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 pink to a dark blue? Recently, having watched a television program 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 20 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 FOLLOWS.