What Color is Your Lent?

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.

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* See J. Barrington Bates, “Am I Blue? Some Historical Evidence for Liturgical Colors,” Studia Liturgica 33 (2003): 75-88.

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26 comments

  1. Thanks for this great and fascinating history. I had always wondered about the Anglican/Episcopal use of the unbleached white vestments for Lent as well as the other liturgical practices you explain.
    What I did not know until my former married parochial vicar, /baptized Presbyterian, turned Episcopal, then former Episcopal priest/and born again bi-ritual Catholic priest,/but now born to eternal life, once told me is that in the Orthodox Churches and its counterpart, the Eastern Rite in union with Rome, have no set of rubrics for the color of their ornate Eucharistic vestments. The individual priest chooses the color he wants regardless of the season and the color blue is pervasive. I presume this is an older tradition than the Latin Rite’s more scripted and regimented rubrics for liturgical colors and the liturgy in general. In my Latin Rite parish the color is violet, except for Laetare Sunday which is rose (although I noticed this morning that my Polish Parochial Vicar chose violet) and we cover all the statues in violet after the 4th Saturday of Lent’s daily Mass through the beginning of the Gloria of the Easter Vigil. However, our decorators hang (similar to the curtain in your photo above) a black see through veil over the marble crucifixion scene on our old high altar’s reredos which is taken down Good Friday.

    1. While the Orthodox may have no liturgical rubrics, they have ‘rules’ for color in icon writing. An example from Wikipedia:
      Colour plays an important role as well. Gold represents the radiance of Heaven; red, divine life. Blue is the color of human life, white is the Uncreated Light of God, only used for resurrection and transfiguration of Christ.

      These colors no doubt influence a priest’s choices.

      1. My understanding is that the Orthodox differentiate between “dark colors” appropriate to penitential services and “bright colors” appropriate to the festive services.

        In my Lenten Triodion (service book), for the Vespers and Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday (originally begun about 4pm but now usually done on Holy Saturday morning) the italics (= rubrics?) say for the first part of the service the clergy wear dark vestments During the chant before the Gospel the italics say The clergy change from dark to white vestments, and the hangings and covers of the sanctuary and the rest of the church are likewise changed from dark to white.

        In the Divine Liturgy praying for the dead of the parish (shortly before the beginning of Lent) the priest used white vestments.

    2. Allan and Jim, this is a genuine question, I’m not trying to contradict the point of your comments, but it’s a question of vocabulary. Are vestment colors determined by “rubrics”? I thought rubrics concerned liturgical actions. I thought liturgical color was a matter of the ordo rather than the rubrics. My understanding is that any rubric that makes reference to color today is incidental and modern.

      Cody, am I mistaken about the history here?

      1. More than likely you are correct, although I think many people today use “rubric” in the generic sense. Normally the liturgical color is listed in the ordo. I’m not sure about our new Roman Missal, but occasionally for the votive Masses in the former sacramentary the color of the vestment was indicated in the “rubric” at the heading of the particular Mass. but technically, a rubric in the Roman Missal is a “red” direction. BTY, Jim McKay’s comment about color in the Orthodox/Eastern Rite jarred my memory and I do remember my parochial vicar who was also eastern Rite showing me the sacristy of his little Church and explaining what Jim indicates. Their liturgical vestments are far more ornate and “fussy” if you will, compare to the Latin rite as are the additional accoutrements that are worn.

      2. I was just following Fr Allan’s vocabulary, deeming it fitting.

        But a little exploration revealed that rubrics originally were the “red” of “do the red.” hence the name. John XXIII issued a Code of Rubrics, roughly like the GIRM, and it does indeed specify vestment colors, so at least in RCIA contexts, color is covered by rubrics.

        But I did not know any of this ten minutes ago.

      3. I thought liturgical color was a matter of the ordo rather than the rubrics. My understanding is that any rubric that makes reference to color today is incidental and modern.

        How modern is “modern” here?

        I don’t have a Tridentine (precisely speaking) Missal handy, but looking at a 1621 Missal on Google Books, there’s an entire section of the Rubricae generalis Missalis, XVIII, “De coloribus Paramentorum”.

