QUAERITUR: liturgical purple

A reader sends:

I know you have made the explanation clear for the true liturgical color of "rose," but could you please give a brief lesson on the true liturgical color of "violet"? It seems when the seasons of Advent and Lent arrive, we see all different shades and hues of violet or purple.  How did the color of "Roman violet" evolve into "purple?"

Roman violet or "Roman purple" is violaceus

Part of our problem with understanding liturgical purple is the loose use of the term "purple".  "Purple" can be all sorts of different colors, ranging between the reddish and the bluish.  On the other hand violaceus or "Roman Purple" is in modern times considered to be a specific color on the reddish side close to the color of the gemstone amethyst.  But historically our colors varied.

Remember that dies for cloth were obtained from plants and sea animals.  The famous case of the ancient world is the fabulously expensive purple dye, "Tyrian purple", made from the murex, a sea critter who totes around a spiny seashell.  Muricidae are unfortunate enough to have a tiny gland producing a purple goo endowed with a marvelous staining quality.  The difficulty of finding the little creatures, which were best fished in the “dog days” when the “Dog Star” Sirius was high during the summer, and the sheer quantity needed to make enough dye to matter, made purple cloth very expensive indeed.  The best and most famous was from shores of Tyre. 

The word “purple” itself came in time to signify anything expensive or precious.  In Jerome’s Vulgate you can look up spoils of battle in 1 Maccabees 4:23 for a reference to purpura marina. The Roman senators were distinguished by a band of purple, called a laticlavium, on their toga praetexta.   Purple robes were eventually worn only by Emperors.  In the Church the reddish-orange color worn by cardinals is today still called in Italian “porpora sacra” for in earlier times they were a more purple hue.  Today, the Cardinal’s "sacred purple" is closer to scarlet.

I digress.  Back to the "amethyst" color of "Roman purple".  In ancient times the naturalist C. Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Eldar  +AD 79) speaks of amethyst as a tint, "amethystum inebriatur Tyrio" (cf.  9, 41, 65, § 139).

So, Roman purple is really a color, through what has been take to be "purple" has shifted through the centuries.  If memory serves the old Sacred Congregation for Rites defined a specific shade of violaceus, "Roman purple", with a sample of fabric as the standard or point of reference.

So our violaceus gets translated into the obvious "violet", which is a real and specific color as well as a loosely used term for a darker color, and also into "purple", which is also a loose term for a range of colors from the reddish to the bluish.  Some people prefer to say that purple is on the redder side and violet is on the bluer side.

This is how some folks want to say that during Lent we should use the reddish Roman purple, which true violaceus and during Advent we should use the bluish purple, or a shade so close to blue that it really is blue.

I think if you were going to be picky or a purist, a true liturgically psiloligical doryphore, we would want to be use "Roman purple".

In any event, just as in the case of Roman rose or rosacea the term violaceus is a precise color, but the term is loose.  Purple or violet has drifted around the spectrum over the centuries and we shouldn’t be overly picky.

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  1. Martin_B says:

    You can find a very good (at least in my opinion) article on this at http://saintbedestudio.blogspot.com/2007/11/liturgical-colour-violaceus-in-roman_17.html.

  2. Mark R says:

    Dare I mention the Anglicans’ use of blue during Advent? I believe it turned out that that was a made up seasonal color to increase the sale of vestments. (I think the actual Sarum liturgical color was black for Advent.)

  3. Thank you Martin B for citing my article: this subject is of particular interest to me.

    Michael S. [I looked at your posts. Very well done! Thanks for posting those colors, too.]

  4. Tom says:

    Has there ever been a color blind pope or MC?

  5. Thank you Father.

    Many Blessings!

  6. Mark Polo says:

    Our violet chasubles from De Ritis in Rome cover the whole gamut of colors — some are “Roman purple/amethyst”, while others are a very deep Indigo/Violet color — despite being all the same model. Fortunately, concelebrations in Lent or Advent are pretty rare for us, because it would look really unusual. (Actually De Ritis seems to have the same problem with green, where we have at least 4 distinct colors… At least all the reds and whites are the same.)

  7. Ann says:

    Some historians of cloth and clothing say that the “purple” gotten from the tiny molesks made a purple that was often so much on the red side that it was close to a deep purplish burgundy, and that the red hue is the first to fade, as any woman who dyes her hair can tell you, leaving a more purple tone in the fabric over time.

    Just a bit of trivia. :-)

    I love the liturgical colors, they give me goose bumps.

  8. Frank H says:

    At the NO Mass I attended this past Sunday, the priest was in violet/purple.

    Last night I happened to be looking in my Angelus Press 1962 Missal, and noticed that the prescribed color listed was…Violet! Not Rose as I had expected for Laetare Sunday. I looked back to the third Sunday of Advent, and it too called out Violet?!

    Are these in error? Surely the use of Rose on those two Sundays is not a Novus Ordo modification, is it?

  9. Jared says:

    Now my question is: why is purple/violet the penitential color?

  10. Rob F. says:

    Jared asked, “why is purple/violet the penitential color?”.

    As far as I know, there is no documents of any magisterial authority that answers the question “why” for any of the liturgical colors. So we are reduced to speculation.

    I have heard that violet has its origins as a replacement for black. Black cloth is relatively difficult to dye, and you always have the question, “is it really black, or just really really dark blue?”. Today of course we have the technology to make true black cloth, but in earlier times this may have been more difficult, and substitutes may have been sought, so that you would not have to throw out your expensive old black vestments when they started to fade.

    But of course, this just begs the question, why black for the color of penance?

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