theodore and George, St. Catherine, Sinai, shown on left). A recent conversation with my friend Jon has caused me to think about the color purple and depictions of the Annunciation (the moment in scripture when the Angel Gabriel “announces” to Mary her divine calling).

An Early Christian apocryphal text links depictions of the Annunciation with the color purple. This text, the Protoevangelium of James, dates at least to the 2nd century AD. It describes Mary as one of the pure virgins who was chosen to help spin the veil for the temple. The lot of spinning the “true purple and the scarlet” threads fell to Mary; “and she took the scarlet, and span it.”1

According to the Protoevangelium of James, the angel appeared to Mary twice, once while she was fetching water with a pitcher and again when she returned to her room to resume spinning.2Although the validity of this apocryphal text has been questioned, the story has led to many representations of the Virgin spinning. Many of these representations are pre-Carolingian or Byzantine, although the Eastern church still continues to depict Mary in this fashion.3 The image below is from a 12th century icon (Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow). The arrival of the angel has interrupted Mary’s spinning; she holds a distaff and the true purple thread in her lower hand. Not only does Mary hold this thread, however, but her cloak is also the same color.

I really like Lawrence Cross’ interpretation of this piece. He writes that Mary is seen “holding the distaff and the scarlet and true purple thread. The power of the symbol is now clear. In her consent [to her divine calling] and conception, she herself has become the new veil of the temple of God. The scarlet and the true purple is the symbol of her motherhood through which the divine Logos will become man.”4 I think the true purple cloak wrapped around Mary is a visual assertion of Mary’s divine role. I also think it could be a visual manifestation of the Holy Spirit descending upon Mary, especially since her conception is referenced by the small Christ child that appears within the cloak.5 It is especially interesting that the small Christ child is the same color as Mary’s cloak, as if He is covered by the Holy Spirit or by the veil of Mary’s body.

The color scarlet is also a fitting color for Mary and the Christ Child, since the royal color asserts that Mary and Christ are part of King David’s lineage.6 What depictions of Mary spinning/in purple do you like?

1 Protoevangelium of James 1:10-12. Text can be found online here. There is an interesting mosaic in the Chora Church (Kariye Djami) which depicts a priest handing a skein of the “true purple and scarlet” to Mary (shown on the right of the linked image).

2 In an article regarding European/Catholic art, Margaretta Salinger writes, “The author’s emphasis on [Mary] taking the pitcher, to go to the well, and then later ‘filled with trembling,’ returning to her house and setting it down, suggests that this text accounts for the ever present ewer serving as a vase in representations of the Annunciation.” See Margaretta Salinger, “An Annunciation by Gerard David,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series 9, no. 9 (May, 1951): 225.

3 In later periods, the theme of spinning was replaced with an emphasis on learning; the Virgin was often depicted reading a book. David Cartlidge discusses this change in subject matter and cites the apocryphal text, “No one could be found better instructed than [Mary] in the law of God and singing the songs of David” (Pseudo-Matthew 6). See David R. Cartlidge, Art and the Christian Apocrypha, (London: Routledge, 2001), 80. Full text can be read online here.

4 Lawrence Cross, “St. Mary in the Christian East,” Australian EJournal of Theology, no. 9 (March 2007), accessed online here.

5 A fifth-century analogy by the African monk Arnobius the Younger furthers this idea between Mary, the color purple, and the Holy Spirit. “Just as wool, to be transformed into royal purple cloth, must absorb the blood of a purple shellfish (conchylium), so the Virgin Mary absorbed the purple color of divinity when the Holy Spirit descended upon her and she was covered with a shadow of the Most High.” See Luigi Gambero, Mary in the Middle Ages: The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Thought of Medieval Latin Theologians (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005) 61. Citation can be read online here.

6 Maria Evangelatou, “The Purple Thread of the Flesh: The Theological Connotations of a Narrative Iconographic Element in Byzantine Images of the Annunciation” in Icon and Word: The Power of Images in Byzantium: Studies Presented to Robin Cormack, Antony Eastmond, Liz James, and Robin Cormack, eds. (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003), 262. Citation found online here.
  • Emilee . . . says:

    I think this is really interesting. I hope you will write more blogs about religious art mainly because I learn so much from them. I’d love to know what pieces of Christ (from non LDS artists) you enjoy.

  • Sweet Em says:

    How timely! Although this is entirely non-intellectual, last night I was flipping through an child’s version of the NT and and noticed that the virgin Mary in the illustrations is dressed in purple. At the time I found this odd, considering the time period it was representing (I’d have expected browns etc.) Now it makes more sense, though I wonder if the illustrator intended to make the correlation?

  • vmgregory says:

    Alberti, very interesting and Thank you. Thought you may want to see this websight,
    http://virginmarywindow.com/ , and
    some of the pictures posted on it.
    Especially one titled Rosary.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.