The Book of Revelation is saturated with unusual language and is purposefully dotted with references to colors which are symbolic of various emotions in different cultures as well as in the Bible. Such symbolism is a subtle means of communication between an author and his or her readers. In this way, John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, concealed from the ancient Roman authorities the actual intent and meaning of his message to Christians and Jews but they certainly understood what he was inferring!✞
Revelation's colors were of great importance as they were to John's ancient readers. They assisted us to understand the meaning and subtleties of the text. The color white, for example, though technically a "color without hue" or an "achromatic color" often symbolized "purity, perfection and innocence." For this reason, the Pope since 1566 AD has worn white robes as a symbol of his perceived purity and innocence. Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) discovered in 1672 that white was in fact not a single color but a blend of colors produced by sunlight in a glass prism.
It was noted at the time in the minutes of the Royal Society in London, England and I quote in the original words, "the most surprising and wonderful composition was that of whiteness. There is no one sort of ray which alone can exhibit this. 'Tis ever compounded, and to its composition are requisite all the aforesaid primary colours, mixed in due proportion. I have often with admiration beheld, that all the colours of the prisme being made to converge, and thereby to be again mixed, reproduced light, intirely and perfectly white." Like white, Black is also not considered a color "per se." In the Bible and in society it often indicated "darkness, death or distress" and was worn in times of mourning. We also associated black with violence and evil. See the "Black Horse" of Revelation 6.5 as an example of this.✞
The color Purple in fabrics were described as "deep rich shades between crimson and violet" and it was in Biblical times very expensive to produce because of the rarity of the natural dyes needed. Purple and red silk clothing were therefore limited to royalty, magistrates, bishops and extremely wealthy people. Over time, purple became a symbol of authority because of this association with the ruling elites. Purple and red were worn by Roman Emperors, kings and princes and in modern times by royalty, judges and bishops (in purple) and cardinals (in red). Red in the Bible was also the indicator of blood and warned of "danger, murder, rage, and anger." See the "Fiery Red Horse" of Revelation 6.3-4 as an example of this.
Red was also used for the "stop signs" we see on the highway to catch our attention at intersections and warn us of danger. In ancient times, the word used for "red" in the English language also described any of the colors between "purple" and "orange." The word "Orange" was first recorded in a text from around 1380 AD, and was described as "any color between red and yellow like the color of fire and carrots."✞
To wear red was a great privilege and honor in medieval England. Queen Elizabeth the First of England (1558-1603) was so impressed with the plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) that she allowed him the honor of wearing a certain number of yards of royal scarlet silk. Shakespeare was later mentioned in the "Grand Accounts Book" as "one of James 1's King's Servants for which he received four and a half yards of red cloth, a color befitting his status as a member of the Royal Court."✞
The color blue was most commonly associated with "holiness, faithfulness, harmony and confidence." It was originally produced from the crushed semi-precious stone "lapis lazuli" and was therefore very expensive. The stones came from far away mines in Afghanistan to make the pigment "ultramarine." Blue was often chosen as the color of the robes of the Virgin Mary in medieval art. Blue was also used for the carpeting of many church sanctuaries to signify that this was a holy place.
The color Yellow in nature described "gold, butter and ripe lemons." Pale yellow in the Book of Revelation indicated "the end of one's life" as it was the color of the skin as life left it. See the "Pale Horse" of Revelation 6.7-8 as an example of this. Revelation's colors may be fascinating to us but we should not be halted by them in our studies but instead try to look beyond them to their intended subtle meaning in the Biblical context. Allow them to color your experience of the biblical text!✞