Why Everything You Thought You Knew about Color is Wrong

April 13, 2008 Length: 24:57

Kh. Krista discusses the use of color in vestments.





Hello and welcome to The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop. Today I’d like to talk about one of the most important and, paradoxically, least important, topics regarding vestments: color.

I recently received a phone call from a priest’s wife who was putting together a kindergarten Church School curriculum about vestments. She asked about the various meanings of the colors we use in vestments within the Church and then asked me for a list of what colors are worn for which days. She had seen something similar in a Roman Catholic church school curriculum and wanted the same in hers.

Oh, boy, I thought, how am I going to explain this one?  Color within the Church is one of the most difficult things to explain about Orthodox vestments. And to kindergarteners? I suggested she encourage the children to notice the colors during each service they attend and gave her some general ways color are used. However, I think we both finished the conversation with some amount of dissatisfaction: she, that there was no easy way to explain the use of color to the children, and myself, that I couldn’t give a brief explanation of how color works in the Church. This phone call has been on my mind since then and now that we have finished the fifth week of Lent and are poised at the crossroads of one of the most interesting periods of color usage in the year, Holy Week and Pascha, I thought it’s time to give a more lengthy explanation.

Color is one of the places within the Orthodox Church that I see the great divide between Eastern and Western ways of thinking and of approaching the world. In my limited experience, it seems that the Eastern mind has a quality of flexibility, especially when approaching the mystical or spiritual. It seems to find comfort in the mysterious or unexplained. You could almost say that the Eastern mind likes mystery—when it approaches a new concept or idea, it’s tendency is to think and ponder on it. Conversely, the Western mind is more analytical and structured. It likes to categorize, organize, and arrange. When confronted with something new, it’s response is often one of “Well, let’s get this cut down to size.”

Now, I’m not saying that one mindset is better than the other—after all, I drive an old reliable Volvo and I bless the Swedish mechanical mind on a daily basis, but it’s helpful to understand the mindset of the early Church when we began to discuss colors because how we use color in the Church is a very important continuation of that early Christian mindset.

There are three basic general principles regarding color within the Orthodox Church. Notice that I’m not even going to call them “rules”. Let’s look at them:

General Principle #1: Bright and Dark

In the rubrics or “rules” regarding liturgy and worship within the Church, the only “rule” given about what vestments are to be worn on which days is “bright” or “dark”.  For example, the Holy Friday Orthos of the Twelve Gospels is going to read “dark” while Agape Vespers is going to read “bright”. Wow, you say, those are two really big categories! Yes, they are, and that’s exactly my point: in the Church, we’re given a great big category—bright or dark—and then we choose within that category. Dark can mean red, burgundy, black, deep purple, or could even mean really dark blue or dark green. The quality needed in the vestments when the day is a “dark” day is that it is simply dark-colored.

“Bright” is a wonderful category and once I began to understand the difference between “bright” and “white”, my world as an ecclesiastical tailor magically opened up. I remember seeing a glorious Venetian brocade in which the central color was gold and the secondary colors were burgundy, red, green, and pink (yep, pink!) and thinking, “Wow, this is ‘bright’”. “Bright” can mean white, white with silver, gold with white, gold with gold, gold with other colors, green, blue, lavender, coral—just about any color that could be described as bright.  This is why a very light-colored white and gold set of vestments is liturgically the “same” as a deep gold brocade set lined in burgundy. In my own experience, I’m seeing a decided shift towards gold mixed with burgundy in place of gold mixed with white. I think the reason is two-fold: first, gold combined with burgundy is very richly elegant-looking, due in part to its use of contrast—deep burgundy or red accents make the gold look more “golden” and deeper-toned and second, gold and burgundy show less stains over time than gold and white.

Additionally, gold and burgundy is a more historical color combination than gold and white. If you look at icons, you will frequently find gold and burgundy, but gold and white much more rarely. White was associated with unbleached or undyed fabric and was reserved mostly for undergarments or the poor. It’s helpful to think of gold and burgundy as the “neutral” or backdrop colors of the church—this is why burgundy velvet is used so commonly in everything from altar cloths to curtains to epitaphioi (the embroidered icon of the burial shroud of Christ).

