Episco-Fact #16
October 2, 2016

Why are there different colors for the clothes the priests wear and for the hangings on the lectern at different services and is there some sort of code that they represent?

This question is a natural follow-up to last week's question about the garments the priests wear. There is a code and a history which go with this code, so this summary may skip a few of the details.

The best evidence suggests that it took until the mediaeval period before there was a system to the colors. Early on bishops and priests wore what they could, including colored and/or white albs (the basic robe). Over time that coloring stabilized as a white robe, somewhere during the 5th century, and chasubles and copes (capes) of white with red boarders, or stripes.

The first evidence of correlation between colors and seasons comes from Jerusalem in the twelfth century. But that coding was not the one we see today. As it turns out the Vestments were often unmatched, and at times contrasting during this period with Chasubles and Altar Hangings of one color and the stole of another. In fact, the common practice was to wear the newest and most prominent colors at the biggest feasts. A general rule was developed under Pope Pius V around the time of the Reformation, around 1570.

It was not until the advent of both movable type and the printing press, and the improvement of dye consistency in textiles that standardization could and did occur. Just before the Reformation the pattern was Advent/Lent—Violet/Blue/Black, Christmas/Easter—White/Gold, Lent—Veiling of colors, Pentecost/Martyrs—Red, and seasons after Epiphany/Pentecost—Green.

Why these colors? Some of the answer is psychological. There are colors which appear to evoke certain emotional responses. It is understandable why we associate red with blood (and therefore, martyrs), yellow with energy, white with purity, gold with festivity, purple with dignity (because of its association with nobility), green with growth, light blue with hope, and deep blue/violet/black with despair and mourning.

Worship of God is really meant to be a five sensation experience of sight, smell, hearing, tasting, and touch. Smell is covered by things like flowers, familiar worship spaces, and incense; hearing is covered by the readings, prayers, sermons, and hymns; tasting is in the Holy Eucharist, and touch is in the passing of the peace and the handling of the blessed sacrament. It makes sense that the people of God tried to inspire our worship visually through architecture, icons, stained glass, and textiles. The rules are best used to indicate and enhance rather than to be rigid and doctrinal.


The Rev. David Lucey