Saturday, August 14, 2010

Reflections on numbers, shapes and colors in art

"Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul."
In recent years my research has led me to find out some interesting connections between forms, colors, numbers and divine archetypes. Of course I will not be the first or the last to find  spiritual truths hidden in the colors of my palette, compositions and even the number of colors and shapes I use. In the past it was not uncommon to find painters experimenting with alchemy and studying astrology besides theology and philosophy.  Phillip Otto Runge, a Romantic German painter from the nineteenth century often imbued mystical qualities in his work. Runge believed that every form and color besides describing reality in a painting, they also revealed universal truths. Runge, a Christian considered the primary colors to be the sacred colors of the Trinity, equating God with the color blue, The Holy Ghost with yellow and Christ with red.

Morning by Phillip Otto Runge, Oil on Canvas 1808

A very common religious theme during the Renaissance was that of the Holy family, depicting the Child Jesus, The Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph. One can find in numerous depictions, certain colors repeatedly used for each one of the members. Usually The Virgin Mary is dressed in blue and red or white while Saint Joseph is wearing purple and orange. These colors are splendidly painted in the compositions of Italian painter Raphael Sanzio. The coloring and triadic composition vividly idealizes the serene figures. This recurrent use of color to identify specific Christian Icons has the purpose of teaching the gospel through images easy to remember for the illiterate. 

Holy family with palm tree by Raphael Sanzio, Oil on tondo canvas (Unknown date)

Modern painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky, credited with creating the first abstract painting.  wrote in 1911"Concerning the spiritual in art". Influenced by music and theosophy, Kandinsky in his time, developed not only a new way of painting but a new way of thinking about paint. Painting after all in its essence is an abstract substance. Colors can have a double effect upon us. First and obviously we feel attracted to colors by looking at them but this occurs at a physical/senses level. If we keep staring at a painting for long enough we might start feeling spiritually elevated (or depressed, depending on the work, vibe and intention of the artist). This mysterious feeling of lightness, internal peace and joy is transmitted by  a painting the same way as a beautiful classical tune does.  It soothes the soul in the most sublime way and this is what drove Kandinsky towards abstraction and the study of the mysteries behind this experience. 

Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky, oil on canvas, 1913

In "Concerning the spiritual in art" Kandinsky notes that different colors evoke different reactions on the human soul. For instance blue is cold, distant and celestial. Yellow is warm and terrestrial. Mixing yellow and blue create green which is immobile and calm like vegetation, a union between the terrestrial and the celestial. These associations not only come fourth from experience with nature but with the subjective experience with paint itself. As with colors we can also respond in different ways to form. A triangle will communicate to us differently from a circle or a square. Number in a painting also plays a very important part. We certainly do not interact in the same way when we are confronted by a single painted portrait as we would do with a whole battalion of figures in a large composition.  Besides having natural associations, colors, forms and numbers have cultural considerations and personal interpretations as well. Aware of this we can carefully venture into the subjective world of art wearing a mystic's robe and understanding art spiritually rather that materially.The following is just an overview of how one may interpret some  forms, colors and numbers in a painting:


One- The individual, the unity, the Uni-verse, the absolute God,  the monad, the whole. the planet, the sphere, dot or single circle  According o art theorist James Elkins, "Paint adds like this: 1+1=1. Contrary to a mathematical mind, art is experienced as a "whole" with everything related to each other and being part of the same thing.

Sun god Shamash receiving the solar disk, his emblem of power,  relief  9th century, Babylonia

Two- The pair, male and female, duality, deadly opposition or romantic encounter, the line with a beginning and end. Two is also becoming fundamentally conscious of ourselves by consuming the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Adam and Eve by Albert Durer , engraving, 1507

Three- The Trinity: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit or the Mind, the Soul and the Body. The triangle or pyramid is the establishment of a relationship through reconciliation. Out of the thesis and anti-thesis a synthesis is born. In Christianity there are three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity. Three is associated with the spiritual realm. Three is an artist, his material to work with and his inspiration or concept. Three is a couple and the love that unites them.   
Traditional diagram used to described the Mystery of the Trinity

Four- Material creation, substance, an artist with his material to work with, his inspiration or concept create the masterpiece, this is four. Four elements (fire, air, water and earth) are needed to describe matter. Four are the cardinal directions, four seasons and four the primary colors (Red,Black, Yellow and White) for the ancient  Mayans Egyptians and Greeks. Egyptian god Horus had four sons who guarded the four canopic jars into which the four most important organs of the deceased pharaoh were kept.  In Christianity there are four evangelist that are represented by four sacred animals.  The cross has four ends.

