A History of Liturgical Color

Fascinating post here at PrayTell on clerical vestments. Curious was the medieval option for saffron yellow for feasts of confessors.

The author Markus Tymister muses on funerals, and the contemporary options for black and purple:

In the earliest centuries, Christians rather expressed their belief in the resurrection by the use of white vestments. Only in the Middle Ages, north of the Alps, did the pagan black appear and supplant white.

I don’t think pagan association is enough to sink black. Likewise suggestions that black is associated with fashion and such. I know I see more than the occasional little black dress at a funeral–the color supersedes Coco Chanel’s suggestions for the social life on the occasion. Likewise, it’s undeniable that if you want to dress up as a witch, your robe and pointed hat are most likely to be black. With a splash of Hogwarts color if you must.

Purple appears to be – especially against the backdrop of the color canon of Lothar – a replacement for black, which is to a certain extent a slight lightening, but still “gloomy and drenched with blood” (Durandus). From the emphasis of the (purple) penitential seasons of Lent and later, Advent, purple emphatically has the meaning of penitence. It can at least be asked whether the goal of proclamation today should be, at the time of remembering the dead, to refer to penitence. Most people today, in a dying process which is becoming increasingly longer, have already done enough penance. Returning to white should certainly be considered.

Purple seems to have a multivalent usage. Maybe the current rainbow of liturgical color could be expanded a bit.

When a Christian dies, the Easter mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ is accomplished in that person, the passing through the passion (red) to light (white). So at least in those places where white is not the color of mourning, red and white certainly have greater justification for the death of a Christian than purple or black.

I don’t think liturgy intends to imprint mourning, joy, sadness, or any other emotion at the expense of the rest. A cleric’s vestments represent the Church and Jesus Christ. They are not intended to be a mirror for the feelings or attitude of any person or group of persons.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to A History of Liturgical Color

  1. Liam says:

    As you seem to be saying, ultimately the origins don’t matter because white, violet and black all can represent the Church and Jesus Christ, at least according to what the Church itself provides regarding vestment colors for funerals.

    • Todd says:

      Mostly. They can also represent ideological stances more than Jesus Christ, which is the worst problem. Best of all would be vestments of any appropriate color which can distinguish between Lent and Advent, Easter and funerals, Holy Spirit and martyrdom.

      • Liam says:

        For example: a bluer violet for Lent and more purple violet for Advent (the former is the closer derivation from black, the latter from royal Tyrian purple); bleached white for Easter and unbleached white for funerals; scarlet for Holy Spirit and crimson for Holy Week and martyrs.

  2. Gunnar says:

    “I don’t think liturgy intends to imprint mourning, joy, sadness, or any other emotion at the expense of the rest. A cleric’s vestments represent the Church and Jesus Christ. They are not intended to be a mirror for the feelings or attitude of any person or group of persons.”

    While the form of vestments per se may not imprint joy, sadness, etc., their COLORS certainly do. Black has been the color of mourning in many cultures for centuries. At funerals, we are sad. White or gold has long symbolized joy. At Christmas and weddings, we are happy. Green symbolizes hope, as does the green that we see in spring. Red symbolizes the blood of martyrs or the fire of the Holy Spirit. How you can say that liturgy isn’t intended to mirror the feelings or emotions of those in the pews – when liturgies have different forms for the purpose of doing exactly THAT – is odd. Liturgy is in part, SACRED DRAMA, sacred theater. All of the sense are employed while being a part of it. COLOR conveys cultural messages, however subtle, that help shape liturgy and connect it to the human heart and mind.

    • Todd says:

      Black is a western color for mourning. Today it is also a color of fashion that can communicate mourning but also wealth, beauty, and a host of other things.

      I think liturgical color can align with the feelings and attitudes of *some* present. But sometimes a funeral is an occasion of joy or relief after a long illness. Or it can be a celebration of sending someone off to eternal glory. I think it is important to take care with universal color for liturgy. Red for an East Asian wedding would seem wholly appropriate. White for a funeral with mourning. Yellow for Easter or Christmas. I think bishops’ conferences are best placed to determine this, with some leeway given pastors to make particular decisions for a celebration. Liturgy reflects something already present in the believers who have assembled.

      Rolling back to black, I think what people are searching for is a combination of black plus modesty and things tucked in, not black for style. The latter is what I often see at funerals, when perhaps a dark blue or forest green skirt is preferable to a minidress or a navy or gray suit is desirable above a black polo shirt untucked over black jeans.

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