        In 20th century usage under both forms of the Mass an “ordo” tells you what color to wear, but it’s is an unnofficial commentary on the liturgical books and not a liturgical bookp properly speaking. The calendar, on the other hand, is official. (Unless we’re speaking of the Ordo Missae, but that doesn’t specify colors as colors are variable and the Ordo Missae is the unchanging parts.)

  2. Cody,
    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the Sarum practices and to what extent they’re (more/less/differently) compatible with the more recent liturgical emphasis on preserving and even heightening the difference between Triduum, Holy Week, and the whole of Lent. I’m thinking of the veiling, of course, but also the distinction between Sunday/Weekday. I assume that Holy Week was scarlet throughout? Thanks.

    1. Jakob,

      Yes, Holy Week was scarlet throughout until the Great Vigil, and still is in English Use Anglo-Catholicism (and, ergo, in Bronxville). It does heighten the distinction between Lent and Holy Week, and severely mutes the distinction between Lent and Triduum.

      I personally prefer the Lenten color (whether that be violet or linen) to be used until Passion Sunday and then again on the weekdays of Holy Week until Maundy Thursday, and then each day of the Triduum have its own color, as it were. The Lenten White, as an “empty” color, makes more sense to me for Holy Saturday than does scarlet or violet.

      As for the vieling, in the “modern” iteration of English Use, the veils stay in place until Holy Saturday eve. I wouldn’t care to speculate on how dropping the great veil mid-week might have affected things in medieval Salisbury.

  3. Father Unterseher, Thanks for starting this discussion of Anglican Lenten colors. I’m hoping the Ordinariate will be permitted to use the Sarum color scheme, but I have a feeling these folks are going to opt for the colors more popular with the Anglo Catholics accustomed to following the Roman tradition.

    I know of some Latin rite Catholic churches which have started using the violet lenten veil at the beginning of Lent–it’s really very effective. One church had a violet, see-through mesh.

    I know of a couple of Lutheran churches (ELCA) which have adopted the ash and oxblood paraments and vestments, but they use dark blue as their Lenten color and dark red for Holy Week. Sorry, I have no photos to show.

    1. The use of dark blue, often trimmed with bright red, stems from several northern European color schemes, such as that of Lichfield in the 13th century, which assigned black to Lent, which over time came to tolerantly embrace darker shades of blue and violet as well.

      I’ve seen modern iterations of this in a couple of places: quite stunning, really, though not my first choice for the season.

  4. Many thanks for this presentation. As for the Anglican Use, I can only speak for Our Lady of Walsingham. We do use violet from Ash Wednesday throughout Lent. This includes veiling of all images throughout the church, and the reredos. Good Friday sees the veiling changed to black and the use of black vestments. Even the needle-point kneelers at the communion rail are covered in black. The total effect is profound. I had hoped that we would use the ancient English white-ash, often referred to as the ‘Lenten array’, but to date this has not happened. Incidentally: for those parishes whose acolytes and other sacred ministers normally wear cassock and surplice, the surplice is not worn throughout Holy Week. I mention this only because I have witnessed numerous Catholic parishes which were apparently unaware of it.

    Again, many thanks for this article. We should have more such as this as regular features of Pray Tell.

    1. Incidentally: for those parishes whose acolytes and other sacred ministers normally wear cassock and surplice, the surplice is not worn throughout Holy Week. I mention this only because I have witnessed numerous Catholic parishes which were apparently unaware of it.

      I think this may be an Anglican usage 🙂

      It’s definitely not a Roman usage to not wear the surplice (which is an essential part of choir dress) during Holy Week. See for instance this photo of Bl. John XXIII with his MC at the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. So I don’t think folks are unaware of the tradition as much as it not being a Roman tradition in the first place.

      1. Well, I have, also, witnessed Roman Rite parishes that WERE aware of this. Nor had I ever understood it to be peculiar to Anglican usage. However, your objections and evidence definitely warrant further research.
        On viewing the photo of Bl. John XXIII. that you provide, I notice what seems to be some form of ornamental fabric applied to the shoulders of several of the surplices: is there a name for this? Is it some form of apparels? I have not encountered this before on surplices.

