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Liturgical Colors: Sacred Flags of the Seasons
By Dr. Anthony Antolini
When I was a boy growing up in New York City I was an acolyte at the Church of the Incarnation at the corner of 35th Street and Madison Avenue. It was around the corner from where I lived so I spent quite a lot of time there – mostly listening to the organ and choir music but also captivated by the use of color not only in the stained glass windows but the altar hangings, vestments and choices of flowers for the altars.
My father was at the time in the fabric business and he indulged me by bringing home wide swatches of fabrics in solid colors so that I could cut them up and have a home altar on the living room mantle piece. Whatever color appeared in church my father would find swatches and bring them home to me for my home altar. When my parents told the rector what I was doing he was delighted. I was embarrassed. I was already headed toward my eventual career in music and I wasn’t particularly talented in the visual arts. But the rector saw my fascination with liturgical colors and soon lined me up for private tutoring for my confirmation. I didn’t realize till much later how rich these lessons were. It was all about color!
Liturgical colors have a rich and interesting history. This month’s column summarizes the colors of our liturgical seasons and how the system has changed in recent years. I am indebted to Bruce E. Ford, a columnist in the Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians and contributor to The Hymnal 1982 and The Hymnal 1982 Companion for some of the information included in this article. I’d also like to acknowledge a web site called pravmir.com as the source of fascinating information on the color-coding system in icons.
The liturgical colors we take for granted in the Episcopal Church have not always been there. In the nineteenth century the Ritualist Movement in England brought Anglicanism much closer to Roman Catholic practice than had been the case in previous centuries. Colored vestments and hangings were introduced as part of the Catholic Revival, all taken from Roman practice at the time. There were only five colors. Medieval English practice had failed to produce a standardized system because color sequences differed from diocese to diocese in England. Since the Middle Ages parish churches in England did not follow cathedral color sequences because of the cost involved. Many small churches could not afford the expense of many different sets of vestments and hangings. The only uniformity was the use of unbleached linen during Lent and deep red during Passiontide (a term that has been eliminated from the current liturgical calendar).
The current Roman Missal prescribes the use of red for Palm Sunday and Good Friday. On Palm Sunday this color is meant to underscore the dramatic irony of the crowd’s “Hosannas”. Those who waved palms at Jesus when he entered Jerusalem thought that he was to lead them in the overthrow of Roman rule. They were soon disappointed. Yet we, unlike them, recognize that the homage they paid to him was appropriate, because by his death and resurrection he was to overthrow the tyranny of sin and death. Red, according to the Roman Missal, is also used for Pentecost Sunday and days that commemorate saints and martyrs.
As Fr. Peter recently announced, St. John’s has recently acquired a set of blue vestments for Advent. (Those wishing to view the new vestments may see them in the vestry to the left of the altar, hanging on the wall at the present time. Contributions toward the cost of these vestments are appreciated.) Blue is becoming increasingly popular as a liturgical color to distinguish Advent from Lent. Although both seasons are times of repentance and reflection they are different. Advent is concerned with preparation for the birth of the Messiah while Lent is a season that focuses on fasting or resistance of evil and the anticipation of baptism and Easter as a time of rejoicing. The use of blue in Advent is not followed in the Roman Catholic Church but is frequently used in Lutheran and other protestant denominations.
We are currently in what is called “ordinary time” in the church calendar. It is the longest season, stretching from the Sunday after Pentecost all the way to Advent. The color is green, a natural choice for the season outside (except in New England where orange might be a better color for fall, but orange is not in the liturgical palette.)
White is used for Christmas and Epiphany. It is also used, according Roman practice, for Maundy Thursday, the Easter season (the fifty days up until Pentecost), Baptism, Matrimony, and feast days such as the Nativity of St. John Baptist, the Conversion of St. Paul, Ordination, All Angels, All Saints and The Blessed Virgin Mary.
Violet is used throughout Lent and in many churches for Advent as well.
In a few churches pink or rose is used for the third Sunday of Advent (known as “Gaudete Sunday”) and the fourth Sunday of Advent (known as “Laetare Sunday”). A more common practice is to have a pink candle in the Advent candelabra for the fourth Sunday in Advent.
In the church where I grew up there were black stoles for funerals. And before 1969 in Roman Catholic churches black stoles were worn on Good Friday.
The Greek Orthodox Church is less standardized. Service books specify only “light” or “dark” vestments according to the season. Usually maroon or burgundy vestments are worn for solemn feast days and gold or white vestments are worn for other services.
In the Slavic churches (Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian) the liturgical colors are somewhat closer to the Roman Catholic scheme except that gold is the default color when no other one is specified. Light blue is used for feasts of the Virgin Mary or of the angels. Purple is used during Lent, red for Maundy Thursday, feasts of martyrs, and the “Nativity Fast” (equivalent to Advent). Green is used for Palm Sunday, Pentecost and commemoration of monastic saints. Black is used for Holy Week, and white is used for Easter, Christmas, Theophany (equivalent of Epiphany) and funerals.