What these two categories of bright and dark provide is contrast. This is the important concept and from the viewpoint of the early Christian mind, would be much more symbolic than “burgundy is worn on this day, and blue on this day, and red on this day, etc.”. If you were at Palm Sunday Liturgy and the priest worn bright-colored vestments, and then you came to Bridegroom Matins on Monday and saw the priest wearing dark purple, you would first notice the contrast, not the individual colors. (Pause) My youngest daughter can be rather active in church, and we have a code word for when a particularly meditative part of the Liturgy is coming up, like the Prayer before Communion. I whisper, “serious part”, which means “Now is a time to be really quiet.” Dark vestments are kind of like the Church saying “serious part” to all of us—the contrast, not the individual color, is the form of practical theology. We’re in a more contemplative, more repentant service and we need to listen up and pay attention and the change from bright to dark is a simple visual cue. We do not need to get hung up on “Hmmm, why is Father wearing that shade of purple? Is that dark enough for ‘dark’? ” We need to look upon this change with the early Christian mind, content to enjoy the mystery and appreciate the contrast.

There’s another part of using the bright and dark rubrics that I particularly like. Years ago, before I understood this concept, a new priest would come to me and ask to see gold, purple, red, blue, green, and white swatches. Occasionally, when I would talk with the priest, I would cringe when I heard the panic in his voice as he asked: “I’ve got to have all of these colors as soon as possible, don’t I?”. At that point, I would usually recommend a gold set and a purple set and then suggest he add the other colors as he was able.  I was never completely happy with this arrangement, because the practical tailor in me was very unhappy about him wearing his gold set 46 weeks a year and then his purple set 6 weeks a year, there by wearing out the gold set about 7 times faster than the purple. But, now, I usually recommend that he look at a bright set and a dark set. Oftentimes, the dark set can be burgundy rather than purple, which means he can wear it on the “dark” days that are sprinkled throughout the liturgical year. Following this tradition, the two sets will wear more evenly and he can then add other colors as he chooses.  I find this another example of the Church’s wisdom in using bright and dark.

General principle #2

The second principle when approaching vestment color is what I like to think about as the “community” of color. St. Macrina says, “Creation openly proclaims its Maker; the very heavens, as the prophet says, are telling the glory of God with silent voices.” We need to remind ourselves of the created world when we approach color within the Church and recognize that color is not neat and tidy in the natural world. Think of a mountain stream or a beautiful garden—what a riot of colors! And how they proclaim the glory of God! A few years ago, I tried my hand at oil painting—and while I’m a complete failure at it, I did learn one really important lesson. When I set up a still life, my instructor would make me really look at all of the colors that were in the composition. Now, I consider myself a very color-aware person, but I was amazed to notice all of the myriad shades and tones that one red apple could present. All shades of red, some green, some yellow, some white, some grays and browns. All were there and could be seen with the naked eye. There was a whole community of color, working together to present a thing of depth, complexity, and beauty.

In America, I find that our general, societal infatuation with the individual has certainly affected our use of colors in the Church. I occasionally have clients request an all-gold brocade—no white or burgundy, they will say, it has to be only gold. It’s a challenge for me since all-gold brocades, like any mono-chromatic thing, tend to fall flat. They look very two-dimensional, almost a caricature. Individual, single colors are just that—individual and single. They don’t have any contrast, there’s no community. But when two or three or four colors are combined, there’s an inter-dependence, a harmony, a depth, a true community that reflects the beauty of the natural world.

General Principle #3

I like to think of principle #3 as “Big T” tradition and little t tradition. The rubrics specifying bright and dark are Big T tradition—we don’t get to change those.

However, little “t” tradition provides us with all sorts of interesting color traditions throughout the world. One of my all-time favorites is Palm Sunday on the Isle of Patmos—they wear green. Green for the palms—it really makes sense and looks beautiful, and does a particularly great job of providing contrast from the dark colors of Lenten services. It also underscores how Palm Sunday is “outside” of Lent.

And this custom on the Isle of Patmos is literally one of hundreds of local traditions regarding color. What color is worn for which day can vary from city to city, diocese to diocese, nation to nation. The Gerontissa of our local women’s monastery recently told me that when she was a young nun in Greece, her monastery always worn green for their patronal feast day—seeing green as the very best color to wear for their special day. Now, this could have been a tradition handed down generation to generation, but it also could have been because their best set of vestments were green and it was expected that you would wear your very best on your patronal feast day. In addition to bright and dark, we have the concept within the Church that we wear our best for the best. If a priest’s best vestments are gold, then he would wear them for Pascha, not a tired-looking white set just because it was white.

