Jesus is often depicted wearing a red mantle or even an entire red robe. While this is sometimes only a choice of the artist, the use of the color red can also be a matter of religious symbolism. And Jesus dressed in red has become a tradition.
Starting with Jewish tradition and the Old Testament, we find the color red immediately tied to the first man, Adam. In Hebrew, Adam’s name means “the one formed from the group or earth.” However, the name more specifically means “red earth” because the Hebrew word “dam” also refers to blood. Blood, of course, was used in sacrifices.
One of the earliest artworks representing Christ is the Good Shepherd shown in wall art of the Dura-Europos house church in Syria. It dates to the third century and shows Christ carrying a sheep painted against a red background.
Other early images of Christ, as in the catacombs, show him attired in white — the color of heaven as Jesus appeared in the Gospel account of the Transfiguration — with a dark vertical stripe on his shoulders. This stripe is called “the clavus,” and was a symbol of imperial power in both Rome and Byzantium.
Byzantine mosaics from the fourth century show Jesus in gold and blue. Gold used in icons is a color of divinity. Blue used in Eastern church icons represents heaven. So the two together represent the divine, heavenly power of God revealed in Jesus.
As icons developed in the East, other colors came to represent specific things. Red stood for earth and human nature, as in blood. This is why icons of the Virgin Mary sometimes show her clothed in a blue tunic and a deep red mantle, meaning that her human body (red) sheltered the divinity (heavenly blue) within her. More often, though, Mary wears a red tunic in icons — symbolizing her humanity — with a blue mantle — showing that she became robed with heaven with the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, in such religious icons, is usually depicted in colors opposite those of his mother — with a blue tunic, to show his divine nature, and a red sash or mantle, showing that he took on humanity and, in his human body, offered the sacrifice of his blood. This can be seen in the famous icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where Mary wears a red tunic and a blue mantle, while the Child Jesus in her arms has a red sash.
The red used in icons came from ground carnelian, a semi-precious gemstone that is a form of agate. In the Book of Revelation, carnelian is listed as one of the rows (the sixth) of stones used as the foundation of the New Jerusalem (Rv 21:20). Earlier in the same book, the author reports that the one he saw seated on the throne of heaven “sparkled like jasper and carnelian” (Rv 4:3).
So, from the East, we received red used in art to show Jesus’ humanity, as well as his sacrifice. But Eastern icons also used red to indicate royalty. This came from the Byzantine tradition that the emperor and the imperial family wore red shoes. Byzantium is now Istanbul in Turkey.
Since the Byzantine empire began its history as the Roman Empire of the East, the link to red and royalty may also have started in Rome — and the Etruscan Empire that preceded it, which used red in its art. (The Etruscan civilization lasted for 900 years, until the rise of Rome, which was officially founded in 27 B.C.) In Rome, senators often wore red (more crimson) shoes as a sign of rank. However, red was also a commonly used color in Rome. Think of all the images you have seen of Roman soldiers with red-plumed helmets and red mantles.
Red was an easily attained color in Rome, in its common form. The royal red, or crimson, was not. This came from an insect called kermes that was a parasite on oak trees. The more common color was called “Turkey red” and came from the root of a European herb, now called the rose madder. In Jesus’ time, Turkey red would have been an easily attained color for a mantle or tunic.
Later in art history, red sometimes became pink. This came from the time of the Renaissance (14th to 17th centuries). At that time, the use of pink was considered the proper tone for skin. (Skin tones in art were previously red, dating back to at least the Etruscans.)
One of the early artists of the Renaissance was the monk Fra Angelico, beatified by St. John Paul II in 1982. He used pink in an entirely new way, for the clothing of the Archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation fresco on a wall in the Convent of St. Marco in Florence.
Following in this tradition of pink was Masaccio’s 14th-century “The Tribute Money.” This depicts several of the apostles, including John, as well as Jesus, wearing pink.
By the 1700s, pink had become the fashion statement — think King Louis XVI of France — which lasted until after World War II. It was only after the war that pink and blue became colors for girls and boys — and that took a while to catch on. Before that, artists used pink as easily as red, and so we find paintings like Heinrich Hoffman’s famous “Christ in Gethsemane” (1886) with Jesus wearing a pink tunic and blue mantle.
For modern liturgies today, pink is used twice a year — although it is often a rosy shade — to signify joy: once in Lent and once in Advent (Laetare and Gaudete Sundays).
Red is a more commonly used color for vestments and altar cloths. It signifies both the fire of the Holy Spirit, as well as the blood shed by martyrs and so it is used on their feast days. Red is used for vestments and to veil the crucifix on Good Friday in honor of the blood of Christ shed on the cross.
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; crosswalk.com; europeanacademyofreligionandsociety.com; ewtn.com; catholicnewsagency.com; vatican.va; udayton.edu; theguardian.com; aleteia.com; coraevans.com; theparisreview.org; catholicexchange.com; pravmir.com; ancient-hebrew.org; tribunesandtriumphs.org; russianicon.com; bbc.com/culture; artsy.net; orthodoxartsjournal.org; christianity.com and newsbook.com.mt.