Growing up Baptist, I’ve learned to take a few church conventions for granted. One question, though, has plagued me every Sunday since I was a wee Awana’s cubby. A five-year-old Sunday school student may not be able to explain the meaning of communion or articulate the difference between a Lutheran and a Methodist, but there’s one thing all preschool church-goers know beyond a shadow of a doubt: the Virgin Mary always wears blue.
As the Catholic Family blog points out, realistically Mary’s clothing would have been kind of drab, plainly colored, simple in structure and modestly dyed in a dull shade at best. So why the fabrication? Pun intended. The reasoning behind Mary’s wardrobe is more complicated than I would have guessed, as many explanations are out there to be considered. Surprisingly enough, though, Mary hasn’t always been so keen to the sky blue hue she most often dons today.
“The older, classic and more representative color is dark blue,” wrote Rev. Johann Roten, director of the Marian Library-International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. On a student FAQ page, he wrote that “Mary’s dark blue mantle (cloak), from about 500 A.D., is of Byzantine origin and is the color of an empress.”
“The Virgin Mary” by El Greco, 1595
Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic news site, offered somewhat of an expansion/alternative theory. The OSV writes that the dark blue color of Mary’s mantle represents a kind of waiting that occurred in the darkest part of the night, which corresponds to the Catholic celebration of Advent. The OSV also suggests that the color parallels the many associations between Mary, the moon and the stars, which is seen in Revelation 12:1 and depicted in the stained glass artwork below.
The Virgin and Child by unknown, 1505-1510
According to the OSV, the mantle had symbolized protection since well before the Middle Ages, as women would conceal babies and other vulnerable people inside for safety. Handy, right? After the Middle Ages, however, artists began using a sky blue for the cloak, which illustrated her status in the Catholic world as protector and mother of the Earth. The Catholic Family blog supports this interpretation, adding only that the color blue also symbolizes tranquility and peace. Because the majority of Christian denominations share a common heritage, this lighter shade of blue is most commonly used today even in non-Catholic sects of Christianity.
Stained glass window at St. Mathew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, 1912
So although there may never be one definitive answer to the question that haunts Sunday school veterans everywhere, one thing is certain: Mary’s attire is deeply rooted in Catholic symbolism. This likely explains why many of the leading sources on this topic stem from Catholic organizations, too. So this year at your church’s annual Christmas pageant, when you spot the Virgin Mary sporting her signature blue, you can lean to the person next to you and wow them with your Sunday school trivia.