A Mystery in Living Color
January 1, 2023
by Brett Botbyl
What a pleasing sight. The Epiphany Episcopal Church is a charming, stonework structure built in the English country church tradition. The Society of Architectural Historians describes our church:
An exercise in Academic Gothic with Craftsman overtones, its buttresses, Gothic- and Tudor-arched openings, and steep gable roof meld softly with the basalt walls and open belfry (added in 1922). The lava rock for the walls was gathered from the site. as “Academic Gothic with Craftsman overtones,” it combines Gothic and Tudor arches and a steep-gabled roof melding softly with basalt walls and an open belfry.
No matter the attention given to the church’s beauty and charm, I often come across references to the red door gracing the Harding Avenue entrance at the sacristy. And as often as we speak of the mysterious red door, no one seems to have a clue as to the true meaning of the door’s trademark hue.
First, it’s helpful to know that our church isn’t the only house of worship with this feature. Many churches across Europe and the United States share the peculiar design element. We find the red door in churches of most denominations. So, what does it mean?
Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer when it comes to the provenance of the red door tradition. In Medieval England, churches were considered outside the secular authority and recognized throughout the country as places of refuge. The red door was associated with the blood of Christians under the ultimate authority of God. Red is also thought to represent the Passover in Exodus chapter 12. To protect Israel from the last plague sent by God to punish Egypt's oppressors, the blood of sacrificial lambs was spread on the lintels and doorposts of their houses. Red symbolizes the color of Christ’s blood as well as the sacrifice of the martyrs. It is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit and marks the sacred ground that lies within. Generations came to think of the red door as a protection from evil spirits and the wrath of sin. But not all references note a spiritual connection.
One historian claims that the doors of mainline Protestant churches, namely Lutheran, were painted red in honor of the crimson doors of Germany’s Wittenburg Cathedral, where Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. This theory highlights the red doors as an undeniable mark of a church's loyalty to the Reformation. By secular authority, Scottish landlords would signal that their mortgages were paid in full by painting their front doors red.
Perhaps we can think of our red door as a message to the world that we’re a safe place. A peaceful place of sanctuary, healing, and restoration. We are a place where God is present in every smile and every hand held out in friendship. The next time you glimpse the red door at Epiphany Church, know that we are a place of acceptance and love. And you are always, always welcome.
pls4e. “Epiphany Episcopal Church.” SAH ARCHIPEDIA, 10 Oct. 2019, https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/HI-01-OA160.