by Markus Tymister
For the colors of liturgical vestments, which developed from the civil dress of antiquity, there were no particular regulations originally. The undergarment was surely bleached and uncolored (i.e. white) – as was customary – while the outer garment was colored depending on resources and solemnity.
The first stipulations for particular colors on particular liturgical days or feasts are found in the Carolingian era. Alongside the colors known to us there are also blue and especially maroon, a fashionable color at the beginning of the 9th century, and of course gold. There were also gray and multicolored pieces. Such stipulations, however, originally varied from church to church and from diocese to diocese. The first binding regulations for the universal church came with the post-Tridentine missal of 1570, which was then revised in the post-Vatican II liturgical reform.
A program of liturgical colors along with explanation is first found with Lothar of Segni (c. 1160 – 1216), later Pope Innocent III (De sacro altaris mysterio I:65). But at the same time he refers to various usages, without criticizing these in any way. These liturgical colors are known to him: white, red (scarlet), black, purple, green, and saffron yellow.
White is the color of purity and is used on these days:
- Feasts of confessors, virgins, and angels.
- Christmas and the birth of John the Baptist.
- Epiphany: because of the brightness of the stars that led the wise men.
- Presentation of the Lord: as an indication of the purity of Mary, who bore “the light that enlightens the gentiles.”
- Holy Thursday: because of the preparation of chrism which serves the purification of souls, and because of the Gospel of the foot washing (“those who have bathed are clean, John 13:10). At this time chrism was prepared at the one and only Mass of Holy Thursday.
- Easter: as indication of the white robe worn by the angel who witnessed to the resurrection (Mark 16:5).
- Ascension: as indication of the white clouds on which Christ ascended (Acts 1:9).
- Dedication of a church, because the church, like a pure virgin, is wed to Christ (1 Cor 11:2).
- At the ordination of a bishop the candidate for ordination always wore white, while all the other paraments were the color of the day, because of the Mass of the day was employed.
- For the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (14:9), Lothar suggests white (instead of red) because it is not a feast of the passion, but rather concerns the finding or the exaltation of the cross.
- Feasts of Conversion of Paul the Apostle (25:1) and Chair of Peter (22:2).
- All Saints, at least in the Roman curia (see below).
Red refers to poured blood and the fire of the Holy Spirit and is used on the following days:
- Feasts of apostles and martyrs: because of the blood which they poured out for Christ.
- Exaltation of the Cross (but see above).
- Pentecost: because of the Spirit which came down upon the apostles in the form of tongues of fire.
- Memorial of the beheading of John the Baptist.
- Feasts of a virgin who is also a martyr, because martyrdom is the sign of complete love.
- On All Saints, red is used by many for the reason just given. But the Roman curia uses white.
Black is used on days of mourning (for the dead) and penitence:
- In Advent up to the vigil of Christmas.
- From Septuagesima (pre-Lent) until Holy Saturday.
- Feast of the Holy Innocents. (But Lothar here admits that there is not agreement about this. Some emphasize mourning [Jer 31:15] and use black, while others lift up martyrdom and prefer red. Lothar himself advocates for red here.)
The meaning of purple is not explained further. It can replace black, especially on Laetare Sunday (4th Sunday of pre-paschal Lent) because of the joy indicated by the golden rose which the pope blesses on this Sunday as a badge of honor.
Green is a shade of color that falls between white, black, and red. Therefore it is used on general days which are not feasts.
Saffron yellow can replace green or, according to the opinion of some, be used on feasts of confessors.
A corresponding interpretation of purple is found a bit later with Durandus of Mende (William [Guillaume] Durand, 1230-1296): “purple is gloomy, as if drenched with blood” (DACL III:2, 3003). Here it is to be noted that, because of color production processes of the time, purple was certainly quite divergent from what we think of as purple.
In general it can be said that the assignment of colors was not arbitrary, but rather was based – but with regional differences – on the color symbolism of the time and in relation to the (biblical) content of the feast. It was also determined by the value of expensive colors – dark scarlet/black was one of the most expensive colors, because in the coloration process the greatest amount of expensive violet snail secretions were needed.
But the color canon of Lothar of Segni also witnesses the relatively broad dissemination of black, which as the (originally pagan) color of mourning superseded the early Christian white. At the same time Advent became established as a season of penitence (which it was not in its original meaning).
Against this background, permit me to pose a question for today’s customary color canon. For the burial Mass and memorials of the dead, black is still permitted. But it can be replaced by purple, which has taken place in many regions of Europe.
But one should reflect upon this understanding. 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. 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. In the Roman curia, furthermore, another color tradition has been preserved, namely, the use of red at the occasion of the Mass of burial. Originally this was not only when a pope was buried, but also when the pope presided at the liturgy, apart from whom he was burying. 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.
On this point the Council fathers expressly demanded in no. 81 of the liturgy constitution: “The rite for the burial of the dead should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death, and should correspond more closely to the circumstances and traditions found in various regions. This holds good also for the liturgical color to be used.” Purple is just as unsuited as black to serve for the celebration of the paschal mystery of funerals.
While Lothar of Segni knew the color black for Good Friday, the post-Vatican II liturgy reform reestablished the use of red, corresponding to the older Roman tradition.
Rose exists officially only since the ceremonial of bishops of 1600.
The post-conciliar missal of 1970 retains the colors mentioned already by Lothar (except gold), but modified the assignment somewhat, and reestablished older customs:
- White for Easter season and Christmas season, feasts of the Lord, saints who are not martyrs, feasts of Mary, and feasts of angels.
- Red for Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Pentecost, Exaltation of the Cross, and feasts of apostles and martyrs.
- Purple for Advent and pre-paschal Lent, and as an alternative to black in Masses for the dead.
- Rose on Gaudete (3rd Sunday of Advent) and Laetare (4th Sunday of Lent) as alternative to purple.
- Green for Ordinary Time.
As a principle, valuable paraments can be used on festive occasions, even if they do not correspond to the color of the day. But this does not hold (any more) for Masses for the dead and Advent and Lent (GIRM 346 and Redemptionis sacramentum 127).
Regional differences are expressly made possible there!
Translated by AWR and reprinted with permission from the blog Populo Congregato. Original: “Liturgische Farben (Farbenkanon).” Fr. Markus Tymister is faculty member at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome. Art: “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” by Raphael.