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The practice of using different colours for vestments and other liturgical objects during the various seasons of the church year was first noted amongst a clerical order in Jerusalem in the 12th century.
During the Middle Ages, the church in Gaul emphasised those features of worship which appealed to the senses. The use of colours, along with frequent use of incense, became important.
The liturgical colours were standardised throughout the church in the period after the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. They remain a tradition today with very little change.
The four basic liturgical colours are white, green, red and purple. The traditional symbolism of these colours is: white – innocence, purity, victory, joy, resurrection; green – hope, growth, increase, life, fidelity; red - sacrifice (particularly the sacrifice of life), charity, zeal, Holy Spirit; purple – sorrow, penitence, preparation.
According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the purpose of the variety of colour of the sacred vestments is to express outwardly the specific character of the mysteries of faith being celebrated and to give a sense of the passage of the Christian life throughout the course of the liturgical year. (GIRM 2000 #345)
White is used during the Easter and Christmas season; on celebrations of the Lord (other than his passion), of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the Holy Angels and of Saints who were not martyrs; and on the feasts of All Saints, the Birth of John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist, the chair of St Peter and the Conversion of St Paul.
Red is used on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Pentecost, on celebrations of the Lord’s Passion, on the Feasts of the Apostles and Evangelists, and on celebrations of martyr saints.
Green is used throughout Ordinary Time and violet or purple in Advent and Lent.
Rose may be used on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent) and Laetara Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent).
Until relatively recently, black was the colour for funerals and masses for the dead. It has been replaced by white, the symbolic colour of resurrection.
According to the General Instruction, on solemn occasions it is allowable to wear vestments that are more precious even if not the colour of the day (GIRM 2000 # 346g).
Blue is not one of the official liturgical colours in the Roman Church, although it is in other traditions such as the Sarum Rite, the ancient liturgy of the Church of Salisbury. Blue vestments are sometimes worn on feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The basis for the association of the colour blue with Mary is unclear. In early images of Mary her clothing is often red or black. The practice of using blue for Mary seems to have developed in the later Middle Ages, perhaps because ultramarine (meaning ‘from across the sea’) was the most difficult to procure and the most precious colour known to artists at that time. It was therefore deemed the most appropriate to use in depicting the Mother of God.
Interestingly, in the Eastern Church there are no definite rules about colours, although there is a natural tendency to use more sombre colours during penitential seasons, while white is used at all services, including funerals, during the Easter Season.
The church’s use of symbolic colours is sometimes influenced by cultural factors. For example, because white is considered the colour of mourning and death by Aboriginal and Chinese people, purple rather than white vestments are usually worn at funerals in these communities.