Friday, July 23, 2010

Catholic Vestment Colors: Symbols of Our Beliefs

Color matters. There's a reason why you're not likely to find a lot of bright red and yellow in an investment company's advertisement - or deep greens and rich browns on the sign of a fast-food joint.

Or people wearing white armbands at a funeral. Actually, in some parts of the world: you might. What colors mean is at least partly a matter of culture.1

Here in the West, the Catholic Church's color for (most) funerals was black. Now, it's black or white. I mentioned that yesterday.

Catholic Vestment Colors Mean Something

There's a reason for the priest celebrating Mass in a different color on different days - and it's not because he got bored with green. All those colors mean something: white; red; green, violet, black, and (around here) rose.

I didn't mention blue. That's because this blog is about a Catholic's experiences and outlook in America. Blue is an important color for vestments in some places: but not in this part of the world.2 Not yet, anyway.

The symbolism of vestment colors in America is also what I could check on personally, without making a long-distance call. I'll get back to that.

The Catholic Church has a rich heritage of symbols - which I think could be discussed more often. But that's another topic. Here in the West, about a century back, these were what vestment colors meant:
  • White
    • Light
      • Innocence
      • Purity
      • Joy
      • Glory
  • Red
    • Fire and blood
      • Burning charity
      • Martyrs' generous sacrifice
  • Green
    • Plants and trees
      • Hope of life eternal
  • Violet
      Gloomy cast of the mortified
      • Affliction and melancholy
  • Black
    • Mourning
      • Sorrow of death
      • Sombreness of the tomb
    (Source: "Liturgical Colours," The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908), via New Advent)
About 50 years after that, this was the symbolism attached to the colors of vestments:
  • White
    • Purity of soul
    • Holiness
  • Red
    • The shedding of blood
    • Burning love
  • Green
    • Hope
  • Violet
    • Penance
    • Mourning
  • Rose
    • Joy in the midst of penance
  • Gold
    • Used on solemn occasions in place of white, red, or green vestments
    (Source: "Baltimore Catechism," Lesson 27, via
Less than an hour ago, I called a deacon whose knowledge of the Church I've learned to trust: and he tells me that the colors mean the same thing now.

American English has shifted a little during the last century, but that seems to be the most significant change in discussion of vestment colors mean.

Related post:
1 Posts about color, in another blog:2 Catholics live and worship in Spain, Portugal, Mexico, South America, the Philippines, and many other places: but the American experience is what I know about first-hand.


Aubrey said...

Black in the Bible means "death and unholiness"

Brian Gill said...


Okay. That's - interesting.

Black meaning "death and unholiness" doesn't seem a good fit with The Song of Songs 5:11, although maybe it's close to some implications of Zechariah 6:2.

I take the Bible seriously. Over the years, though, I've learned to be careful about 'Biblical' assertions:

"The Pope's 'Fundamental Priority,' and the 'Dark Side' of Bible Study"
(November 19, 2010)

"Studying the Bible: Carefully"
(November 16, 2010)

Not that curious claims are limited to folks starting from something near the Bible:

"What the Judeo-Christian Civilization, a Luxury Resort Named Atlantis, and an Albanian Grand Vizier have in Common - Sort of"
(July 12, 2011)

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.