Royal Mail 2013 Christmas stamps ASchristmasThe 2013 religious set of Christmas stamps from Britain’s Royal Mail were exceptional.

I enjoy all their religious Christmas stamps, but happened to research this set for its particular beauty and commentary. The ‘large’ stamps at the top, incidentally, are for use on full-size manila envelopes. (Image credit: Royal Mail)

The colours of Mary’s mantle and attire have changed through the centuries, depending on religious tradition and paint dyes.

This series of stamps can help us to better interpret representations of the Madonna and Child in religious art. Most art museums in major cities around the world have paintings permanently on display of Mary and Jesus. It is likely that you and your families or friends have seen or will see them, therefore, it helps to know a bit about how to ‘read’ them.

Earlier Church colours for Mary were blue and red or red and green. Blue depicts her holy nature approaching the divine — the colour of the sky or heaven — and red symbolises the earth, her humanity. Some Renaissance paintings and Eastern Orthodox depictions use green and red.

Notice that the Infant Jesus wears gold or white or has a bright appearance; this is to indicate His divinity.

Another aspect to consider is the cost of the dye when early Renaissance painting began. If you’ve studied Mediaeval religious art, you’ll notice that the dyes are less pronounced in colour. Partly this is because those paintings were frescoes, where colour was applied to moist plaster surfaces. However, certain colours were highly expensive.

An post explains (emphases mine):

“The older, classic and more representative color is dark blue,” according to the Rev. Johann Roten, S.M, director of the Marian Library-International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. “Mary’s dark blue mantle, from about 500 A.D., is of Byzantine origin and is the color of an empress”

On a more practical note, the color blue used in medieval painting was derived from lapis lazuli, a stone imported from Afghanistan of greater value than gold. Beyond a painter’s retainer, patrons were expected to purchase any gold or lapis lazuli to be used in the painting. Hence, it was an expression of devotion and glorification to swath the Virgin in wide flowing gowns of blue (as well as a not-too-subtle expression of the patron’s wealth).

However, it should be noted that Mary does not have an official color, and red has also been widely employed in her representation, particularly amongst German painters. Further, light blue is very popular, and is often (though perhaps as reflection, rather than motivation) associated with the color of the pure sky.

Another entry cautions us against thinking that the Virgin Mary wore these colours in real life. It is highly unlikely that she did, as only emperors and the wealthy could afford them. These colours are for our edification, particularly that of the illiterate masses centuries ago who absorbed what they knew of Christianity through imagery in churches:

In art, therefore, Mary had to stand out from the crowd, ordinary people that wore normal colours of brown, yellow or red, as she was seen as someone special by the church because she was the mother of Jesus himself. In the middle ages, paint pigments were obtained from either different coloured clays (like yellow and brown) or ground up minerals (like cinnabar for red or lead oxide for white). However, the only blue pigment possible in those days was a ground up precious stone called ultramarine, which can still be found in expensive jewellery today. Nowadays the pigment ultramarine is synthetically made and is cheap, but then it was extremely expensive. In fact it was several times more expensive than gold. Therefore it was THIS pigment that was reserved for Mary’s robe alone and nothing else in medieval religious art. Jesus was often depicted in gold leaf but Mary in blue ultramarine to show her importance.

In the West, Catholic painters and sculptors have increasingly portrayed Mary in blue and white, sometimes adding gold, but omitting the red.

Earlier, however, the beneficial ladybird (ladybug, for my American readers) derived its common name from Mary’s distinctive red. Furthermore:

the spots of the seven-spot ladybird (the most common in Europe) were said to symbolise her seven joys and seven sorrows.[9] … Common names in other European languages have the same association, for example, the German name Marienkäfer translates to Marybeetle.[11]

The ladybird, unless threatened by parasitoid wasps, quietly goes about its business eating garden pests which can otherwise plague plants. In a day before pesticides — and even now — these unusual flying beetles have long been prized as a gardener’s friend.

Now, back to Christmas stamps.

What follows is what Royal Mail had to say about the colours and the paintings, starting with the middle row of stamps running from left to right:

Second Class and Second Class Large Stamp
In Antoniazzo Romano’s Virgin and Child with the young St John the Baptist (c.1460–80), in the Early Renaissance style, Mary holds Jesus on her left arm and points towards him with her right, indicating that he is the way to salvation.

First Class and First Class Large Stamp
In Madonna and Child (c.1520), painted in the High Renaissance style, Francesco Granacci depicts the Virgin in her traditional garments of red and blue, earthly and divine, while the bird in Christ’s hand alludes to the coming Passion.

88p Stamp
Jacques-Louis David’s St Roch Praying to the Virgin for an End to the Plague (1780), which is painted in the Neoclassical style, is a deeply Catholic painting, depicting the Virgin Mary in her role as protector and intercessor.

£1.28 Stamp
In La Vierge au Lys (1899), painted in the French Academic style by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, the Virgin and Child are enthroned, with Jesus held close by his mother, his outstretched arms suggestive of the crucifixion to come.

£1.88 Stamp
In Theotokos, Mother of God [a new work specially commissioned for this collection] by Fadi Mikhail, which is painted in the Neo-Coptic style, Christ’s white tunic indicates his divinity, while the Virgin Mary’s blue mantle likens her to the sky, as in the icon of The Flight into Egypt.

This is the one time of the year when nearly every Christian pauses to think about Mary and the miraculous circumstances of her becoming the greatest mother in history.

Royal Mail’s selection of religious art helped to bring the Christmas story to life. The colours and the symbolism selected are common to paintings of their respective periods which add to our appreciation of them.