Happy New Year! Last Sunday a new cycle of the Christian year began with the first Sunday of Advent. It is always an exciting moment to begin this season of expectation for the Incarnation, marked by the themes of repentance and a sense of general frenzy found in the readings. “Hark! A herald voice is sounding!”. But Advent brings with itself also the yearly long-debated Anglican tradition of what color to use, this short read aims at giving a short history of the tradition of the use of the color blue for Advent in Anglican circles.
It is commonly thought that the use of specific liturgical colors began as early as the 3rd century with the establishment of Christianity in the West as a state religion. Originally, vestments began as an evolution of ancient Western or Oriental Roman garments, the color used to symbolize rank - for example, the very expensive violet dye known as Tyrian purple was traditionally worn by emperors and to this day it is associated to royalty, i.e. Queen Elizabeth II ordered purple hassocks for the Chapel Royal at St. James’ Palace.
Tyrian purple, which is a sort of reddish violet, is produced by crushing Mediterranean rock sea snails known as Murex. The process involved tens of thousands of these snails as well as substantial labor, as a result the dye was highly expensive.
|Emperor Justinian I clad in purple in San Vitale, Ravenna.|
Until the Council of Trent and the reforms of Saint Pope Pius V in the 16th century, most continental rites differed hugely in the complexities of having established liturgical colors for specific seasons. By the 13th century, most countries or regions had a local rite, for example the rite of Seville in Spain, which eventually merged into the Mozarabic rite, the Florentine rite in Italy, the Parisian or Lyon rites in France, etc. Even religious orders had their own liturgical rites, most notably the Carthusians or the Dominicans, whose rites still survive to this day.
For the season of Advent, the color violet was generally accepted in most places throughout the continent, beginning with the simplest of rites, the Roman one. The word used at the time to describe the color were either violaceo or indigo and that referred to a strand of purple that we would describe either as reddish violet or as blue - as most religious foundations actually would have used a type of blue (or even red) for this season, as any shade of purple would have been to expensive to make. Purple was in fact, in most cases, what we would have defined as either blue or red. In fact, until the Second Vatican Council, despite the regional variations, different strands of violet were used for the two different seasons of Advent and Lent, with one being more blue, and the other being more red.
|The Mass of Saint Gregory, Miguel Ximénez, c.1500.|
Each rite to this point had vague rules regarding the use of specific liturgical colors, which Pius V would eventually reduce to six: white/gold, red, violet, purple, green, black. Some rites prescribed certain colors, some others did but were quite lax about it, some rites required the use of the best set of vestments, no matter the color, some were a merge of all these traditions.
England also had its own pre-Reformation rites. There were several rites throughout the country, Sarum (Salisbury), Ebor (York), Durham, Lichfield, Westminster, being the most influential, and others. In the 19th century they were all erroneously recollected under the “Sarum Rite” denomination. In the English rites of the 16th century, liturgical colors were still not entirely defined, most foundations still favored the use of the best set as opposed to a specific color.
Much more than in other places in Europe, England was the location were the use of liturgical blue was most common. While the 19th century “institution” of the “Sarum Blue” is certainly not historically accurate, red was the color for Advent in the Sarum Rite, found in many English pre-Reformation inventories, blue was certainly the widespread color of use for Advent, where a unified use of a specific color was prescribed. Blue or shades of blue were used in the rites of Lichfield, Exeter and most notably, Westminster.
|The Mass of Saint Anthony Abbot, Master of the Osservanza, c.1420s.|
After the Reformation, in England, liturgical colors returned to their vague “use the best one” state but were only relegated to copes, and in extremely rare cases, altar cloths - but not until the Laudian reforms. However, with the 19th century ritualistic revival, there was a renewed interest in the uses and rites of Pre-Reformation England. Artists and architects began to redesign vestments and churches as they would have once been. One of the most renowned supporters of this revival was Percy Dearmer, an Anglican priest and social reformer, who wrote the Parson’s Handbook, one of the books that helped to define Anglican liturgy. As opposed to some of the ritualists who tried to bring a Roman Tridentine-like reawakening in the Church of England, Dearmer and others were happy as Anglicans and simply wanted to reinstate an English sense of aesthetics and a local sets of practises within the English Church. Like other liturgists at the time, he was a great supporter of the use of the color blue for Advent - and it is thanks to him if an Anglican tradition of using blue for Advent began. He writes:
Putting on one side the peculiar customs of modern Rome as out of the question for every man who has taken vows of obedience to the Prayer Book, let me point out why the so-called Sarum use is also undesirable, (1.) The Prayer Book does not refer us to the diocese of Salisbury of the fourteenth century, but to the England of the sixteenth. (2.) No one knows what the Sarum use as to colours was for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Ascensiontide, Whitsuntide, and Trinity Sunday; consequently the so-called Sarum uses are really one-half made up from the fancy of nineteenth-century ritualists. (3.) The common idea is that only those four colours which are casually mentioned in the Sarum books were used,—white, red, yellow, and (in some MSS.) black. But the inventories show that in Salisbury cathedral itself there were in 1222 vestments of Violette, Purpurea, de Serico Indico (of blue silk); in 1462 altar-cloths of purple, blue and black, white and blue, chasubles of purple and blue, altar-cloths and vestments of red and green; in 1536, three green copes and five chasubles, with tunicles, etc., of green; while the inventories, taken in the very year 2nd Edward VI., to which our Rubric refers us, give the vestments of the chantries in the cathedral as of ‘white, red, blue, green, black, purple, motley, of blue black and white combined, and “braunched of dyverse colours,” with white for Lent.’
|Advent Blue is in use in most high church parishes of North America.|
Given the historical proof of the use of the color blue in Advent, but also noticing with amusement that essentially, most of what was used originally as violet in the continent would have in fact been blue, it is fascinating that we Anglicans have been able to restore this beautiful practise. After all, all practises and uses started out of tradition and repetition, in every rite, in history. Ever since the Victorian Age, the use of liturgical blue for Advent has been spreading throughout the Communion, with notable examples of it being used being Westminster Abbey, various other chapels royal, York Minster and other cathedrals, several churches in North America, and even All Saints’ church in Rome, where it has been in use since 1897 - we recently purchased our latest addition, a Watts'&Co. communion set, in 2016. Today, in the Church of England, the color blue is an official color for the season of Advent. Purple: (which may vary from ‘Roman purple’ to violet, with blue as an alternative) is the colour for Advent.
|The High Altar at All Saints' church in Rome.|
Personally, I like it how this use is so characteristic of our tradition, and I do appreciate the differentiation between the two season, a penitential Advent would diminish the significance of Lent, also, it is the color of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the color blue speaks of expectation, the expectation of a Christ that is to come incarnate on Christmas Eve.