The Celtic Cross

The Zodiac wheel divided up in four parts that define the winter and summer solstices and spring and autumn equinoxes.

The four Egyptian canopic jars that kept theorgans of the deceased Pharaoh.. Duamutef, the jackal headed god represented the east and kept the stomach, Quebehsenuef, the falcon headed god represented the west and kept the intestines. Hapi the Baboon headed god represented the north and kept the lungs. Imseti, the human headed god kept the liver and represented the south.

Seven:  The sacred number. Seven are the colors of the rainbow, the traditional musical notes, the wonders of the ancient world, the number of Chakras in the human body, the vices and virtues, the days of the creation in Genesis and the days of the week. Seven is the union of three spiritual principles with four material principles. It is the number of growth, and completion.

The Menorah is a Jewish symbol candelabrum with seven branches, used as a portable sanctuary and a symbol of universal enlightenment. 


Circle or dot: The atom at a micro-cosmic level , the solar system as a macro-cosmic level. An apple, an egg and a human head are all derived from the idea of a circle. The circle is organic,it pulsates with life,  its life itself, full of potentiality, the cell , the microscopic organism in evolution and also the Sun and the Moon. It is also accepted as the symbol of eternity and never-ending existence.

Single Cell Plant

The Cylinder  or line: Phallus, temple column, tree, building, sword, serpent, action, vertical or horizontal trust and movement, road, direction, arrow  and bullets.

 Corinthian column

Square, rectangle or cube :  House, temple, man made, box or container, a product of culture. Enclosed space, cage, nature reshaped and repackaged by the logical and "square" minded.

Temple to Bacchus at Baalbak, Beirut

Triangle or pyramid: God's supreme wisdom, The Trinity, spirituality, eternity, life after death, ascension, if it points to the sky, descending if it points to the earth. Human's stairway to the heavens,  Sacred in ancient Mayan and Egyptian civilizations.

Pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico


Black: In alchemy blackness is called the nigredo and is considered the "materia prima" from which the philosophers work is to begin with. It is earth, excrement, and black bile. The impure, chaos, lead, death, the underworld, primordial darkness. It is absence of color and therefore or life.

White: The sacred and pure, perfection, illumination, innocence and chastity. Unicorns in medieval art are white. The "albedo", second stage  in the  alchemical also represents  the Moon, water and phlegm.  A white flag stands for surrender and peace. 

Yellow: Divine splendor, the Sun, solar light, gold, also denotes jealousy, ambition, greed. In alchemy it is called Citrinitas and means "yellowness". It stands for urine and air. It is also the color of Apollo, Sun god, pure spirit and intellect. 

Red: Passion of Christ, love, blood, Ares, god of war, agitation, physicality, energy, virility, health and  strength. In alchemy it is called "rubedo" and is symbolized by the "glowing lion" It is fire and the last stage in the alchemical process revealing the philosophers stone.

Blue: Celestial, distant and cold, blue is the color of the Virgin Mary,  mother of God, often associated with the Holy Ghost and the Heavens. It also stands for revelation, wisdom, the sky and the seven seas.

Purple: Imperial power, Royalty, truth, justice and temperance. Priesthood. The color of Jupiter, king of of the Olympian gods, In Christianity it is associated with God, the father.

Again these are just some cultural interpretations of some  numbers, colors and forms mostly informed mostly by Western Judeo-Christian tradition. For further reading in the subject I recommend J.C. Cooper's Dictionary of symbols,  Wassily Kandinsky "Concerning the spiritual in art", Signs and Symbols in Christian art by George Ferguson and Barbara G Walker "symbols and sacred objects". In future blogs, I shall talk in more depth about each one of these colors, shapes, numbers and their specific meanings in art.