Those who attend an Oratory of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest are no doubt familiar with the Institute’s choir habit, with its distinctive blue color. This blue is evocative of Mary, the Institute’s Patroness, and of St. Francis de Sales.

I-Wen Connick, who attends the Institute’s apostolate in Oakland (and who writes a weekly newsletter there), has written an interesting piece on the connection between Mary, as Ark of the Covenant, and the particular shade of blue. Excerpts below:

1. Mary and the Ark of the Covenant – Take II – One of Mary’s titles we recite in the Litany of Loreto is the “Ark of the Covenant.” …

Just as a there was a special holy vessel, the Ark of the Covenant, for the words of God, the Blessed Virgin would become a human vessel which would hold Our Lord. …

[After discussing the theological parallels between the Arks of the Old and New Covenants, Mrs. Connick addresses this topic]:

2. Marian “blue” – There is another very interesting detail about the Ark of the Covenant and Our Lady. Holy Scriptures are very clear also about how the Ark was to be decorated. In Numbers 4:5, the scriptures specify that the Ark was to be covered with an animal skin (“tachash”, possibly porpoise) and a blue cloth. Blue cloth was, in fact, a very rare commodity in the ancient world, and used only for covering holy things.

I found the idea of a blue covering intriguing because, in Church tradition, Our Lady is often depicted as dressed in blue. However, not all Bible translations use the word “blue” in this verse; the New American Bible, for example, uses the word “violet.” When I tried to look into this discrepancy, I found a fascinating story of rediscovery of the blue dye referenced in the Old Testament, and how to re-make it.

The Hebrew word for “blue” used in Numbers is tekelet or tekhelet (many thanks to my friend Marc, a Bible translator), which is assumed to be a violet-blue, stemming from a dye extracted from a shellfish. The problem was that no one knew exactly what shade of blue this should be, since the ancient process to produce this blue dye using this shellfish had been lost for many centuries. From archeological evidence (piles of shells in ancient dye-making sites), it was known that a particular species of marine shellfish, Murex trunculus, was the most likely source of a secretion which produced the blue dye. However, up until 1980, all efforts to reproduce the dye using this shellfish resulted in a purple dye instead of blue. Then it was discovered that exposure to UV light caused a chemical reaction of the secretion so that, instead of a purple dye, a true blue dye is produced. This blue has been described as the “blue of the sea and the sky.” Finally, modern man knows what this tekelet “biblical blue” looks like, and has recovered the process to reproduce it. (All of this research had been done in Israel, where this “biblical blue” is once again being used for the prayer fringes called for in the Torah.)

All very interesting, but for me, the story doesn’t end there. When I looked up at my very favourite image of Our Lady, left in this world by Our Lady herself, I could easily see the “biblical blue” which had been so elusive. Right there, the mantle which covers the Virgin of Guadalupe’s head, and draping over her shoulders, is made of a lovely blue cloth – the blue of the sea and the sky. As we all know, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe shows her to be “with child”, i.e. as a tabernacle containing the Word Incarnate. Aha! Here, I thought, is an ideal image of the true Ark of the Covenant: her humility and piety the perfect reflection of an immaculate soul, and she is appropriately arrayed in blue, just as the Ark was supposed to be. They call it biblical blue, but I think of it as “Marian blue.” It’s a lovely blue of the sea and the sky – and of Heaven.

I like the colour blue, and I had wondered why Mary was often depicted in blue in sacred art. I can imagine there is an abundance of scholarly explanations for the symbolism which I don’t know about. At least for myself, this quest has been satisfied because a piece of the puzzle seems to fit so neatly. Tradition is beautiful and powerful, especially when its rich symbolism goes back to biblical times, and is carried forward to the present day.

It seems to me that Marian blue is a very appropriate description. The biblical colour blue can be appropriated to the Blessed Virgin because it is associated with holiness and with royalty in the Old Testament. It is easy now to understand why St. Francis de Sales was often seen dressed in blue: as a sign of his devotion to Our Lady and to emulate her holiness. Similarly, as the Institute follows its patron saint, it has become a very pleasing sight to see the blue choir dress of the Institute. It’s a blue like that used by St. Francis de Sales, and a blue which identifies the Institute with its primary patroness: Our Lady the Immaculate Conception, the perfect tabernacle.

As someone rather prone to visual cues, I think that when I see the blue attire of the Institute’s priests and nuns, I will be reminded of the Immaculate Conception.

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Also, a short article on the chemistry of the process.