The Meaning of Blue - the Colour of the Distant Heavens

Dec 24 2012

Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai

“Silence is the most fitting connotation of beauty, like the peace of the calm, blue sea.” - Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling

“I perceive blue as a movement of detachment from man, from the human, a movement that draws us toward the centre of this colour but also towards the infinite, awakening in us a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural.” - Wassily Kandinsky

Blue is the deepest colour, going into infinity. Optically, the colour blue recedes into the distance, creating the visual sensation that blue objects are farther away than they really are. Blue is also the coldest and purest colour, apart from white. It is the least common of the main colours in nature.

Blue has a long list of meanings, including power, strength, intelligence, efficiency, loyalty, logic, trust, truth, cleanliness, infinity, serenity, contentment, understanding, technology, masculinity, security, immateriality, conservatism, coolness and cold, passivity, introversion, melancholy and depression.

Different shades of blue have different meanings.  Bright Blue can mean cleanliness, strength, dependability, peace and coolness. Sky blue can mean tranquility, serenity, peace and ethereal. Dark blue can mean trust, dignity, intelligence, security, authoritative, professional and masculine. Finally, blue-green can mean tranquility, relaxation, healing, truth, coolness, cleanliness, freshness, aquatics, fluidity, refreshing truth, the intellect, revelation, wisdom, loyalty, fidelity, constancy, chastity, chaste affections, spotless reputation, magnanimity, prudence, piety, peace, contemplation and coolness,

Going back in time, pagan sky gods (such as the Egyptian Amun, the Greek Zeus, and the Roman Jupiter) are often represented by blue. In Jewish symbolism, blue has always represented heaven and also stands for God (see Exodus 24: 9-11). For Jews, Luz (the home of the immortals) is also called the blue city. Blue is the colour of the yang in yin and yang and of the geomantic dragon and hence is beneficent. In Celtic or Druidic tradition blue stands for bards or poets.

Mosques in Iran are famous for their blue tile work. In Saudi Arabia, blue and green stained glass is used in the more modern mosque designs while in the deserts of Egypt, some mosques are painted completely blue or green. In Istanbul, the most famous mosque is even called “The Blue Mosque.”

To the ancient Egyptians, blue was the colour of truth and death, with the blue sky the threshold that separates man from the heavens. Genghis Khan, the founder of the great Mongol dynasty, is the son of a blue wolf and a yellow doe in mythology.

For Buddhists, blue is the coolness of the heavens above and the waters below. For Tibetan Buddhists, blue is the colour of vairocana (transcendent wisdom) and also of potentiality and emptiness. The “Blue Buddha” (also known as the “Buddha of Medicine or Healing”) is a deep blue, the color of lapis lazuli.

Buddhist rosaries are sometimes made entirely of turquoise, as a symbol long life. Blue is a color of the goddess Tara. The gemstone lapis lazuli has been greatly prized in Buddhist cultures and, until recently, its decorative value was higher than that of diamond. Lapis lazuli symbolizes that which is pure or rare in Buddhist art. It is said to have a curative or strengthening effect on those who wear it and it was a sacred stone in Tibetan Buddhist cultures. The Tibetans valued it above all precious minerals, even more than gold, representing the image of the azure sky and the hair of their goddess. Both men and women wore it on their heads. In contemporary culture, religious statues from Tibet and Nepal have blue hair.

In Hinduism, dark blue is the color of Vishnu, one of the greatest gods. As the color of the sky, blue symbolizes his cosmic dimensions, his connection with the Vedic gods of rain and thunder, and his relationship with the earth. Blue is also the colour of Lord Krishna (one of Vishnu’s incarnations) and symbolizes his universality and the vastness of sky and sea.  As the color of Krishna, blue is symbolic of heavens, love, truth, and mysterious beauty. People who have depth of character and the capacity to fight evil are depicted as blue-skinned.

For Christians, blue is the symbol of heaven and the Madonna (as “Queen of Heaven”), going back to Renaissance painting. Sapphire is a symbol of calmness and hope (Pope Innocent III). In the middle ages, blue also became the colour of European royalty.

Govanni Belini

The Wilton Diptych

In China, blue signifies the water and the skies, and the link with the colour of the heavens means that blue is associated with immortality. Dark blue is associated with Kuomintang and can be offensive to Communists. In many Chinese traditions a man with a blue face is a ghost or a bad character. Lan (derived from the name of the indigo plant) is a more recent word for blue, but is not found in older literature, whereas the older word for blue, qing, covers all shades from dark grey through blue to green. In China, to ‘sow jade in the blue field ‘is to be pregnant and ‘Blue dragon’ is a metaphor for the penis. ‘Blue film’ is also used to describe pornography, and historically brothels were painted blue in pre-revolutionary China.

In India, blue symbolizes the sky and the ocean. A deep and brilliant hue (e.g., lapis lazuli) is used in the context of love. Darker shades of blue represent a deeper the mystery of truth. The Indian name of this colour is “shyam” (moon-like). A blue “Dharma Chakra” (wheel of law) is in the center of the Indian flag. The 24 spokes of the wheel represent the 24 hours in a day. At the end of each spoke is a dark blue half-moon. Blue means truth to Indians and has an intellectual appeal. Dark blue (and black) are associated with the servile caste and should be avoided (they are sometimes viewed as demonic and infernal.)

For the Japanese, Indigo blue mirrors the color of the vast ocean surrounding the Japanese islands. The historical origin of this shade of blue can be traced to indigo dye. It was widely used in the past and is very common and popular in Japanese art and clothing today. Blue also represents the characteristics of water symbolising life and purity. Blue can also symbolise peace, calm, stability, security, loyalty, and coldness. Blue means young and immature and, in this context, the Japanese term for blue is used to describe a young person (“aonisai”) or a young wife (“aonyobo”). Blue  now often represents sadness (an influence of Western color symbolism).

In Korea, dark blue is the color of mourning, going back to the tradition of the Emperor’s requirement that everyone wear white for a long stretch of time after the death of anyone in the royal family. Since someone was always dying in the large royal families, the peasantry wore white so often that it lost all meaning, and white became acceptable for everyday wear. Then dark blue became the colour for mourning the death of someone you actually knew and felt bad about. Wearing dark or dull blue nail polish on toenails means dead or “brings out the dead.”

For Thais, blue is the color of compassion, receptivity and desire. Light blue is a symbol of Friday.

In the twentieth century blue has become the colour of business, and the blue business suit was a standard dress for getting business done (but is that now changing?). Blue has also become a default colour for business logos, reflecting a safe and ‘least offensive’ colour scheme for global businesses.

Blue has also become the colour of the working man, with ‘blue collars’ and ‘blue jeans’ the standard uniform of the Everyman.  The ‘blues’ a musical form and genre that originated in African’American communities (mainly in the south of America) developing from spirituals, work songs and chants into simple narrative ballads, with the twelve bar blues the most common form and ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues.

Robert Johnson

Above all, blue is the colour of the deep blue silence of the sky, of space and of the oceans which are above and below our daily existence. They stretch up and down into infinity, and therefore their blue colour will always represent the mystery of the deep unknown.

One response so far

  1. Blue is great, in India the sacred monuments of gods like Krishna and Siva are painted blue. It is the most appeasing wave length to the eyes

Leave a Reply