It’s no secret that some of the local rites and uses of Northern Europe used a color other than violet for liturgical vesture during Lent. In England (and here especially in the places influenced by the Sarum Use), red was the color appointed for the Sundays of Lent. Red was also used on the Sundays of Advent and those after Trinity Sunday, as well as the Sunday of Pentecost, the feasts of martyrs, Ash Wednesday and during all of Passiontide (the last two weeks of Lent, including both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday).* In short, red was the color for the better part of the liturgical year.
Lenten weekdays (and perhaps Sundays in some places), however, saw the use of the “Lenten White”: not albus or candidus — the bright white used on feasts of our Lord and of our Lady — but vestments of unbleached linen or sackcloth, which ranged from a pale cream shade to brown. “Tawny” or “ashen” are the terms that are used for these days in some calendars; and yes, violet also sometimes appears.
Orphries on the Lenten White were frequently done in charcoal black or oxblood red, the former sometimes looking like a dark blue and the latter often appearing as a brown or rust shade. Together, the Lenten White, charcoal and oxblood form “the Lenten array.”
Statues were veiled in the Lenten White; and throughout the season of Lent, a great veil of unbleached linen or sackcloth had hung between the altar and the choir in many places. In northern Continental Europe, these veils were often richly embroidered with scenes from the life, ministry and passion of our Lord. In England, they were more modest. The great veil, along with frontals, antependia and statue veils, were often stenciled with simple images of the “implements of torture” or monograms or other symbols indicating what was behind the veil.
The idea was, of course, Scriptural: sackcloth and ashes, the vesture of penance. The effect was a fading out of the ornate, a blending in with the surrounding stone or plasterwork. The Lenten White did not contrast as would violet; rather it simplified, made plain and austere, vesting the season in the color (or lack thereof) of its virture.
With the gradual straitening of liturgical color schemes in the Roman Church and the elimination of colored vestments in many communities of the Reformation, the Lenten White more or less disappeared from view. Only during the Anglican ecclesiastical-liturgical revival of the nineteenth century did the “Lenten White” reappear on any appreciable scale, a more-or-less indigenous English alternative (now for Sundays as well as weekdays) to the Roman violet, quite popular in some Anglo-Catholic circles of a particularly Continental bent. Today one sees the combination of unbleached linen with charcoal, oxblood, or shades of violet; sometimes one also sees a more ashen grey trimmed in either violet or black. In most provinces of the Anglican Communion either the Lenten White or violet is accepted as appropriate to the season. Anglo-Catholic parishes with a strong Romanizing heritage often tend toward violet, while those of “English Use” heritage often prefer the Lenten White. The latter is the case in the parish that I serve, Christ Church in Bronxville, New York.
Here, the Rector of Christ Church, the Reverend Michael Bird, appears in the Lenten White chasuble, an Irish Linen vestment executed for the parish in 2008 by the studios of Davis D’Ambly:
And here is a glimpse of the antique altar veil, still in use — much reduced in size, covering the hand-carved Last Supper reredos. While at Salisbury Cathedral in the Middle ages the veil was dropped on Wednesday of Holy Week during the reading of the Passion from the gospel of Luke, at the words “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:45b), our veil remains in place until the Great Vigil of Easter:
Undoubtedly, the majority of our Roman Catholic readers use violet for Lent — I haven’t looked into what the options might be for communities under the Anglican Use Pastoral Provision in the United States, or for those within the brace of the ordinariates erected under Anglicanorum Coetibus. I would be curious to know if any of our readers from other traditions use the Lenten White. The com-boxes are open; feel free to post links to your own photos that may be on line.
* See J. Barrington Bates, “Am I Blue? Some Historical Evidence for Liturgical Colors,” Studia Liturgica 33 (2003): 75-88.