Recently several people have asked me about liturgical colors, specifically about St. Stephen Church’s use of the so-called “Sarum Blue” vestments and paraments during Advent. Why do we use blue for Advent? Why don’t we use purple like other churches? Is purple the Roman Catholic color, and blue the Anglican color?
The use of liturgical colors has a long usage in the Christian tradition. The Western Church’s usage varies a bit from the Eastern Church’s choice of colors, and I’m thoroughly Western so I can only speak to that side of Christianity. (I’ll leave the explanation of Eastern Christianity’s church year and liturgical colors to my Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters.)
Up until the Fourth Century of the Church, it seems that all the vestments used in worship were white in color, at least according to Pope Benedict XIV who wrote about such things in the 18th Century. After that other colors began to work their way into the church’s liturgical life.
It seems that during the medieval era the various fabrics and colors used varied depending on a community’s resources. In fact, the big holy days, like Easter and Christmas, the local cleric must just pull out whatever happened to be the nicest, fanciest vestment he had, regardless of what hue it was.
By the time of Pope Innocent III in the 13th Century, four main liturgical colors had come into use: white, red, green, and black. Although this too varied from region to region. In fact, until the Council of Trent, when things became more standardized, there were many variations in colors, liturgical texts, and prayers from region to region.
According to one liturgist, of whose knowledge and expertise I am well convinced, the liturgical colors of Sarum Blue and Violet really have their root in the color Black. In the later medieval period, it seems that Black was the color of choice for Advent and Lent, both being penitential seasons when people were called to introspection, repentance, and renewal.
Depending on where one lived and what local produce was used to create dyes, textile workers would use either a blue or a purple dye. Then they would dye the fabric more and more to get it as close to black as possible, but as the fabric got used and began to fade, it would begin to look more bluish or purplish, depending on what dye had been used initially.
So, to answer the question, is purple (or violet) more Roman Catholic and blue (or indigo) more Anglican? No; both were faded black vestments originally. It all depends on where you lived and what the textile industry near you had used to make your vestments.
As time passed, the liturgy and traditions became more complex and so did the liturgical color scheme. Still, color schemes varied significantly depending on where you lived.
In Rome, the color scheme came to be five principal colors (white, red, green, violet, and black) with a few exceptions.
- White – used for Christmastide; Trinity Sunday; feasts of Our Lord (except those relating to his Passion); feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist, angels, virgins, confessors, and bishops (who weren’t martyrs); the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist; All Saints Day; feast of St. Peter in Chains; the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul; Nuptial Masses; masses related to the Blessed Sacrament; Baptisms; etc.
- Red – used on Pentecost; for the procession of Palms on Palm Sunday (but not at the Mass that followed); feasts of the Passion of Christ; Holy Cross Day; feasts of apostles and martyrs; votive masses of the Holy Spirit; etc.
- Green – was used on ordinary days between Epiphany and Septuagesima and between Pentecost and Advent where there were not other feasts being celebrated.
- Violet (Purple) – the Sundays and weekdays of Advent and Lent; Holy Week; the Ember Days; and the Sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction.
- Black – used on Good Friday, All Soul’s Day, and Requiem Masses.
There were some variations even there:
- Gold or Silver – could be used at Easter and Christmas in place of white.
- Rose – could be used on Gaudete Sunday (Advent III) and Laetare Sunday (Lent IV)
- Blue – could be used on some feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary in some regions, like Spain.
The usage in medieval England evolved slightly differently. It too varied depending on what part of realm one worshipped in, but generally Anglicans talk a lot about Sarum Usage, which is the practice of the medieval Diocese of Salisbury in southern England. (In Latin, “Sarum” refers to Salisbury.)
Many parishes could only afford to have two colors:
- Red or White or Golden – for feast days
- Green or Blue or Brown or Gray – for non-feast days and penitential days
In the congregations with more means, a more elaborate color scheme was used:
- Red – used on all Sundays of the year (except in Lent and Eastertide), and for the blessing of ashes on Ash Wednesday, Passiontide, and feasts of apostles, martyrs, and evangelists
- White – all of Eastertide through Pentecost Sunday, feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the feast of John the Evangelist, feast of St. Michael the Archangel, and for anniversary of the church’s dedication.
