by Rev. Monsignor John Walsh
Chapter XLI – Color of Vestments
What was the Original Color of Vestments?
In the oldest representations of ecclesiastics, to which we have access, their vestments were pure white ornamented with clavi (stripes); these were generally black, though St. Isidore refers to purple clavi. Previous to the tenth century, colored vestments are discernible in mosaics and fresco-paintings, but the combination of colors is so peculiar as to suggest a color-effect of artists to distinguish the various vestments from the background, and from each other. Benedict XIV, however, whilst affirming that vestments were white down to the beginning of the fourth century, also says that in that and succeeding centuries the practice developed of using a diversity of colors, as is demonstrated in monuments earlier than the seventh century.
Who First Mentions Colored Vestments?
Pope Innocent III in the thirteenth century.
How many Colors were in Vogue in his Day?
Four: White, red, black and green. Violet is omitted, but must have been introduced soon after, as Durandus (1280) makes special mention of it.
How many Colors are Prescribed Now?
Five: White, red, green, violet and black.
Are there any Supplementary Colors?
Rose-colored vestments are permitted on the third Sunday of Advent and the fourth of Lent, because then the prevailing penitential supplication of chant and prayer in the Liturgy is relaxed and a more joyous tone assumed.
Blue vestments by special Papal grant are allowed in the dioceses of Spain on the feast and during the octave of the Immaculate Conception, and on all Saturdays when a votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin is permitted. On all those days the use of the blue vestments is of obligation. In all other countries, they are absolutely forbidden, and to emphasize this prohibition, the decree granting the privilege to Spain is expunged from the recent edition of Decrees, not because the Spanish privilege is revoked, but to offset and frustrate the hope of obtaining a similar permission for any other local diocese.
Yellow vestments, as a rule, are forbidden whether of silk, brocade, wool or linen.
By a decree, however, of December 6, 1868, vestments of gold cloth are allowed and may be substituted for all other colors, except violet and black. This concession also applies to a yellow vestment partly woven of gold thread, but does not include the gold imitation.
What is the Prescribed Color of the Amice, Alb and Cincture?
White for the amice and alb. The cincture may conform to the color of the vestments.
What is the Obligation of the Rubric Relative to the Color of Vestments?
It is a precept of grave obligation. Rubricists agree, however, that prescinding scandal, there may exist circumstances where the rubric would not be compelling, as for example, the poverty of a church, and so great a demand made by officiating priests as to exhaust the appropriate colors.
What is the Symbolism of Vestment Colors?
White signifies purity and innocency of life— also glory and joy.
Red typifies fervor of spirit and charity, because the Holy Ghost descended upon the Apostles in fiery tongues—also blood shed for charity and faith.
Green bespeaks hope. As pilgrims and soldiers we walk through a weary life, struggling as we walk, and we should not faint on the way because we are sustained by Our Lord, who in person hath visited us, and by the grace of His Holy Spirit, and, therefore, like the living branch whose life is renewed, we should journey with an indestructible hope toward our true country. Because green holds a mid-place between white, black and red, it is used when there is neither special joyousness, nor penitential lowliness, nor the profound sorrow of death.
Violet symbolizes the crucifixion and chastening of the body, and is used when the dominant note is that of penance and fast, and to denote sorrow for sin and hope of pardon.
Black represents death which robs us of the light of life and consigns us to the darkness of the grave. Its use voices our grief at the death of our Redeemer on Good Friday, and of His creatures whilst they are detained in Purgatory.
When are these various Colors Used?
White from the Nativity to the octave of Epiphany and from Holy Saturday to the vigil of Pentecost, in the Office and Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, in the Mass of Holy Saturday, on all feasts of Our Blessed Lord, except Good Friday, of the Blessed Virgin, of the Angels, of the Nativity of John the Baptist, of Pontiffs, Confessors, Doctors, Virgins who are not martyrs, holy women who are neither virgins nor martyrs and on the feast of All Saints.
As exceptions to the general use of white, it is also the rubrical color on the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, at Rome, January 18, of the Chair of St. Peter at Antioch, January 22, St. Peter in Chains, August 1, Conversion of St. Paul, January 25, St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, December 27, although red is prescribed for the feast of St. John before the Latin Gate, May 6.
Red on feasts of the Holy Ghost, of Apostles, martyrs, male or female, the Beheading of John the Baptist, and on the day of the octave of the Holy Innocents.
Violet in Advent, from Septuagesima Sunday through Lent, until the Office of Holy Saturday before the Mass, and on the feast of the Holy Innocents, when it does not fall on Sunday.
Green on the Sundays from the octave of Epiphany to Septuagesima, and from the octave of Pentecost to Advent, when a feast of a higher rank of another color does not intervene.
Black on Good Friday, and in all the Offices and Masses for the dead.