The Solar Mysticism of Color in Iconography

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

On the first day of Theology of Art at Mount Angel Seminary, I offer the students some material on the use of color in iconography when I introduce their first sketchbook exercise, including a passage from the book Icons: Theology in Color (public library) by Eugene N. Trubetskoi:
In old-Russian icons we find all these colors in their symbolic, otherworldly meaning.  All are used by the artist to divide the empyrean from our terrestrial plane of being.  This is the key to the ineffable beauty of the icon’s color symbolism.
Apparently the guiding idea is this: the mysticism of icon painting is primarily solar, in that word’s spiritual sense.  However beautiful the sky’s other colors may be, the gold of the midday sun remains the color of colors and the miracle of miracles.  All the others are, so to speak, of subordinate rank, from a hierarchy around it.  In its presence, the nocturnal blue disappears; the stars pale, and so does the glow from a fire at night.  Even the red of dawn is merely a harbinger of sunrise.  Finally, the play of sunrays produces every color in the rainbow, for the sun is the source of all color and all light in the sky and below it.
Such is the hierarchy of colors around the “sun that never sets.”  Not one color of the rainbow is denied a place in these images of divine glory, but only the solar gold symbolizes the center of divine life.  All the rest are its environment.  Only God, “brighter than the sun,” emits this royal light.  The surrounding colors express the nature of the glorified celestial and earthy creatures that form his living, miraculously created church.  It is as if the icon painter by some mystic intuition has divined the secret of the solar spectrum discovered centuries later; as if he perceived all the hues of the rainbow as multicolored refractions of a single ray of divine life (48).