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The Alba Madonna, Rafael, oil on panel transferred to canvas (1510), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Alba Madonna, Rafael, oil on panel transferred to canvas (1510), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Virgin in a Blue Dress

In his superb book on Christian symbolism, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, George Ferguson writes, “No other figure, except that of Christ Himself, was so often portrayed in Renaissance art as the Virgin Mary.”[1]  Ferguson further notes that Saint Mary was traditionally painted wearing blue, the color of truth and a symbol of the sky, heaven, and heavenly love.[2]  But did the historical Saint Mary actually wear blue?  Evidence preserved in various shrines suggests the Virgin’s blue wardrobe may have been an invention of Medieval and Renaissance artists.  These artists expressed their devotion to the Virgin by using a very scarce and very expensive pigment to paint her garments.  The pigment, known as ultramarine, was a deep, celestial blue.

Madonna and Child with Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist, Cima da Conegliano, oil on panel (1492-1495), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Madonna and Child with Saint Jerome and Saint John the Baptist, Cima da Conegliano, oil on panel (1492-1495), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Marienschrein and the Four Great Relics of Aachen

The Marienschrein, or Shrine of Saint Mary, at Aachen Cathedral in Aachen (Aix-La-Chapelle), Germany houses four great relics:  the cloak of Saint Mary, the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus, the beheading cloth of Saint John the Baptist, and the loincloth worn by Jesus at his crucifixion.  The relics were rarely displayed publicly before the 14th century; however, since about the mid-14th century, the relics have been removed from the shrine approximately every seven years for public veneration.[3]

Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary), gold (1230-1239), Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany

Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary), gold (1230-1239), Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany

I am unsure exactly what color the relic of Saint Mary’s cloak is, or appears to be, today.  Judging by a picture of the garment taken when it was last displayed in 2007, the cloak appears to be flaxen in color, or yellowish gray, with possible hints of light blue along its hem.  It is certainly not the deep blue favored by Renaissance artists, though perhaps it has faded significantly over time.  Or perhaps it was never blue to begin with.  [NOTE:  See update below for additional information.]

One other clue to what color Saint Mary may have worn during her lifetime is preserved 300 miles southwest of Aachen, at Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France.  One of the cathedral’s most famous stained-glass windows, a 12th-century window known as Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière (Our Lady of the Beautiful Glass), depicts the Virgin and Child in a sedes sapientiae (seat of wisdom) arrangement with the Christ Child seated on the lap of the Holy Mother.  Victoria Finlay, in her engaging study of color and pigments, Color:  A Natural History of the Palette, suggests the window shows the Virgin Mary in a blue veil.[4]  “The veil,” she writes, “is a pale color, light enough to allow the sun to flood through and depict the young woman’s purity.”[5]  However, “it is unmistakably light blue, and worn over a blue tunic.”[6]  She further notes that the glass-makers who created the window in 1150 “would have had the ‘real’ veil to model their design on, which is curious, because when you see the precious relic in its gold nineteenth-century box . . . it is not blue at all.  More of an off-white:  the faded clothing of the melancholy mother of a martyr.”[7]

The Madonna of the Stars, Jacopo Tintoretto, oil on canvas (second half of the 16th century), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Madonna of the Stars, Jacopo Tintoretto, oil on canvas (second half of the 16th century), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A Blue More Precious Than Gold

If the Virgin Mary did not wear blue, why did artists regularly paint her in blue garments?  Victoria Finlay offers several insights.  First, she explains that Saint Mary did not always wear blue in artistic representations.  In Russian icons, for example, the Virgin Mary more commonly wore red, and in Byzantine art, she often wore purple.[8]  On other occasions, she was portrayed in white to represent her innocence, or black to express her grief.[9]  Finlay also observes that artists commonly dressed her in a manner to honor her, and their choice of color was frequently decided by cost and rarity.[10]  She writes, “In fifteenth-century Holland, Mary often wore scarlet because that was the most expensive cloth; the earlier Byzantine choice of purple was similarly because this was a valuable dye, and only a few people were important enough to carry it off.  So when, in around the thirteenth century, ultramarine arrived in Italy as the most expensive color on the market, it was logical to use it to dress the most precious symbol of the faith.”[11]

Ultramarine pigment, Albrecht-Dürer-Haus, Nuremberg, Germany

Example of ultramarine pigment, Albrecht-Dürer-Haus, Nuremberg, Germany.

The deep, rich ultramarine prized by the artists of the Renaissance derived from lapis lazuli, an intensely blue, semi-precious stone found in only a few places on Earth.  For artists such as Michelangelo, Titian, and Dürer, the only source of ultramarine was Afghanistan, a “mythical land so far away that no European . . . had actually been there.”[12]  Finlay notes that ultramarine was once “the most valuable paint material in the world,” and artists such as Michelangelo would have had to wait for their patrons to procure it for them because they could not afford it on their own.[13]  Given its tremendous cost and unquestionable rarity, then, it is not surprising that so many artists chose to clothe the Virgin Mary in ultramarine.  Fortuitously, ultramarine also happens to be a serene and majestic color, one truly appropriate for the Queen of Heaven.

***

[UPDATE, 27 JUNE 2014.] The following description is from the Aachen Pilgrimage 2014 (Heiligtumsfahrt 2014) website: “St. Mary’s robe is an ancient work of domestic embroidery. . . .  It is made of naturally coloured linen and is embroidered with vertical and horizontal lines in a grid pattern.  In Israel flax and cotton were only to be found on the coast and in the lowlands of Jordan . . . .”  The website further notes that the dress is 153 cm long; the seam circumference is 246 cm; and the span of the sleeves is 132 cm.  The Aachen Pilgrimage 2014 homepage can be found here.  More information about the cloak of Saint Mary can be found here.  A picture of the robe can be viewed here.

***

Madonna and Child, Vittore Carapaccio, oil on panel (1505-1510), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Madonna and Child, Vittore Carapaccio, oil on panel (1505-1510), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Madonna and Child, Jan Gossaert, oil on panel (c. 1532), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Madonna and Child, Jan Gossaert, oil on panel (c. 1532), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Virgin and Child, sandstone with traces of polychrome (c. 1325-1350).

Virgin and Child, sandstone with traces of polychrome (c. 1325-1350), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Madonna and Child, stained-glass window, Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France.

Madonna and Child, stained-glass window, Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France.

Aachen Cathedral with High Altar and Pala d'Oro in foreground and Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary) behind.

Aachen Cathedral with High Altar and Pala d’Oro in foreground and Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary) behind.  Hanging from the vault above the choir is a wooden medallion of the Madonna and Child carved by Jan van Steffesweert of Maastricht in 1524.


[1] George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art 71 (1954).

[2] Id. at 151.

[3] John Carroll Cruz, Relics 23 (1984).

[4] Victoria Finlay, Color: A Natural History of the Palette 317 (2002).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 292-93.

[9] Id. at 293.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 282.

[13] Id. at 287.

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