Friday, 26 February 2016

Violet or Purple : 2

Often it is asserted by liturgical commentators and other internet experts, that there are "correct" colours for the vestments used during Lent and Advent. Curious as to the history of these colours in Liturgical use, in 2007 an article was researched and posted on this Blog, about the use of penitential colours for the Seasons of Advent and Lent. If you have wondered what colour the Church recommends for these Seasons, you might find the article illuminating, the second part of which is reproduced below :


In the twelfth century, Pope Innocent III was the first to specify the colours of the vestments that were to be used for the Roman Rite; almost certainly this reflected prevailing custom in Rome, not an invention on his part. Although a separate subject from this article, it is well to remember that it was only towards the end of the 1st Millenium that the question of vestment colour became a significant one. Black was designated for penitential and funeral liturgies, but violaceus was indicated as a substitute for black. Pope Innocent’s treatise De sacro altaris mysterio (Book I, chapter 65, which was written before his election as pope in 1198) seems to be the first indication that violaceus had come to be regarded as a penitential colour for the Roman Rite.

If the Royal Purple colour - which emerged in Late Antiquity Europe as a substitute for Tyrian Purple - incorporated what Innocent III refers to as violaceus how did it come to be regarded as a colour of Penance rather than Status? The answer to that is not clear. Extensive research is needed into how the word violaceus was used in Late Antiquity. We do know that the flowers we know as violets were known in antiquity and that the words viola and violarium described the flower, violaceus being an adjective derived from those nouns.

So, what colour is indicated by Innocent’s use of the word violaceus? Let’s consider that question differently: not what the colour was, but what process was used to produce the colour.

It is likely that at this time (12th century) Tyrian or Imperial purple was still being used in Rome, but it had become the colour used exclusively by the Pope and by nobility. So, when Innocent used the word violaceus (instead of purpura), it would seem very unlikely that he was recommending that violaceus-coloured vestments were to be dyed from the expensive process for producing Tyrian purple. That expensive process would be unaffordable and unavailable to Western clergy. Rather, it would seem likely that Innocent’s violaceus was intended as Royal purple, a colour produced from the less expensive non-Murex dyes. It should be carefully noted that these less expensive dyeing processes could produce a violet coloured dye or an amethyst (or fuchsia) purple coloured dye. But they were colours not so dark as Tyrian purple. I would suggest, therefore, that Innocent’s use of the word violaceus has nothing to do with an attempt to make a distinction (as some scholars have suggested) between the colours we recognise as violet and purple.

Whilst I suggest that it is an error to interpret Innocent’s violaceus as intending only the colour violet as we recognise it today, it should also be noted that his treatise in a separate section (Chapter 32) discusses the use of the Mosaic colours (cf Exodus 28:5), namely, scarlet, flax-gold, blue and purple, the latter which Innocent describes as signifying the authority and royal dignity of a bishop. In short, purpura still had the connotation of prestige in the time of Innocent III (quite distinct from a penitential use).

I would add that it is certain that Innocent’s violaceus was not the dark violet-blue colour indigo which is commonly understood today as liturgical violet. Indigo, an ancient colour, was a blue quite distinct from violet or amethyst purple. Furthermore, it was not a commonly-used colour in Europe until the 16th century, when it came to be imported from India (hence the name Indigo).

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the supply of the Murex shell to produce Tyrian purple dye disappeared. So, in 1464 Pope Paul II authorised an alternative method of production of purple dye, extracted from the cochineal insect. Some scholars have suggested that the purple of the cochineal was much closer in hue to what we call purple and led to our modern conception of purple being a mixture of red and blue. As we have seen, the “purple” Tyrian was dark crimson because of double-dyeing. Others have suggested that Paul II's colour was closer to what we know as the scarlet used by Cardinals. Further investigation of this is required.

Even after Paul II’s introduction of the new process for dyeing, the colours violet and purple continued to be interchanged indiscriminately throughout the Western church for penitential vestments and the robes of bishops up until the 19th century. The 17th century painting of the prelate Ottaviano Prati shows that his vesture is of violet rather than the fuchsia-purple that we are now familiar with.

From the 19th century, as the process of dyeing fabric became more refined, that shade which the Church designated “purple” became more specific. Even so (as mentioned in Part One of the article), it was not until 1933 that Rome specified the shade of purple that was to be used for the robes of its prelates.

A darker version of violet – closer to Indigo – became more common in Europe in the 19th century and soon crept into the usage of the Church. Rome resisted this innovation until after the Vatican Council, but we have seen Popes over the last 35 years wearing this Indigo-colour during Lent: a dark colour to reflect a penitential mood.

