Colors both captivate our ordinary senses and, at the same time, capture extraordinary meanings. Consider blue. It can describe how low we might feel. But it can also depict, as a symbol, higher callings proposed by faith to humanity.
Science defines blue as the color between green and violet in the optical electromagnetic spectrum, with a wavelength between 450 and 495 nanometers. But hearts, minds, and other human senses attach values to blue beyond the visible rainbow. We try to comfort people that we say are suffering from “the blues.” We also react when skin turns blue, with icy aid when bruised or with more urgent alarm when too cold to the touch due to lack of oxygen. Even recent analyses of voting trends – designating individual states that tend to vote for the Democratic Party as “blue states” – employ the color to help us greater understand the world.
Definitions and perceptions, like a lot in life when we take time to pause and ponder, find earlier expressions in the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church. Meanings for blue prove no different. Beginning in the 12th century, European architects and artists incorporated ultramarine, a bluish pigment imported from Asia, into their works. People can still see its splendors shining through the stain glass of countless European cathedrals. Artists such as Fra Angelico, Giovanni Bellini, and Raphael, to name just a few, also employed blue in their paintings to depict the clothing worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Their masterpieces used blue in her robes to distinguish holiness, humility, and virtue. Consequently, the color blue has surfaced over the centuries as one symbolic of Mary and her qualities that the faithful seek to practice in service to Christ and his Church.
Interestingly, it seems that even our basic tool for illustrating relationships between colors – the color wheel – confirms how faith, science, and art intersect seamlessly. Children learn at very early ages that mixing the three primary colors – blue, along with red and yellow – makes new colors. Blue combined with red produces purple. The eyes of faith that glimpse towards the altar during the seasons of Advent and Lent find purple lifting their thoughts to the idea of God’s royalty. Blue blended with yellow makes green – the color of the great outdoors reminding us of new life. The season of Ordinary Time testifies with green linens and vestments to the vitality of life found in faith. In such a diversity of seen and unseen ways, one might say that the red blood of the sacrificed Savior, the yellow radiance of the risen Son, and the blue Marian mantle combine to shine forth the light of the saving Word into the world.
As you celebrate Labor Day, open your eyes toward others who see blue as no more than the word which describes for them hopeless sadness and lifelessness. Show them blue instead as living informed by a hopeful, happy, and full faith. Introduce them to the beautiful array of architectural and artistic masterpieces that use blue. By doing so, and in a very personal way, you may very well bring them closer to the Master and Maker of our many hues of blue.
Jason Godin teaches United States history at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas. You can find him on Facebook here.