Colour and Symbols in Christian Art

Colour and Symbols in Christian Art

Why do so many artists show Mary, the mother of Christ, wearing blue? This tradition started around 1500 years ago and is still followed today. In 2016 when sculptor Peter Eugene Ball made his carved wooden sculpture of Mary for Merton College, Oxford he chose to make her cloak blue and her face gold.

What is the significance of the use of colours in Christian religious art and what other symbols do artists use?

Key Stage:

KS3&4 Art and Design


A lesson plan inspired by the work of sculptor Peter Eugene Ball and his commission for Merton College, Oxford.
This lesson can be used:
-to develop drawing skills and use of sketchbooks to develop ideas
-to produce creative work, exploring their ideas
-evaluate and analyse creative works

<b>About the artist. Peter Eugene Ball</b>

About the artist. Peter Eugene Ball

Sculptor Peter Eugene Ball has over 70 works in churches and cathedrals. His first religious piece, a simple crucifix, was bought in 1974 by a priest at Westminster Cathedral and four years later he obtained his very first church commission. His work seems to be popular because it is contemporary but will fit in with the traditional architecture and decoration of churches. He does this by making references to previous religious art and traditions. This includes the use of certain colours for certain themes.

Merton College Sculpture

For Merton College Chapel in Oxford Peter made a hardwood painted sculpture called 'Our Lady Seat of Wisdom'. The 2016 sculpture shows Mary with the boy Christ sat on her knee. It was specially designed for the space in the chapel and Peter also designed the candlesticks to go behind the sculpture. Mary is depicted using traditional colours of religious art, she wears blue and has a face of gold.


In Christian religious art the one colour that is usually associated with Mary is blue. Blue is the colour of the sky and therefore of heaven. This symbolism began in early Christian icon paintings and continued when painting became more realistic. In Medieval times painters depicted Mary in a bright blue robe, choosing the colour not just for the religious symbolism but also because it was very expensive to obtain. At that time Ultramarine blue came from lapis lazuli, a rare mineral which back then could only be found in a single mountain range in distant Afghanistan making it more expensive than gold.


In Christian religious painting there are symbols used by artists which have another meaning. For example, in some religious paintings a lamb represents Christ and a dove represents the Holy Spirit. At this time artists were working for the rich and powerful church. The Roman Catholic Church and later Protestant groups sponsored art and architecture, as seen in churches, cathedrals, painting, sculpture and handicrafts. The churches expected artists to follow tradition and abide by the rules so the use of particular colours and symbols was established.
<b>Suggested Classroom Activity</b>

Suggested Classroom Activity

Discuss the use of symbols in everyday life. Definition: A symbol is a mark, sign or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship. Symbols take the form of words, sounds, gestures, ideas or visual images.

There are many examples including Emoticons and Emojis. The example given on Wikipedia is that of a red octagon that symbolises stop without having to use the word 'Stop'. Do you agree, does this mean stop to you? Why are symbols useful?

Suggested Classroom Activity cont

Three Symbols
Eileen Agar

This painting Three Symbols was made by artist Eileen Agar but what do you think the three symbols mean?

Discuss. Download Three symbols.pdf

Suggested Classroom Activity cont

Once you have discussed the painting and what it might mean you can download the quote from Eileen Agar's biography where she explains what she intended it to mean.

Remember that the painting was painted almost ninety years ago, when the world was a different place.
Download Three symbols Quote.pdf
<b>Suggested Classroom Activity cont</b>

Suggested Classroom Activity cont

This small brass sculpture is of three monkeys and this was a popular object in the 1950's and 60's. Thousands of these were cast and sold. The three monkeys symbolise virtues "Speak No Evil, See No Evil, Hear No Evil". This example is from the Black Country Museum in Dudley, Birmingham.
Now sketch an idea for a sculpture with three symbols. Your symbols do not have to be animals. They do not have to be realistic, your design maybe quite abstract. It may be a multicoloured sculpture or like the monkeys it could be all one colour. Do not take a long time over this, get your ideas down quickly in a sketchbook.

Development Activity:

On Art UK you can search all the oil paintings in public collection in the UK. To save you time we have set this link to let you see a selection of portraits of the Virgin Mary.
Elsewhere on CultureStreet there is a lot more information about the use of shrines in religion. The two religions examined are Buddhism and Christianity in this lesson plan.

Learning Objectives:

Through using this lesson plan students should:
-Develop ideas through investigations, demonstrating critical understanding of sources.
-learn about the history of art, craft, design and architecture, including periods, styles and major movements from ancient times up to the present day.
-use a range of techniques to record their observations in sketchbooks, journals and other media as a basis for exploring their ideas
-analyse and evaluate their own work, and that of others, in order to strengthen the visual impact or applications of their work. In addition know and understand how sources inspire the development of ideas. For example, drawing on: the work and approaches of artists, craftspeople or designers from contemporary and/or historical contexts, periods, societies and cultures

Research, Notes and Links:

Download this lesson plan