- Green (but Brown, Grey, and Blue were substituted in places) – Non-feast days between Epiphany and Septuagesima and between Trinity and Advent
- Yellow – feasts of confessors
- Black – requiem masses and offices of the dead
- Lenten Array (unbleached linen embellished with black and oxblood red) –Advent and Lent until Passiontide (but in places Brown, Green, and Purple were substituted)
- Indigo – in some places a deep blue was used specifically for Advent
Then the English Reformation occurs and the Church of England asserts its independence and autonomy from the Roman Church. Under Henry VIII, almost nothing changed, and church life continued on as usual. From the inventories at the larger cathedrals during the reign of Edward VIII, it seems that vestments and colors also remained largely the following years.
As Puritans gained greater influence in England during the following century, many vestments and liturgical colors, as well as candles on the altar and other ritual items, became suppressed–despite the fact that Parliament had made the “Ornament Rubrics” law, which stipulated that vestments should remain the same as they were during the reign of Edward VIII. (As mentioned above, historical records show that chasubles, copes, albs, etc. were still in use in his time.)
When the Church of England established congregations in the American colonies, they too followed this more Puritan pattern. Clergy often would vest only in cassock, surplice, and tippet (black preaching scarf), if vesting at all.
In fact in the high church diocese in which I was ordained, at one point liturgical colored vestments were forbidden, so clergy would dye faded out tippets in the proper liturgical colors. In this way, they would technically be following the norm for vesting, but their scarfs would have a tint of the liturgical color that should have been used. (Anglocatholics are often defiant in that sort of way.)
Since the liturgical renewal in the 20th Century, we have recovered from the great loss of the overly Puritan influence on the church, and vestments, liturgical colors, and even imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday have been restored.
Generally, the Episcopal Church (as well as the Church of England and other liturgical denominations) have followed the same general seasonal pattern as the rest of Western Church, i.e. as is used in the Roman churches:
- White – for Christmastide, Eastertide, feasts of the Blessed Virgin and of Our Lord (though not feasts of his Passion), All Saints Day, feasts of angels and saints who were not martyrs, Maundy Thursday Eucharist, and at funerals (unless purple or black is used)
* Note 1: It’s generally acceptable to use silver or golden vestments on Easter and Christmas.
* Note 2: A small minority use light blue for some feasts of the Blessed Virgin.
* Note 3: Most Episcopal churches use white for funerals because the Christian funeral is essentially a celebration of Easter and the decedent’s now fuller participation in the Resurrection Life of Christ.
- Red – feast of Pentecost, Palm Sunday, Holy Cross Day, feasts of Our Lord’s Passion, and feasts of martyrs and apostles, and Good Friday (unless black is used).
*Note 1: Ideally, there are two sets of red vestments:
Festal Red – bright red (often embellished with gold) used at Pentecost (because of its similarity to the color of fire, as the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of tongues of fire at Pentecost)
Passion Red – deep oxblood red (often embellished with black) used in Passiontide (–red is used on Palm Sunday not to be celebratory but because it is the color of blood which our Lord shed)
- Purple/Violet – used in Advent and Lent, the two penitential seasons of the church; in some places at funerals; and on All Souls Day (unless black is used)
* Note 1: Some Episcopal and Anglican parishes use Deep Blue/Indigo (so called “Sarum Blue”) in Advent
* Note 2: Some Episcopal and Anglican parishes use the Lenten Array (unbleached linen embellished with deep red and black) rather than purple in Lent.
* Note 3: In some places, Rose is still used on the Third Sunday of Advent and Fourth Sunday of Lent.
- Green – used in the season after Epiphany (between the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord and the Last Sunday of Epiphany) and in the season after Pentecost (between the feasts of Corpus Christi and Christ the King)
* Note: In the Church of England and in some Reformed tradition, a short “Kingdomtide Season” has been introduced just before Advent, and on those Sundays they recommend Red vestments.
So there is plenty of variation, both historically and today. And, as for the color of Advent, it seems plenty split in the Episcopal Church between Indigo and Violet, but clearly neither is more Anglican or more Roman than the other, as both are rooted in the historical attempt to create black vestments.
For one, I hate those who say that their color scheme is right and others are wrong because they’re recovering the “Sarum Use” – none of those people (that I know of) have ever brought back yellow vestments. If you’re going to appeal to this argument, you better be fully implementing the more elaborate Sarum color scheme.