To conclude, a little summary. The word violaceus used in the ceremonial books of the Roman Rite indicates the colour purple (reddish hues) or violet (bluish hues): the Church does not define the shade violaceus as it applies to sacred vestments. But the Church does define the shade violaceus for the robes of its prelates. Both the reddish purple and the bluish “purple” are colours that have been traditionally used for sacred vestments in the Roman Rite since at least the 12th century. There is a well-established usage in the Church’s Traditions for (1) Tyrian purple, (2) violet and (3) amethyst purple (or fuchsia). But of all the shades of “violaceus” currently in use throughout the Roman Rite, Indigo or dark violet has the least claim to Tradition.

The ceremonial books of the Roman Rite make no distinction between the shade of violaceus for the vestments that are to be worn in Advent, Lent or for funerals. On the other hand, those books do not prohibit variations, which might enhance symbolism in a particular Season. In other words, the one shade of “violaceus” is not required to be used for Lent, Advent and for Funerals. In more recent years, for example, the Pope has worn indigo-violet in Lent and purple in Advent. In the United States, some liturgists advocate the opposite practice. In Australia, the colour of the violet flower is used in many dioceses for Advent. Since the Church gives latitude on these matters, we are on safe ground when we choose these shades for liturgical use. We are not on safe ground, however, when we insist that a particular shade is the colour that the Church intends. The history of the use of these colours reveals that they were used freely, without specific regulation, right up until our own times.

Some views of my own on these matters, and they are no more than that: views.

For the Ordinary form of the Roman Rite, when red vestments are required to be used for Palm Sunday and Good Friday, I would like to suggest that it is perfectly permissible and even desirable to use that blood red colour which the ancients referred to as Tyrian Purple. Dare I suggest that this purple is also the appropriate colour for Palm Sunday and Good Friday in the Usus Antiquior of the Roman Rite? I risk being accused of archaeologism, of course.

Then, there is the Season in the Usus Antiquior of the Roman Rite called “Septuagesima”. Is it desirable that the importance of the Season of Lent (from Ash Wednesday onward) be enhanced by the use of vestments of a different colour from the colour used in Septuagesima? We know this is the case in the Sarum and other uses, where a special “Lenten Array” of unbleached linen was used specifically for Lent.

I would like to acknowledge assistance from Inge Boesken Kanold and Dr Gerhard Steigerwald, scholars of the history of the colour purple, in the preparation of this article.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Purple Semi-conical Chasuble

For a returning customer in the Diocese of Sioux City (Iowa USA) the Saint Bede Studio has prepared a set of purple vestments in the semi-conical form.

These vestments were made from an English ecclesiastical brocade and lined in silver-coloured taffeta. The unusual decorative scheme is in silver and black. An orphrey of silver brocade is outlined with narrow galloons in black and silver.

Please click on the image for an enlarged view.

Enquiries :

Friday, 12 February 2016

Violet or Purple ?
The Colours of the Penitential Seasons : 1

Often it is asserted by liturgical commentators and other internet experts, that there are "correct" colours for the vestments used during Lent and Advent. Curious as to the history of these colours in Liturgical use, in 2007 an article was researched and posted on this Blog, about the use of penitential colours for the Seasons of Advent and Lent. If you have wondered what colour the Church recommends for these Seasons, you might find the article illuminating, the first part of which is reproduced below :


A subject that has interested me for many years is the question of the colour of the vestments set down to be used in Advent and Lent: purple. Why, I wondered, were there so many variables to be found in this colour amongst vestments, ranging from a pink/purple to a dark blue? In 2007,  having watched a television documentary about the production of the purple dye as the ancients knew it, I thought that it was worth researching how these colours came to be used for Church vestments. So, this article is the fruit of my research on the use of the liturgical colour violet/purple. Firstly, are the two words violet and purple simply different names for the same colour? Certainly not; Violet is a colour of the spectrum, whereas purple isn’t. In terms of colour definition, violet has definite overtones of blue whereas purple has overtones of red. In this article, a clear distinction is intended to be made when the words "purple" and "violet" are used.

Catholic Prelates (bishops and monsignori) wear vesture of a colour designated by the Church violaceus. In the English-speaking world, we call it Roman Purple; strictly speaking, in terms of colour definitions, this colour is not purple but fuchsia or amethyst. The purple robes of the prelates are trimmed in a colour called amaranth red (crimson).

Is this Roman purple the colour that the Church intends for vestments in the Seasons of Lent and Advent and for Funeral Liturgies? Some say yes, some say no. The practice in Rome has varied over the last several hundred years.

The Liturgical Books of the Roman Rite (Extraordinary and Ordinary) - The Roman Missal, The Roman Pontifical, The Ceremonial of Bishops - all use the Latin word violaceus specifying the colour. The same word used to denote the colour of vestments is also used to denote the colour of the vesture of prelates. But the colour described by the word violaceus can be either “violet” or “purple” as we define those colours. There is another Latin word purpura (which strictly translates as “purple”), but this is hardly ever mentioned in the Liturgical books or the works of commentators.