      2. I think what you’re seeing on the shoulders here is just lace ornamentation.

        As to the surplice-no surplice debate; I’m sure there’s some history behind it in the Middle Ages. Where I’ve seen it among Anglicans, more often than not, is in self-identified “low” or “evangelical” parishes, where neither choir nor ministers (including the presider) wear the surplice or other vestments for Good Friday, just plain cassocks.

        It’s not a custom that I would advocate in any setting, regardless of “churchmanship.”

  5. Since SC clearly called for reform of the Latin rite, why is it that critical thinking must always give way to this is the “tradition”. Why black on Good Friday? Does black really go with Felix mortis? The church did in fact think it through and proscribed red vestments not black.

  6. Fr Feehily –
    I fully understand the ‘change’ to red. It, too, can be profound. What bothers me, again, is the notion that there is a ‘wall of separation’ between pre- and post-VII practice. If you ever entered a church on Good Friday and witnessed the totality of black, I would wonder how you could not be moved to the depths of your being at the unmistakable message of profound sadness and grief over the price that had been paid for our salvation… and, that it really was real; something quite awful-yet-salutary really did happen. Is our avoidance of black some sort of avoidance of actually accepting this reality? I see the calculated avoidance of this as unfortunate. And I say it fully aware and quite appreciative of the significance of using red. At any rate: no one is suggesting imposition of this on Roman Rite Catholics, but it is the continued and hallowed custom of Anglican Use Catholics. I continue to find lessons in the red, and hope that you may see some lessons in the black.

    Incidentally, I forgot to mention above that we have an incredibly busy and dedicated altar guild, especially during Holy Week. For Maundy Thursday all the purple hangings over all statues and images are changed to white, and then, for the Good Friday liturgy they are changed to black, only to be joyously removed for the Great Vigil of Easter.

    1. It would seem that anyone who participates in the Veneration of the Cross can not avoid facing the reality. At the same time, I have to question why you would even question whether people who are making the effort to participate in Holy Week services are “avoiding the reality”. In a secular society such as ours, no one cares where you spend Good Friday. If people are in church, it is because they are believers, or at least seekers.

  7. Calling into question anyone’s faith and belief was not the tenor of my rhetorical question, and I would be disappointed if anyone thought it was. Venerating the cross, as you say, is indeed a potent lesson and true acceptance whether one is surrounded by red or black.

  8. Will someone define the proper color for Holy Week in the Roman Church? My own Lutheran (LCMS) Ordo lists Scarlet or Purple. What is “scarlet” liturgically? May I vest in the red chasuble used on other red days? I occasionally find a chasuble in a catalogue that is darker red, but most do not look darker red. I watched the Holy Week liturgies from St.Peter’s in Rome and the Pope’s vestments looked like red. Any assistance will be appreciated.

    1. The Roman vestment colors are different in the ordinary form and in the extraordinary form.

      Ordinary form:
      Red on Palm Sunday
      Purple on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
      White on Thursday
      Red on Good Friday
      White on Holy Saturday and Easter

      Extraordinary form (1962):
      Red on Palm Sunday for the Procession
      Purple on Palm Sunday for the Mass
      Purple on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
      White for the Mass on Thursday
      Purple for the stripping of the altars on Thursday
      Black for the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday
      Purple for the Communion on Good Friday
      Purple on Saturday for Vigil, blessing of new fire, Paschal candle and font
      White on Saturday for renewal of Baptismal vows, first Mass of Easter
      White on Easter Sunday

      1. At some point, it would be more detail than is needed! And I’ve almost entirely ignored the office already. People needing that level of granularity can consult a Missal or an Ordo!

    2. “Scarlet” is not a shade specified in Roman liturgical vestments. (Scarlet is a bright red, while crimson is a dark red – the difference between wet and dry blood, shall we say). It’s just “red”. There is a wealth of detail in prelatial vestment colors – scarlet, amaranth, purple, violet – that could consume lots of SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) obsessives – but not so with liturgical vestments. Just “red”. Roman colors requirements are somewhat more detailed than Orthodox – we have more than just “bright” and “dark” – but not detailed in a Pantone kind of way.

      Besides, when it comes to reds: red is the least colorfast color, and easily the color most likely to fade in sunlight. premodern red dyes were not colorfast. Even the red in stained glass (made in part by the use of gold – so red was the most expensive stained glass color, while blue was cheap, and therefore much more widely used) fades over centuries.

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