In the Episcopal Church a handy way to keep track of liturgical color is to buy a Kalendar. (This unusual spelling is not a typo but a traditional spelling to denote a liturgical calendar as opposed to a secular calendar.) The colors of the days on the Kalendar show unmistakably the system described above. Here’s a preview of the colors for the rest of 2017. Where nothing is specified assume that the color is green from now till Advent, except for saints’ days, which are always red.
August 6: Feast of the Transfiguration: white
August 15: Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary: white (in Orthodoxy this is called The Feast of the Dormition. It commemorates the death or “falling asleep” of the Mother of God.)
September 14: Feast of the Holy Cross: red
September 29: Feast of St. Michael and All Angels: white
November 1: All Saints: white
November 2: All Souls: purple, black or white
November 23: Thanksgiving Day: white
November 26: Christ the King: white
Where did this color system come from originally and why is so much of it the same from denomination to denomination? It all started with icons. The earliest icon writers were the Byzantines. (Note: one “writes” an icon rather than painting it because it tells a story.) Colors were never mixed but always pure. In Byzantium colors were considered to have the same substance as words. Icons were especially important to instruct illiterate worshipers about the faith. A picture literally held the power of a thousand words or more. Here’s a brief guide to what colors mean in icons:
Gold: The brilliance of gold in mosaics and icons made it possible to feel the radiant light of God and the splendor of the celestial kingdom where there is never any night. Gold symbolized the divine nature of God. Halos are always gold.
Purple or crimson: Purple, or crimson, was a color very important in Byzantine culture. This is the color of the Celestial King and the Byzantine emperor. Only the Byzantine emperor could sign edicts in purple ink and sit in glory upon a purple throne, and it was only he who wore purple clothing and boots – for all others it was strictly forbidden. The leather or wood bindings of the Gospel in churches were sometimes covered with purple cloth. This color is present in icons on the clothing of Mary, the Mother of God – the Celestial Queen.
Red: Red is one of the most frequently used colors in icons. This is the color of heat, passion, love, life and life-giving energy, and for this very reason red became the symbol of the resurrection – the victory of life over death. But at the same time it is the color of blood and torments, and the color of Christ’s sacrifice. Martyrs are depicted in red clothing on icons. In red celestial fire blaze the wings of the Seraphim – angels stationed adjacent to God’s throne. Sometimes icons were painted with a red background as a symbol of the celebration of eternal life.
White: White is the symbol of the heavenly realm and God’s divine light. This is the color of cleanliness, holiness and simplicity. On icons and frescoes, saints and righteous people are usually depicted clothed in white as righteous ones – people who were good, honest, and lived by “the Truth.” In the same manner, white was used in the swaddling bands of babies, the shrouds of the dead and the robes of angels. Only righteous souls were depicted as wearing white.
Blue: Blue indicates the infiniteness of the sky and is the symbol of another everlasting world. Dark blue was considered the color of the Mother of God who combines in her self both the terrestrial and celestial. The backgrounds of mural paintings in many Byzantine churches dedicated to the Mother of God are filled with a celestial dark blue.
Green: Green is the color of natural, living things. It is the color of grass and leaves, youth, flowering, hope, and eternal renovation. Ancient iconographers often painted the earth green to denote where life began – such as in scenes of the Annunciation and the Nativity.
Brown: Brown is the color of the bare earth, dust, and all that is transient and perishable. Used in combination with the royal purple clothing of the Mother of God, this color reminds one of her human nature, which was subject to death.
Black: Black is the color of evil and death. In iconography, caves were painted with the color black as a symbol of humankind’s grave and the gaping infernal abyss. In some subjects this was also the color of mystery. For example, against a black background, which indicated the incomprehensible depth of the universe, icon painters depicted Cosmos – an old man with a crown – in the icon of the Pentecost or Descent of Holy Spirit. The black robes of monks, who have left the path of worldly life, are a symbol of their eschewing the pleasures and habits they formerly kept, and dying a death toward this way of life.
Color never seen in icons: A color that is never used in iconography is gray. When mixing black and white together, iniquity and righteousness, it becomes the color of vagueness, the color of the void and nonexistence. Such a color would be confusing and has no place in a symbol system that relies on unmistakable meanings.
Whether icons or liturgical colors are part of our faith journey I think it’s safe to say that flowers are nature’s icons that inspire us whether they are the product of laborious gardening or wild creations that spring up to delight us. Let us rejoice in the colors that surround us and remind us of God’s greatness!
I close this month’s column with some lines from a favorite poem, “Rejoice in the Lamb,” by Christopher Smart. It was movingly set to music in the cantata of the same name by English composer, Benjamin Britten.
For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers have their angels,
Even the words of God's creation.
For the flower glorifies God
And the root parries the adversary.
For there is a language of flowers.
For the flowers are peculiarly
The poetry of Christ.