Why does the Church Use Liturgical Colours?

Among the constellation of signs and symbolism present in the Church’s liturgy, we find colours, which also express supernatural values. However, has this been the case since the beginning of Christianity?

Newsroom (October 28, 2021, 9:50 AM, Gaudium Press) Man, according to St. Ignatius of Loyola, was created to praise, pay reverence to, and serve God, Our Lord. By interior reverence, he recognizes God’s sovereignty over his soul, and by praise and service, he manifests the feelings of subjection through sensitive signs through external worship.[1] In this sense, all the ceremonial surrounding the liturgical celebrations of Holy Church, whether the gestures, the words, the singing, or even the quality of the ornamental elements and liturgical objects, all express a profound adoration of God our Lord and reverence for the angels and saints.

Now, there is another very relevant aspect of the liturgy: the constellation of signs and symbols that are exteriorized in various ways. Among them, we find a variety of colours that highlight the importance of a feast or the characteristics of a liturgical season.[2]

However, was this the case from the beginning of the Church? How did liturgical colours come about?

The emergence of liturgical colours [3]

It should be noted that in the early centuries of Christianity, there was no determination as to specific colours for sacred garments. This can be seen in the frescoes and mosaics of catacombs and ancient basilicas, where artists produced their paintings by randomly choosing the colours on the vestments of the ministers. However, many documents from the 4th and 5th centuries refer to splendidly coloured vestments used for the altar service. In the fifth century, the so-called Cornutian Letter (471) attests to rich purple and gold cloths that adorned and embellished the ciborium of the basilicas. The colour white, present in linen clothes, was also used in Christian ceremonies, influenced by the Romans, who used this colour on feast days and in their religious ceremonies, because it symbolized ritual purity.

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The first traces of a relationship between a colour and a liturgical festival are contained in the Roman Ordo XXI, from the second half of the 8th century. This document states that on the feast of the Purification and on the day of the major litanies, the priest and deacon entered the sacred enclosure wearing black vestments.

During the Carolingian Empire, we can see a great deal of colour in the liturgical ornaments. For example, in this period, an Irish treatise describes the colours of chasubles to be used in the Holy Mass. They are gold (yellow), blue, white, green, brown, red, black and purple. In the 12th century, the Latin church in Jerusalem, built by the crusaders, had the following colours: for Lent, Purification and Advent: black vestments; Pentecost, Feast of the Holy Cross and St. Stephen: red; Easter: white; Ascension: blue; Christmas: red, yellow and white; and Epiphany: blue and yellow. The reason for such a varied quantity of colours represented the spiritual symbolism contained in each of them, thus demonstrating an analogy with each liturgical feast.

Finally, in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III was the first official commentator on the symbolism of liturgical colours. In his work De Sacro Altaris Mysterio, he develops this theme and lists five colours aggregated by the Church of Rome: white, red, green, black and purple (equivalent to black). They were later approved by Pope St. Pius V and prevail to this day.

Colour symbolism

Having analyzed the historical process of liturgical colours, let us now turn to their symbolic values and the proper occasions for their use within the liturgy.[4]

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White symbolizes joy, innocence, the glory of the Angels, the triumph of the Saints, the dignity and victory of the Savior. It is used on the feasts of Our Lord, in honour of the Blessed Virgin, and in general on all feasts of Saints who are not martyrs.

Red represents, by its vivacity and colour of blood, the ardour of charity. It has its place on the feasts of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Cross, the Passion, the Apostles and the Martyrs.

Green means hope. It is proper to the time after the Epiphany and Pentecost, as a mystical symbol of our earthly pilgrimage to Heaven, all pervaded by inner and outer struggles that every Catholic must face throughout his life.

Purple denotes penance, fasting, and the humiliation of one’s own faults. For this reason, it is used during Advent, Lent, Vigils, and in memory of the faithful departed.

Black represents mourning and the power of darkness that rises against the Most High. Its use extends only to Holy Saturday and the Office of the Dead.

The colour pink, employed on Laetare and Gaudete Sundays since the 13th century, is reminiscent of the papal blessing of the “golden rose”,[5] performed on the fourth Sunday of Lent. Despite this, in the Church of Rome, purple prevailed in the ornaments, with pink not being adopted until the end of the 16th century. Although it was allowed to be used, over time, in many places ornaments of this colour fell into disuse.

Finally, we have blue. The use of vestments of this colour was a privilege granted by the Holy See, in 1864, to the churches of Spain and Hispano-America, on the feast and octave of the Immaculate Conception. Blue is therefore associated by tradition with Our Lady, symbolizing her purity and virginity.

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By Guilherme Motta

[1] BATISTA REUS, João. Curso de liturgia. Rio de Janeiro: Vozes Publishing House, 1944, p. 17.

[2] LÓPEZ MARTÍN, Julián. La liturgia de la Iglesia. Madrid: BAC, 1966, p. 134.

[3] Cf. RIGHETTI, Mario. Historia de la Liturgia. Madrid: BAC, 2013, p. 1008-1012.

[4] Cf. MARIA GUBIANAS, Alfonso. Nociones elementares de liturgia. Barcelona: Claris, 1930, p. 330-333.

[5] The blessing of the “golden rose” began in 1049 with Pope Leo IX, in which a silver vase with golden roses was presented to him on the fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare), to be blessed and given as a decoration to the Catholic queens. The pope anointed the rose with the holy oil of Confirmation and incensed it so that it became a sacramental. Then, by analogy, the custom of wearing rose vestments on this day spread, as well as later, on the third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete), as a reminder, in the midst of penance and fasting, of the joys proper to Easter and Christmas. Cf. In: https://liturgiapapal.org/index.php/manual-de-liturgia/vestiduras-liturgics/colores-lit%C3%BArgicos/89-azul.html

Compiled by Zephania Gangl


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