Liturgical Colors (Color Canon)

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.

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26 comments

  1. At funeral Masses white is permitted in England&Wales, Canada, and the USA (I have not checked on other places). In my experience white is normally chosen, I have only seen black twice this century (and for the death of Diana Princess of Wales).

    1. The funeral for Diana used Sarum Blue: a very deep, dark “Navy” blue, that only appeared to be black.

  2. Interesting and prompts my personal views on liturgical colors. I almost always wear gold vestments to celebrate the paschal mystery at funeral Masses. Every once in a great while, it strikes me as more appropriate to use purple with regard to the burial of individuals whose distance from the church was notable and well known. After all we are celebrating the paschal mystery in all the Masses of both Advent and Lent. I haven’t seen a black vestment in decades. I still hold that bluish purple vestments are particularly suitable for the Sundays of Advent and maybe even for Marian feasts. I don’t believe there are many Catholics who care one wit about liturgical colors and wonder if it makes a lot of sense to strictly regulate them.

    1. I don’t know if they “care” about liturgical colors, but from my experience young children, especially parishes with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, know when you’re wearing the “wrong” color and will gladly point it out.
      Adults? Not so much.

  3. There is a small translation oversight- “Rosa” has been translated twice as “Violet” rather than “Rose”. I think you meant to note Violet/Purple used during Advent, etc. and Rose used for Gaudete and Laetare; likewise for the Ceremonial of Bishops. [Ed: Corrected – thanks!]
    =====================
    The article has many useful points but is too coloured by the author’s own biases. It is not so evident that white naturally was used to represent “hope and resurrection” or that black was “pagan”. I think a little more nuance could be added including consideration of the availability of white vs. black cloth in times well before modern chemical dyes. Furthermore, colour is very contextualized by factors such as culture – seeing the use of white (already used as a mourning colour in some cultures) as a “hopeful”/”resurrection”/etc. colour is, IMHO, reading one’s own colour-connotations into scenarios where colour-connotation may not have been the most important factor, or indeed may have had another meaning altogether.

    As regards the use of the colour red for burials in the Papal liturgy, there is some simplification in the article. One can find occasions in the earliest literature even of the wearing of black by the Pope (I don’t have the reference to hand, but it is in one of the Papal MC documents cited in “Il Corpo del Papa” by Paravicini-Bagliani). But it would seem that this was pushed out by the eventual standardization of red and white as Papal colours – though even then, at a funeral liturgy, the Pope wore a violet stole with the red mantum.

    Re: Fr. Jack – if people don’t care about colours, then why bother attempting to introduce new practices in this regard?

    1. Pagan black doesn’t seem like a bias to me. Popular culture still dresses witches in black. Margaret Hamilton. Elizabeth Montgomery. Well, Hermione Granger or Coco Chanel maybe not so much.

      1. I disagree. One could say all the liturgical colors have popular associations that are quite different – even opposite – of what they liturgically symbolize: demonic red, ghoulish white, royal purple, jealous green etc. One need only look at TV shows and film to see how color is used in these ways. Most people are smart enough to use context when looking at how a color is used, and likely don’t automatically think “demonic” when red is used as a liturgical color just as they probably don’t think “Paganism/witches” when they put on black for a funeral.

        I lived next door to a funeral home for around 12 years. While I would say American society has become less formal when it comes to funeral etiquette, it is clear that black and other dark/subdued colors are still strongly preferred. This was true at an OF funeral I attended last year – pretty much everyone wore black even though the priest wore white.

        I’m not totally against using white at funerals and get why some would prefer it, but I find many of the arguments against black tend to grasp at straws.

      2. I find some of the arguments against paganism to be grasping at straws as well. Pagan is not at all equivalent to “demonic,” a term which was yours, not mine. You are right that colors have contexts, especially in the modern religions of sport, nationalism, and fashion. I see a fair number of LBD’s at funerals, a place where color is thought by some to be more important than cut. On the other hand, dress up little girls for Halloween, and the hats and robes will likely be black.

