If lust is red, sadness is blue, and cowardice is yellow, what colour defines defiance? An arresting image that emerged this week promises to add a new hue to the symbolic colour-wheel that spins inside us. The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny posted a video message on his website after he was allegedly attacked on the streets of the Siberian city Barnaul.
Navalny’s face was splattered with a vibrant green liquid, staining his complexion, in a spiteful act that many believe was intended to intimidate the harsh critic of Putin’s government. Far from silencing its target, however, the vindictive dousing that has temporarily transformed Navalny’s countenance into something strange and striking (the verdant blotching is expected to last a few days before fading) has only emboldened him.
Surrounded by supporters, the politician resolved to document his transitory disfigurement by taking a defiant selfie and circulating it on Facebook and Twitter as a show of resilience. In doing so, Navalny has, intentionally or not, adopted an ancient cultural disguise – one that channels the power of a tradition of green-skinned deities dating back to both the Egyptian underworld and the iconography of Medieval architecture.
Typically depicted with a lush green face, Osiris, the Egyptian god of regeneration, resurrection and the afterlife, was intimately associated with the rebirth of spring each year. That Navalny was assaulted on Monday, 20 March – the precise date of 2017’s vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, marking the start of spring – adds a further layer of curious coincidence to his supposed reincarnation as an ever-verdant and irrepressible political force.
Paralleling Osiris’s grassy complexion in western art – and deepening the symbolic resonances of Navalny’s accidental recasting – is the proliferation across European architecture since at least 400 AD of the so-called ‘Green Man’: a face fashioned from leafy limbs and verdurous vines exhaled through the mouth, carved or sculpted (sometimes surreptitiously) as decoration in secular and religious structures alike. Some mystery surrounds the precise motivation for secreting these unorthodox motifs in predominantly Christian contexts, such as Norwich Cathedral.
It seems likely that such emblems, which flouted Christian iconographic conventions, sought to unify into a single potent symbol both pagan and pious beliefs in rebirth and miraculous fertility. His cheeks bloated, belching life, the Green Man is an archetype of audacity in the face of winter’s deathly dominion – one that, echoing down the centuries, intensifies the impact of this week’s insolent and subversive selfie from Siberia. For the moment at least, defiance has found its colour: cheeky green.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.