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Symbolism In Color: Red (resource)

Red is special. Shades of vermilion, crimson, and scarlet color our strongest emotions, warn of imminent danger, and glorify our supreme leaders. For many, red is divine, a direct connection to gods and the essence of life. Since ancient times we have used the best red substances to express ourselves and influence our world. Explore the symbolism of red in our artwork, revealing hidden relationships with nature, technology, history, and culture.


Is Red Our Most Important Color? 


What does red mean to you? 


What do you think red means in the artworks below?


Humans see red particularly well. It stands out to us more than any other color. This phenomenon may explain why many ancient cultures believed that red was supernatural. That perceived energy and sacredness made red the perfect color to animate depictions of gods and supernatural beings. The eyes, beard, and hair of this ancient sculpture still retain their original red ochre paint.

A picture of an ancient ceramic statue head with a large beard
Cypriot, Head of a God or Priest, circa 450–425 bce [G.79.6.12]


Red is the color of love. Like Boucher’s blushing Venus, strong emotion, physical exertion, and sexual excitement cause our skin to become redder due to extra blood flow. Our symbols for love are invariably colored red as well: the romance of roses, the fiery torch of passion, and hearts for Valentine’s Day.

An 18th century painting by François Boucher depicting Venus rising from the waves
François Boucher, Venus Rising from the Waves, circa 1766 [G.55.8.2]


Red is the color of power and danger in the natural world. Our earliest ancestors experienced the light and warmth of the sun, the burning heat of fire, and sometimes the glow of molten lava. Poisonous animals and plants are often red as well. We have learned to treat red things with caution, and we choose red to color our warning signs, such as “Stop,” “Danger,” “Poison,” and “High Voltage.”

An oil painting of a night scene at the base of Mount Vesuvius. The volcano erupts in the background as lava flows into the town below. In the foreground people are running across a bridge, away from the volcano. On the right side of the painting, the surface of the moonlit ocean is scattered with boats.
Pierre-Jacques Volaire, The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 1777 [82.1]


Red has long been associated with the blood of war. Ares, the violent and destructive Greek god of war, is described as “blood-stained.” His Roman counterpart, Mars, also associated with red, represented military force that was necessary to secure peace. Here, Joan of Arc is portrayed as a Mars-like valorous warrior surrounded by red, which also foreshadows the blood of her Christian martyrdom.

A painting of a woman dressed in full battle armor, kneeling in front of a crucifix and praying in an ornate room. The room is decorated with red curtains, an orange rug, and blue and yellow feathers.
Peter Paul Rubens, Joan of Arc, circa 1620 and after 1640 [52.9.111]

Power and Authority

Red is the color of power and authority in many cultures. In 1454 the Catholic Church designated red as the color of cardinals, the “princes of the church.” By 1588 cochineal was used to dye cardinals’ cassocks and hats. Officially red was claimed as the symbol of Jesus Christ’s blood and sacrifice, but red was the color of leadership long before Christianity, including the elite in ancient Egypt, ancient China, and ancient Rome.

A 17th century oil painting depicting Giles the monk before Pope Gregory IX
Bartolomé Estéban Murillo, The Blessed Giles before Pope Gregory IX, circa 1645–46 [52.9.178]

Life and Death

Cinnabar paint has been applied over the gold of this mask. Since ancient times we have associated red pigments with blood, integral to both life and mortality. Many cultures have incorporated red pigments into burials, sprinkling it through a grave or painting the deceased’s body with it. The Aztecs (circa 1300–1521) often imparted soul-force to a new artwork by bathing it in red pigment, ritually simulating the blood of childbirth.

A gold metal mask of a human-like face, with blue-green eyes and streaks of red paint on the cheeks and forehead.
Peruvian, North Coast, Sican or Chimú culture, Funerary Mask, circa 1000–1534 [91.16.9]


Blood is vital to life and sometimes all too apparent in death. Our visceral reaction to the sight of blood, or in this case raw meat, illustrates our deep relationship with red. The life-giving importance of blood is possibly the oldest explanation for humanity’s fascination with red dyes and pigments.

An oil painting of a 16th-century market scene depicting a vendor’s display of meat and slaughtered animals. In the distant background, a woman riding on a donkey is traveling with her family and giving donations to people.
Pieter Aertsen, A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, 1551 [93.2]


The Nile silt body of this jar is covered with a red ochre slip. For ancient Egyptians red symbolized the desert, fire, blood, and dangerous forces. It also represented life and regeneration, a necessary creative force to balance violent chaos to make an orderly world. The Egyptian word for red, desher, is the root word in the language for “desert,” “furious,” and “wrath.” To do “red things” was to do evil things. Red ink was often used to write the word evil, names of hostile monsters, and gods.

An Egyptian ceramic jar that is red with a black rim
Egyptian, Jar, Black-topped Ware, circa 4000–3500 bce [G.72.3.1]