What Color can Say

By Hillary Asbury

Look at this color.

What do you feel when you look at it?

Now look at this one.

What does it remind you of? Do you think of pleasant or unpleasant things?

Now look at this one.

Does it hold a certain meaning or special significance?

If you said that the blue made you feel calm or at peace, that the red reminded you of emotion or anger, and that the purple signified royalty, you are not alone.  These associations are very common from person to person and it isn’t hard to see why. Blue reminds us of a clear, sunny day, a peaceful sky. Red reminds us of love, passion, violence. Violet has historically been an expensive color to make, and it is still associated with the rich and the royal. It also doesn’t occur often in nature and so it immediately stands out to us as something special.

Artists can leverage colors and use them to communicate quite a bit in their work. Sometimes they use these colors in obvious ways, relying on our common associations to aid in their storytelling. Often, they use a much subtler approach, relying on psychology to illicit a particular response from viewers. For instance, looking at the color orange can make some people hostile, while pale green can have a calming effect.

For Luther, however, it seems such subtlety was not an option.  Meant to be a visual representation of his theology, Luther’s Rose was far too important to leave interpretation to chance:

Grace and peace from the Lord. As you desire to know whether my painted seal, which you sent to me, has hit the mark, I shall answer most amiably and tell you my original thoughts and reason about why my seal is a symbol of my theology. The first should be a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. “For one who believes from the heart will be justified” (Rom. 10:10). Although it is indeed a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17) but by faith in the crucified. Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels (cf. Matthew 28:3; John 20:12). Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed. And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal. This is my compendium theoligae [summary of theology]. I have wanted to show it to you in good friendship, hoping for your appreciation. May Christ, our beloved Lord, be with your spirit until the life hereafter. Amen.

Letter from Martin Luther to Lazarus Spengler, July 8, 1530

What I love about this is that long after Luther wrote this letter, we still publish summaries of his explanation of the design right along with it. It is a clear and concise delivery of the gospel, not only a perfect use of liturgical art and theology, but also a perfect use of symbolism and color.