      3. I chose “demonic” not as a comparison to “pagan,” but rather to illustrate my point – that colors often have different connotation based on context and the color red often has connotations quite different from martyrdom and the Holy Spirit. I also don’t automatically think of Halloween witches when I think of pre-Christian or modern paganism or the color black at a funeral. Mourners aren’t pretending to be witches.

    2. Simple. Since they don’t care about liturgical color legislation, they take no offense should I wear a blue vestment on a Marian feast. Rather they say things like “ that was a beautiful vestment you wore today”.

      1. Is it possible that they don’t care because they don’t the reasons behind the church’s law on color selection for vestments?

  4. For those who can read German – there is a detailed article on the historical practice in Germany here: http://www.rdklabor.de/wiki/Farbe,_liturgisch_(In_der_kath._Kirche)

    I actually wonder if it is psychologically and pastorally healthy to remove the somber colours expressing penitence or mourning – these are crucial human feelings, and if the Church does not appear to take them serious (a similar example is the habit in some German-speaking parishes to rename the Requiem ‘Resurrection Celebration’), the Church will not be taken serious by the faithful either.

    Furthermore, if the dead are already in heaven, there is little reason to pray for them, anyway – in the Old Rite there is, for instance, only a very abbreviated funerary liturgy for children dying soon after baptism in white vestments because they are not in any need of prayer.

    If we do not sincerely mourn with the mourners, we may easily be regarded as providing cheap and meaningless comfort.

    1. Well said.

      Black and purple are perfectly legitimate options in the so-called Ordinary Form.

  5. This is interesting historically, and I have often wondered about the ‘flexibility’ of the colors.

    When I was an altar server prior to Vatican II, all the priests when I served at a funeral Mass wore black. And I don’t know how much faith to put in this, but in the current BBC productions of Father Brown, the priest always wears black for a funeral.

    Fast forward a little and it seems like things today are a little looser. This year my pastor had a shiny (almost like glitter) silver chasuble for Easter Sunday, and he is generally a pretty conservative guy.

    1. Cloth of silver is the rarest of vestments; it can have a lovely opalescent quality in the right light. It can substitute for white, but only white.

      As noted above, in the USA, in the conciliar use the permitted vestment colors for funerals are white, violet and black. Gold can, generally, substitute for white, red or green (but not violet or black), though this thread is the first I’ve heard of its use at funerals. White (particularly white chasubles trimmed in violet) is typical, but not exclusively so.

  6. 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.

    Except that, if one takes the time to look at the relevant sections of the Acta Synodalia (the speeches on the Council floor and written submissions during Vatican II) and the Acta et Documenta (the preparatory work from 1959 to mid-1962), the question of the liturgical colour for funerals is very seldom mentioned. On the handful of occasions it is mentioned, the members of the Central Preparatory Commission and the Council Fathers only ask for the faculty for bishops to allow the use of purple at funerals! (Interestingly, ash-coloured vestments are also suggested as a possibility in passing by the members of the Preparatory Liturgical Commission.)

    It was never the intent of the Council Fathers to allow white vestments for funerals (excepting baptised infants who die before the age of reason) in regions of the world where white is not associated with mourning.

    And, I don’t necessarily want to be that guy, but what Pius XII wrote about archaeologism in Mediator Dei 62 still holds true:

    Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy… But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he… to want black excluded as a colour for the liturgical vestments…

    1. Ecumenical councils don’t necessarily go into all the details of liturgical reform. For the most part they issue general principles and leave the specifics to the pope or a post-conciliar commission. In the case of Vatican II, the fathers, and this distinguishes them from past councils, approved the principles calling for a quite massive and thoroughgoing reform involving simplification, reclaiming of lost elements, pruning of unhelpful elements, adaptation to the needs of today, allowing for active participation, adapting to culture, etc.etc. So it makes perfect sense to me that the decision such as liturgical colors for funerals would be made after the council by popes or competent Vatican authorities. There is more than ample justification to be found in Vatican II, I think, for every aspect of the official liturgical reform. You just have to look in the right place and understand the relationship between ecumenical councils and post-conciliar commissions.

