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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3 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.

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