I suspect that many people take the colors of Christmas for granted. We see green and red in poinsettia plants, frosting on cookies, ugly sweaters, elf costumes, greeting cards, and airport terminals (photo 1) without giving them much thought. Green and red are ubiquitous in December. But what do the colors mean aside from signaling that it’s Christmastime? In this post, we’ll consider how artists use color to convey meaning in the iconography of Christmas as we visit cathedrals and churches in France, England, and the United States. Keep in mind as we proceed that iconography means “writing with images” and that color is but one aspect of the “script” artists use.
Green and Red Though the meaning of green and red displayed together may be lost on many of us moderns, its symbolic use in Christian art runs long and deep. A roundel in the twelfth century Passion and Resurrection Window at Chartres Cathedral shows how the color combination got started. The image depicts the crucified Jesus on a green cross with a red border (photo 2). Why are the colors of Christmas in a crucifixion scene?
According to George Ferguson’s Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, green is associated with living vegetation and spring, symbolizing the triumph of spring over winter and life over death. Red is associated with blood and in this case symbolizes sacrifice. Artists in the Middle Ages employed the two colors to connect Christ’s birth and impending death to make the theological point that Jesus was born to die so that others might live. The colors came to symbolize the belief, expressed by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, that Christians share in Jesus’ victory over death. He wrote that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life.”
Medieval theologians also used another verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans to forge an imaginative link between Christ’s birth and the beginning of time. Paul wrote, “Therefore, just as [Adam’s] trespass led to condemnation for all, so [Jesus’] act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” Malcolm Miller, the venerable English-speaking docent at France’s Chartres Cathedral explains that 12th century Christians “commonly believed that the ‘true’ cross was made from the Tree of Life, which had grown in Paradise. Thus, of the two trees of the Garden of Eden, one brought about death, and the other, life.” Christ, in this interpretation, is the “new Adam” whose birth represents a new start for humanity.
When did artists begin to use green and red in Nativity scenes? I don’t know for sure. We do know, however, that some were using green and red in depictions of the stable scene, with images drawn from Luke’s gospel and the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew with its familiar ox and ass, by the year 1200. An altar frontal painting (photo 3) from the church of Santa Maria de Avia, now at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalonia in Barcelona, is one of the earliest examples I’ve encountered. It contains five small scenes illustrating the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, approach of the Magi, and Presentation of Christ in the temple. Jesus sits on Mary’s lap in the larger central panel. In the Nativity panel at the upper right, the baby Jesus is wrapped in green and red swaddling clothes. To the left, he wears green and red robes seated on the enthroned Mary.
White, Purple and Gold Stained glass artists and painters have incorporated red and green in Christmas scenes ever since. Along the way, some added white to form a trio that symbolizes sacrifice, new life, and Christ’s inherent purity of spirit. Others added purple and/or gold to symbolize royalty and the Christian conception of Christ as a heavenly king. A set of four windows at Gloucester Cathedral in England offers a tenderly executed example (photos 4 and 5). From left to right, the four panels picture Joseph, three angels with Jesus in a manger, Mary kneeling, and two shepherds with a herald angel above. Note the colors of the angels’ wings in the manger scene. They are red, green, purple, and white. The artist used the colors of Christmas to envelop the baby Jesus.
Similarly, an early 20th century adoration window (photo 6, probably fabricated by a German studio) at St. Boniface Catholic Church in New Vienna, Iowa, shows angels wearing green, red, purple, and gold robes as they kneel adoringly before the babe lying in a manger. To the left, two Magi wear what appear to be red and white caps beneath their crowns, suggesting associations with Christmas candy canes and Santa Claus!
I’ll close this post with a good look at a modern, faceted stained glass window at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, a few blocks from our home in Iowa City. It’s a favorite of mine because it combines in one elegant panel the main elements of the Christmas story entirely in symbols. Green, red, white and gold are all there. A golden manger is central. A red chi-rho rises from it. It’s an emblem of Christ because chi and rho are the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ. A circular white nimbus, perhaps suggesting a communion host, appears behind the crest of the rho. A green almond-shaped mandorla frames the chi-rho and manger. It symbolizes Christ’s dual nature through the intersection of two unseen circles that represent his humanity and divinity. Three crowns representing the Three Kings or Magi, a crook representing the shepherds, and a bright pentagonal star complete the symbolic story of a singular night, centuries ago, when light triumphed over darkness in a little town called Bethlehem.
Sources: Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art (Oxford Press, 1961); Miller, Chartres Cathedral (Pitkin Pictorials, 1985); Barnstone, The Other Bible (HarperOne, 2005); Attridge, Harper Collins Study Bible (HarperOne, 2006)
Photos and article copyright by Michael Klug, firstname.lastname@example.org, 12/24/2017