      The Council of Trent never said a word about eliminating sequences, or putting the prayers at the foot of the altar at the beginning of the order of Mass. That happened after Trent. That’s how it works – with the proviso that the scope of change in principle in Sacrasanctum Concilium has no precedent.

      Mediator Dei is a great doc. But – and this is generally true of church docs – the matters treated in it have in some cases been recast or overcome or perhaps contradicted by Vatican II or later popes. One should not cite MD on archaeologism without noting how more, much more, was said on the topic by V2.

      awr

  7. My mother died on Bright Monday, April 2nd, this year. Her funeral was on that Thursday. The celebrant wore white at Mass, but purple at the grave. I and the majority of my family wore black for the wake and funeral .
    I had not been in the mood to sing ‘Alleluja’ the day before as she lay dying in the hospice since Palm Sunday. We ate our Paschal dinner with little joy, as we knew her time was near. Did I have no hope in her resurrection? Or Christ’s salvific work? Of course not. I was sad. She was sick, and suffering, and dying. I lost my mother. I was mourning, but not without hope. I was fine with white vestments (well, cream polyester) because it was Bright Week, but had it not been I would have requested purple. However, on her Month’s Mind, I had a Requiem at my own parish with black vestments. I felt like I was finally allowed to express my grief. It was cathartic, healing, and soothing. Let people mourn. Don’t tell them that they are wrong. Not at that time. Mourn with them. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have Christian hope.

    1. My condolences on your loss. Last year, I had a similar experience of Easter Sunday as my father was dying – it was day to day, starting on Holy Thursday – but lingered a bit longer to Easter Thursday. For me, the liturgical date associations may end up having stronger resonance than the calendrical ones.

      1. I’m sorry for your loss as well. Yes, I know that no matter the date, Holy Week and Pascha will never be the same for my family again.

      2. John
        As you know, it’s a bit different going to divine liturgy on Easter Sunday while a close loved one is on his or her deathbed. That is, the context moves it out of the sentimental into the gritty. Death is, typically, *hard* – a “Goldilocks” death is not typical.
        One hymn chosen for my father’s funeral at the end of the following week took on a grittier, harder Easter resonance: The Strife is O’er.
        When Jesus appears to ten of the Eleven on Easter evening, and pronounces peace to them, it’s not a sentimental thing, but a gritty, hard-won thing. After all, all of the men had abandoned him at some point during the preceding days (even John fled Gethsemane, though most people seem to forget that, just like they overlook how some of the Eleven “still doubted” after the Resurrection and before the Ascension (see Matthew 28:17)).

  8. Although some Eastern Christian have posted, I would like to point out the common insensitivity in the article itself. The author refers to the color cycle for the “universal” Church while really talking only about the Roman Rite. Even in the West the Ambrosian Rite has some different arrangements.

  9. Wasn’t there a time when “best” could be used? “Best” being the best vestment owned by the parish for a major feast day regardless of the color?

  10. As a melancholic soul, a cycle of colours without black has always seemed to lack depth. I want there to be a liturgical expression of offering to God our deepest anguish, which like the gifts of the altar can be transfigured and transformed by God’s grace.

    The darkest parts of my heart will destroy me, is my sense, unless I can surrender them, too, to God’s purposes.

    A lot is made nowadays of integrating, not supressing, sexuality in Christian life. Shouldn’t we have a similar conversation about grief and anguish?

  11. While the author focuses primarily on continental european developments for liturgical colours, I was hoping he might mention the misnomer of “sarum blue” – the differing dye lots over the centuries in the purple spectrum (red-violet-blue) make it more difficult to pin down the colours exactly, but there appears to have been a blueish fabric used for Marian feasts in the Sarum usage of the Roman RIte. This is a long ways from the mistaken identity of so-called Sarum blue with Advent, a mistake that to the best of my ability, is traceable to an error in Lutheran sources in the 1970s…I’d love to hear a verifiable researched historical review!

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