A Brief History of Liturgical Colours

To understand the evolution of liturgical colours, one first has to understand some basics about the evolution of sacred vestments themselves.

Vestments originate from Roman civil dress and in paleochristian times this was simply attached to the notion of reserving one's best dress for the sacred liturgy. At first then, there was little difference between the vestments and vesture worn by the clergy proper and those of non-clerics (Christian or otherwise).  Archdale King notes that in the time of St. Gregory the Great, at the end of the sixth century, respectable citizens all wore articles of clothing we now consider ecclesiastical. 

Left: The Roman 'paenula' and pallium     Right: Christian vesture

Gradually, with time, civil fashions changed, but the Church chose to keep the dress of imperial Rome intact for liturgical use, thereby separating what we now consider liturgical dress from other forms of dress. It was in the eighth century at the Council of Ratisbon that we see the clergy encouraged to specifically wear chasubles for the liturgy, and a century later, in the mid-ninth century, we see Pope Leo IV prescribing the use of the five specific vestments we now know today for the Eucharistic liturgy: amice, alb, stole, maniple and chasuble. 

Understanding this, one will better understand why, for much of the first millennium, there was no distinctive scheme of liturgical colours in place. It was in the ninth century that we begin to see the emergence of colour sequence as documented in the Ordo of St. Amand which describes the use of a dark "planeta" (i.e. chasuble) for use during the Greater Litanies; it further mentions that on the Feast of the Purification the bishop and deacons would wear vestments of black.  

Various colours were found to be in use in the Carolingian churches, though according to Archdale King, there doesn't seem to have been any formalized rubric around what colours to use (which puts one to mind of the tradition in the Christian East which speaks simply of "bright" vs "dark" coloured vestments depending on the time of the liturgical year).  King suggests that the first evidence of colour sequence proper, as we tend to understand it in the Latin West, is found by way of the liturgical practice of a twelfth century Crusader church in Jerusalem which specified the following colours:

  • Black was to be used in Advent, Lent and the Feast of the Purification.  
  • White and Gold were used at Easter and Christmas (though Christmas also saw the use of red). 
  • Red was also designated for Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Cross, Ss. Peter and Paul and St. Stephen's day. 
  • Blue was specified for Epiphany (along with gold) and the feast of the Ascension.

It was during this same period that Pope Innocent III (+1216) specified, in De Sacro Altaris Mysterio, the liturgical colours for the Roman rite which we are familiar with today: white, red, green, black (and, to a lesser extent, violet).  That black was more common than violet as a liturgical colour may come as a surprise to many moderns, particularly given the peculiar 'hang ups' some modern Catholics have against black vestments. The historical reality, however, is that black was the liturgical colour that was assigned to penitential times (and, to a certain extent, remains so at least in the Ambrosian rite which utilizes black for the ferial days of Lent).  It was only later in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that violet as a liturgical colour would see more common liturgical usage, ultimately taking the place of black in the Roman rite as far as penitential days/seasons were concerned. 

It was also in the thirteenth century that rose was authorized for use on Laetare and Gaudete Sundays -- and the reasoning behind the colour rose came in symbolic relation to the tradition of the pope blessing a golden rose at these times of the year; hence the colour rose was selected.

While these are the liturgical colours most familiar to us, it is worth noting that a greater variety of colours than even these could be found in other parts of the Church during the middle ages. What's more, there were variations around which colours to use when. For example, the use of Salisbury ordered red as the liturgical colour for all Sundays outside of Lent (which, again, is similar to the liturgical usage we still yet see today in the Ambrosian rite in which red is the 'ordinary' colour, as compared to green). 

It is worth noting that the particular shade of these liturgical colours (for example, what shade of rose, green, violet, etc.) was not specified. Indeed, that would have been utterly impractical, especially historically. (The one and only exception that I know of in this regard is the specification of "cerulean blue" for the Immaculate Conception, but of course, that is not a colour permitted for general liturgical use -- not yet at least.) This fact can lead to some confusion for us moderns (spoiled as we are by the abundance of synthetically produced dyes and an abundance of textiles available relatively inexpensively) as we look at vestments which might appear to our modern eyes to be a colour different than which was liturgically intended: for example, what we might consider darker blues were frequently utilized as purple/violet. This point is taken up by William St. John Hope and E.G. Cuthbert Atchley in their study, English Liturgical Colours:

In England the colours chiefly found were red, white, green, yellow, blue, and black; less frequently purple, violet, tawny, orange, brown, dun, etc. with curious shades sometimes, like popinjay-colour, crane-colour, and horseflesh-colour. But all these varieties can be classified under four principal colours, namely red, white, green, and black, with which the secondary colours were interchangeable. 

Thus red included rubeus or red proper of various shades, purpureus or red-purple, sub-rubeus or murrey, crimson, sanguine, rose, carnation or pink, and probably horseflesh-colour. 

White included albus and candidus, which apparently were the same; also the cream-coloured or ivory-white of the present day. 

Green (viridis) is identified liturgically with saffron or yellow (croceus), and therefore included not only the light bluish-green glaucus, but the popinjay-green and popinjay-yellow seen in popinjays or parrots, and deeper shades of yellow like tawny or orange.

Black included niger and quasi-niger, and all the various secondary shades of blue and brown. Among the former were black-purple (de nigra purpura), purpureus or full purple, the violaceus or blue-purple of the violet, indicus, bluetus, and blauus, or dark-blue, and indius, blodius, and ceruleus, which probably were bright blue. The browns included brunus, burnet or dark-brown, russet, cinereus or ashen, crane-colour, grey, dun, and dove-colour, and even the Lenten white.

It is of course impossible to be certain as to the precise shades involved in many of these terms, some of which were perhaps due to fading, but there can be no doubt that such a classification of principal and secondary colours was recognized.

Finally, it is worth noting that, historically, even with all this specification of liturgical colours now taking place, in smaller churches in the medieval period, the quality and beauty of the vestments took priority over their actual colour. As such, whatever the best vestments were in a particular church or chapel, they would be those for high feasts days, regardless of their particular colour.

Obviously a topic such as this could be explored in much greater detail, but hopefully this brief overview will provide our readers with at least a small measure of insight into how and when liturgical colours came into the life of the Church, and also an appreciation and understanding of their variability.

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