In more recent centuries, Rome has understood the word violaceus as describing Roman Purple. Has it always been so? Not at all. Even as recently as the early 20th century it was common to find prelates (but outside of Rome) in violet rather than purple cassocks etc. This confusion was resolved when the Congregation for Sacred Ceremonial issued the decree De colore violaceo of 24th June 1933 defining the shade of violaceus to be used for the vesture of prelates and left a sample of fabric of that colour with the Secretary of the Congregation for Consistories in Rome as a reference point. I’d imagine it’s still about somewhere. Certainly since then we see a worldwide a greater uniformity in the colour of purple worn by prelates.

This ambiguity around the exact colour that the word violaceus denotes extends back into antiquity. But it should be noted that in Antiquity purpura not violaceus was the term used to describe the colour of purple garments.

Although the earliest archaeological evidence for the origins of purple dyes points to the Minoan civilization in Crete, about 1900 B.C., the ancient land of Canaan (its corresponding Greek name was Phoenicia, which means “land of the purple”) was the centre of the ancient purple dye industry. The city of Tyr in Phoenicia was especially famous for producing the dye; thus the name “Tyrian”. “Tyrian Purple” was produced from the mucus of the hypobranchial gland of various species of marine mollusks, notably the Murex. It is believed that it took some 12,000 shellfish to extract 1.5 grams of the pure dye! It can readily be seen why this labour-intensive process was so expensive.

Because the process for producing dye in this way was lost after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, there has been much speculation as to the precise colour the process actually produced. The answer is that, because of many variables in the process, it didn’t produce any one colour. Sometimes the colour was the same as the flower “violets”, sometimes very similar to fuchsia. But garments of Tyrian Purple were supposedly produced by double-dyeing the fabric, which gave a darker colour. Consequently, the colour produced in that process wasn’t “purple” as we understand purple: the Roman natural historian Pliny described it as the colour of clotted blood: a dark crimson or even maroon.

One of the attractions of Tyrian purple was that it was the only colour-fast dye known to the ancients. Furthermore, to the ancients, it wasn’t the just the colour that was important: it was also the prestige that accompanied having garments dyed by this expensive process, something only the wealthy could afford. Purple was a status symbol. In Ancient Rome its use was limited to Emperors, and to a lesser extent, senators, so Tyrian purple also became known as Imperial Purple.

In the late period of the Roman Empire (after the fall of the Western Empire), and after the conquest of Tyr by the Arabs in the 7th century, the Tyrian purple dye became less available in Europe, but still freely available in the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and until quite recently, producing Tyrian or Imperial purple through the dye of the Murex shellfish became a lost process. In the last 30 years, scholars have successfully re-constructed the process through field experiments.

Centuries before the fall of Constantinople, Europe had already adopted other dyeing processes that produced a colour sometimes known as Royal Purple; this was not the same colour as Tyrian purple, but varied, from being a shade a little richer than the colour of the flower violet, to the shade of the precious stone the amethyst. These shades of “purple” continued to be used in Europe into modern times. Other less expensive processes were also adopted to replicate the ancient Tyrian purple colour. We can claim with some certainty, therefore, that there has been a continuous tradition of the use of purple in Rome since ancient times. The last remnant of its use in Rome is the Pope’s winter mozetta (see adjacent picture): it is of a shade close to Tyrian purple, even though it is not dyed according to the ancient process.

Before the 20th century, whether the shade of violaceus was closer to violet or purple (the result of many variables) in any given garment was unlikely to have been considered of any consequence. The technological advances of the 19th century permitted dyes to be produced with a greater accuracy than hitherto. A darker version of violet – more like Indigo in the colour spectrum– came to be used for vestments, especially outside of Rome. Thus it was that a sharp difference between the two colours violet and purple emerged. At this time (and up until the post-Vatican II period), Rome continued to use a lighter shade (closer to amethyst-purple) for the vestments of penitential liturgies.

Part Two will follow ...

Saturday, 6 February 2016

What is the Purpose of Sacred Vestments?

Solemn Mass at the Abbey of Saint Madeleine,
Le Barroux.
If we were to accept the notion that a priest is the "president of the christian assembly" then what he wears to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy would be merely an expression of his personality or tastes. The notion of presider is an entirely modern (and an execrable) concept. A priest, bishop or Pope celebrates the Sacred Mysteries. In the East, the term used is to serve.

Because the celebrant is least of all a "presider", what he wears is not about his own preferences and personality. A priest should ask of himself :

Is what I am wearing worthy of my ministry standing between God and man to offer the Holy Sacrifice?

Will what I am wearing draw those who look upon me during Mass into a closer appreciation of the Sacred Mysteries, in other words, will it raise their hearts and minds to God?

Or will it act as a distraction to the Faithful attending Mass?

Monday, 1 February 2016

2017 Ordinands

This is a most important notice for those considering commissions vestments from the Studio for Priestly Ordination in 2017. Only a very few number of places are still available which will be given on a "first come, first served" basis.

If you are considering vestments, or know someone who is, now is the time to approach us, even if dates and details of designs are worked out down the track.

Enquiries :