By a law of her liturgy the Church directs that the vestments worn by her sacred ministers, and the drapery used in the decoration of the altar should correspond in color to that which is prescribed for the Office of the day. The colors thus sanctioned by the Church in connection with her public worship are called the liturgical colors. Here it will be enough to examine (1) their number; (2) the drapery and vestments affected by them; (3) their obligation; (4) their antiquity, and (5) their symbolism.
In the Roman Rite, since Pius V, colors are five in number, viz.: white, red, green, violet, and black. Rose color is employed only on Lætare and Gaudete Sundays. Blue is prescribed in some dioceses of Spain for the Mass of the Immaculate Conception.
White is the color proper to Trinity Sunday, the feasts of Our Lord, except those of His Passion, the feasts of the Blessed Virgin, angels, confessors, virgins and women, who are not martyrs, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the chief feast of St. John the Evangelist, the feast of the Chains and of the Chair of St. Peter, the Conversion of St. Paul, All Saints, to consecration of churches and altars, the anniversaries of the election and coronation of the pope and of the election and consecration of bishops; also for the octaves of these feasts and the Offices de tempore from Holy Saturday to the vigil of Pentecost; it is used for votive Masses when the feasts have white, and for the nuptial Mass; also in services in connection with the Blessed Sacrament, at the burial of children, in the administration of baptism, Holy Viaticum, and matrimony.
Red is used the week of Pentecost, on the feasts of Christ's Passion and His Precious Blood, the Finding and Elevation of the Cross, the feasts of Apostles and martyrs; and in votive Masses of these feasts. It is used on Holy Innocents if the feast occur on Sunday and always on its octave.
Green is employed in Offices de tempore from the octave of the Epiphany to Septuagesima, and from the octave of Pentecost to Advent, except on ember-days and vigils during that time, and on Sundays occurring within an octave.
Violet is used during Advent and from Septuagesima to Easter, on vigils that are fast days, and on ember-days, except the vigil of Pentecost and the ember-days during the octave of Pentecost. Violet is also used for Mass on rogation-days, for votive Masses of the Passion and of penitential character, at the blessing of candles and of holy water. The stole used in the administration of penance and of extreme unction and in the first part of the baptismal ceremonies must be violet.
Black is used in offices for the dead, and on Good Friday.
II. AFFECTED VESTMENTS
The drapery and vestments affected by the law of liturgical colors are (a) the antependium of the altar, and as a matter of appropriateness, the tabernacle veil; (b) the burse and chalice veil; (c) maniple, stole, chasuble, cope, and humeral veil; (d) maniple, stole, tunic, and dalmatic of the sacred ministers, and also the broad stole and folded chasuble when employed. All these must correspond with the rules prescribing the use of each color. The rubrical prescriptions regard the main or constitutive portion of each vestment, so that the borders or other ornamental accessories do not determine the quality of color. Neither does the lining, but the Roman practice is to have it in harmony with the vestment itself, yellow however being generally adopted instead of pure white.
The obligation of using any particular color begins with the First Vespers of the Office of which it is characteristic, or with the Matins if the Office has no First Vespers, and ceases as soon as the following Office begins. Vestments made of pure cloth of gold may be employed for red, white, and green colors (Decret. Authent., nn. 3145, 3646, ed. 1900); cloth of silver may be used instead of white. Multicolored vestments cannot be used except for the predominant color.
Benedict XIV (De Sacro Sacrificio Missæ I, VIII, n. 16) says that up to the fourth century white was the only liturgical color in use. Other colors were introduced soon afterwards. Innocent III (d. 1216) is among the first to emphasize a distinction. He mentions four principal colors, white, red, green, black (De Sac. Alt. Mys., I, lxv) as of general use, and one, viz. violet, as occasionally employed. This latter was regularly used from the thirteenth century. An "Ordo Romanus" of the fourteenth century enumerates five. Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries blue and yellow were common but they may not be used without very special authorization (Cong. of Rites, Sept., 1837).
Outside of Rome uniformity of observance was effected in the second quarter of the nineteenth century by the abrogation of other uses. In the Western Church only the Ambrosian Rite retains its peculiar colors. Most of the Oriental rites have no prescribed liturgical colors. The Greek Rite alone has a fixed usage but even among them it is not of strict obligation. The Ruthenians follow the Roman regulation since 1891. The variety of liturgical colors in the Church arose from the mystical meaning attached to them. Thus white, the symbol of light, typifies innocence and purity, joy and glory; red, the language of fire and blood, indicates burning charity and the martyrs' generous sacrifice; green, the hue of plants and trees, bespeaks the hope of life eternal; violet, the gloomy cast of the mortified, denotes affliction and melancholy; while black, the universal emblem of mourning, signifies the sorrow of death and the sombreness of the tomb.