Purple for penance

When did purple become a color denoting penance instead of royalty? I know that purple was worn exclusively by royalty long, long ago, but when did it become a symbol of penance? Also, I recently found out that the purple for Lent and the purple for Advent are two different colors of purple. Why?

I can’t answer the first question, but the second part (different shades of purple) is a myth, or at best an informal practice done by some people. The documents of the Church simply specify, “Violet or purple is used in Advent and of Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead.”

Now, blue is a color associated with Mary, and red with blood and the Passion, so as I understand it there are some who prefer a bluer shade of purple during Advent because it leads up to the Nativity, and a redder shade of purple in Lent because it points toward the Passion and Easter. Again, this is just an invented distinction with no basis in actual rubrics.

Violet (or purple) is indeed the color of royalty, which tradition dates from the Roman Empire and before. I would posit that the use of violet (or purple) for penetential purposes stems from the purple cloak thrown over Jesus on His way to be crucified, along with a mocking “tribute” of “Hail, King of the Jews.”

As has already been noted by another, there is no rubrical distinction in the color used for Advent and Lent. This is but a post-conciliar phenomenon with no basis. In pre-conciliar times (and so, too, today in the EF) the same vestments were/are used for Advent and for Lent. There is no distinction.

The symbols of colors vary depending on culture. This is one area where inculturation is most applicable. Perhaps in some other cultures gold is a penitential color and black is a color of rejoicing and white is a color of mourning. I seem to recall in Slavic countries the color green being used for Pentecost.

I asked our priest why there were so many different colors of violet/purple. He told me that the violet color has always been difficult to match from one batch of dye to another. Originally the color was obtained fro a particular beetle shell, by crushing it. (they used hundreds of them for a batch). It was expensive to make and only the wealthy could afford it (hence royalty).
Not sure how true that story is but I like it.

“Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters*); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.” - Mark 15.16-20

Tyrian purple (Greek, πορφύρα, porphyra, Latin: purpura), also known as royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye, is a purple-red dye first produced by the ancient Phoenicians.

Although in contemporary English, we often use the words “purple” and “violet” interchangeably they are two distinct colors in “church speak.” The color that was reserved to royalty and the rich (because it was so expensive) is true purple, which is more of a “reddish” color.

What we usually call “purple”, at least in American English, is actually violet. I think perhaps the reason we do this is because we’ve been conditioned from an early age to do it this way–look at a box of crayons, or some grape flavored candy or soda, and we usually call that “purple.”

True purple was usually made from some kind of shellfish (chemically, it’s the iodine in them that makes them purple).

Biblically the color purple has a double-meaning. First of all, it’s the color associated with the rich (as I said, only they could afford it). But the other reason is also important. Recall that shellfish are not kosher because anything that comes from the water must have both fins and scales to be “clean” That’s why salmon is kosher, but trout is not. It’s also why shellfish are not kosher. Anyone wearing a purple dye was wearing something that both expressed wealth and at the same time expressed a violation of kosher laws. That means that if a pharissee wearing purple criticized someone else for breaking another law, he was being a hypocrite. There is one single exception to this, and that’s a purple dye made from a very particular shellfish–however, the actual species of shellfish has been unknown for centuries, and rabbinic scholars have been “debating” for centuries what it might be, because the original definition of the Hebrew word has been lost.

That’s a long way of saying that true purple denotes royalty/wealth while true violet denotes penance, but this distinction is lost in American English because the two words have merged in our contemporary language, and likewise our use of the colors has merged.

It’s true that shellfish (including mollusks, crustaceans, cephalopods, etc) are not kosher. Trout, however, is a fin-fish with gills and scales, and is actually of the same family as salmon. As far as I know, it is kosher.

Further, some by-products of shellfish (e.g. pearls, nacre, etc) are frequently used as jewelry and decoration by Middle Eastern Jews.

Can you explain the violet part again? Is it simply hypocrite=penance?

I’m not sure if it’s a matter of matching the dye, or if the color is used infrequently enough that people have very different ideas of what is meant by purple (and fewer choices to pick the right one). A school that I attended had purple as one of its colors, and it was often the case that one purple clashed with another, in jackets, band uniforms, choir robes, team jerseys, ribbons, etc. Some were almost navy blue, some were almost magenta, some were lavender.

OK. I’ll try. First of all, violet and purple are two different (but close) colors. We often confuse or switch the two words, but they’re not the same–even though we do use those words as if they were the same.

Violet isn’t purple, even though we often use that word in modern English. What we think of as purple is technically violet. I think this has to do with the simple fact that when we are “learning our colors” as children, we aren’t usually taught the word “violet” but instead the word “purple” We keep doing that as we grow up and we usually have no reason to make a distinction between violet and purple–unless we buy a can of paint or a new rug (and even then, most people would say “the label says ‘violet’ but I just call it ‘purple’”) We tend to use primary colors in our everyday language. A parallel example is that the traffic light is not yellow, it’s amber, but most of us don’t use the word amber in our everyday speech, and unless one works for the traffic department or in law enforcement, most of us don’t bother to make the distinction.

When we’re dealing with colors in an ecclesiastical context however, the names of colors are very specific. A prelate will wear scarlet or magenta depending on his rank in the Church, but most of us just say “red” and leave it at that. Unless you’re trying to tell the difference between a monsignor and a cardinal from a distance, or unless you’re an ecclesiastical taylor, we just don’t bother with being all that specific.

In official Church documents though, the exact words are used. That’s why the GIRM says that the color for Advent or Lent is “violet” even though we would call such vestments “purple” in our everyday language. There’s nothing wrong with using the word, I’m merely explaining that there is a difference between the two colors, and merely explaining why the official documents read “violet” rather than “purple.”

Purple itself–true purple, in Jerusalem 2000 years ago could only be made from certain shellfish, and those shellfish were not kosher. The hypocrite part is that the pharisees were wearing purple (or purple trim) while accusing others of breaking kosher laws (like healing on the sabbath). Perhaps an analogy would help. Let’s say that today you see a very strick Jew complaining to someone else that he’s not keeping kosher laws because he’s operating an elevator on the sabbath, but at the same time, the one doing the complaining is wearing a belt made out of pigskin. Does that help?

You’re right. I looked it up. Funny thing is that many many years ago, I recall someone saying that the local kosher deli never sold trout because it wasn’t kosher, and I’ve believed it ever since.

I’ve never thought about the pearls part…I’ll have to ask a rabbi if there’s any significance to them with regard to keeping kosher.

Yeah, that much I got. In all of your expounding on the topic (which, as in this case, I usually enjoy), I thought you also gave an explanation for why violet denotes penance or penitential seasons. No one has really explained that yet, and it doesn’t seem to be in the Catholic Encyclopedia or Wikipedia, two obvious choices to start with.

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