Friday, March 3, 2017

What Colors Confess

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Why did you paint Him that color?” The question seemed a little out of place at first, then innocent. In the end, however, the question reminded me of the importance of color choices – especially for the sacred artist.

Colors play a large role in the Church Year. They identify seasons, and give context in worship. Penitential violet, joyous white, Spiritual red, life-giving green, and mournful black help us understand, at a glance, the focus of the Gospel readings. There are a couple of other colors that appear throughout the Church Year – Kingly blue and, occasionally, joyful rose. Or pink. Or watermelon. Whatever.
Detail from "Parables of the Vineyard"
Edward Riojas. 2017.
(Collection of the artist)
Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Image may not be reproduced for
any reason.

But there are colors that carry much more theological weight than rose or violet, which brings us back to that initial question. The query was directed at an image of Jesus Christ on the cross.

I have a tendency to paint the dead Christ in grayed-over tones of bluish-green. His lips lean toward white. His fingers and toes edge toward black. It is intentionally ugly, to the point of being anatomically over-played.

The visual point – circled and underscored and highlighted in red – is that Jesus Christ was, indeed, dead on that cross. Another viewer once rhetorically asked, “Can’t we just get beyond [the crucifixion]?” The simple answer is: No, we cannot. We dare not.

Glossing over the physical death of Christ not only plasticizes His death and minimizes the effects of our sin, but also throws us squarely into the pit alongside heretical proponents of Sabellianism, Docetism and other -isms. Those heresies taught Christ was basically not human and, therefore, could not die.

But die He did. Christ’s death was the sacrifice for sins of the whole world, and I am bound to painting Him thus – with the colors of death.

On the opposite side of the grave, a livelier palette comes out. It becomes a matter of anatomy, really. Blood vessels are abundant in the human face, especially in the areas of the nose, ears and lips. One need only get a head wound to understand as much. The hands – especially the backs of the hands – are loaded with arteries. It may seem a no-brainer, then, that the Risen Christ be shown with more reds in those areas. His eyes should gleam and not be dull and unseeing.

In painting the Christ this way – with “rich wounds yet visible,” but full of life – the Sadducees, who did not believe in the Resurrection of the flesh, are put to shame and silenced. So is everything else outside of Christendom. Jesus Christ lives. There is no questioning it. And because He lives, we, too, will rise.


  1. Like St. John's description of the victorious Jesus in Rev. 1:13-15.

  2. We all paint daily with the "colors of death" and are most fortunately covered with our Lord's baptismal brush of life enriched colors. May he continue to lead and keep many more to be "painted" into His eternal masterpiece.