That’s not to say their aren’t associations with certain colors. For example, many use blue for feasts of the Theotokos. I’ve had this explained to me as a borrowing from Western tradition, but based upon my own research into Byzantine art and iconography, I’m not content with that reasoning. The Byzantines associated blue with heaven and it seems to make perfect sense to me that “she whose womb is more spacious than the heavens” would be linked with the heavenly color. Also, in much iconography, the Theotokos is portrayed wearing a blue tunic under her red cloak and this blue can be symbolic of humanity.

Red is a fascinating color within the Church as it can be both bright and dark. Red can range from pale coral to deep burgundy and it’s almost as if you have to decide whether a red brocade is bright or dark on a case-by-case basis. Because of this, red tends to be “outside” the regular bright and dark rubrics and this is emphasized in an interesting way: In both Moscow and the monasteries on Mt. Athos, red is worn for the Resurrectional Service of Holy Pascha, but at no other time in Paschaltide. Liturgically, the time from the garden of Gethsemane to the Resurrection is one day and the use of red underscores this—red is associated with both the cross and the Resurrection, tying together by use of one color the entirety of the Paschal mysteries. It’s the “rule-breaker” color because it transcends the rules, just as Christ transcended the laws of nature through His death on the cross and glorious Resurrection.

And right here is a good time to set the record straight about white: it’s a very Western concept that white symbolizes God. It’s understandable since we identify white with purity and holiness. However, in the Byzantine world, gold was the color used to symbolize the incarnation and divinity—have you ever seen an icon with a white background? Probably not, because they’re often gold. Gold was a type of code word for “Incarnation of divinity”—another visual cue to make us sit up and pay attention. The Byzantines recognized that white is the absence of color and as such, was not the most fitting representation of the presence of the God who is everywhere present, filling all things. Gold, on the other hand, had many associations, all good—it is beautiful, it represents richness and wealth and when used liturgically, this wealth is a spiritual and mystical wealth, rather than a temporal one.

Once we are aware of these general principles—bright and dark, the community of color, and Big T and little t tradition, it’s imperative that we add a little history to our knowledge:

An integral part of history to understand is the role of natural and synthetic dyes in our 2,000 year-old tradition of color within liturgical garments. I cannot emphasis strongly enough how synthetic dyes coming onto the historical stage have influenced, and in my mind, negatively influenced, our current approach to color within the Orthodox Church. For those of you who have spoken with me about color or attended one of my lectures, you know that the topic of natural and synthetic dyes is my beloved soapbox. So, let me step on up:

Up until about 1860—that is, not quite 150 years ago, or less than 10% of our entire history as the Orthodox Church, dyes came from natural sources like plants, fungi, mollusks or insects. Now, this doesn’t mean you went out into your yard, picked some plants or bugs and threw them in a pot with some fabric. Some dyeing processes can be that straightforward, but for most colors, dyeing was a science and an art, practiced by artisans who had learned under masters and put years of practice into their craft. Dyers could become quite wealthy, since colored garments were a luxury and often a sign of wealth. The darker the color, the more expensive the cloth because more dyestuffs were needed. While many dyes were available commonly in many ancient cities, some dyes were only produced in specific locales. Some dyes were exclusive to nobility, such as Tyrian purple, which is a dye made from mollusks near Phoenicia. It was extremely expensive to produce and therefore only those of great wealth, usually nobility and sometimes only the Emperor, could afford it or were permitted to wear it. By 400 AD, one pound of cloth dyed with Tyrian purple, cost an estimated modern equivalent of $20,000. Just so you caught that—that’s one pound of cloth, barely enough to make a shirt. There was a “poor man’s purple” made by combining red-dyed fibers and blue-dyed fibers, but to our modern eye, we would call the color “burgundy”. I find it highly ironic that in our modern age, we associate what would have been one of the most fabulously expensive luxury items in the ancient world, that is, purple cloth, as the most Lenten and therefore, most repentant, of all the colors. In the ancient world, this would be akin to driving a 1980s Volvo all year long and switching to a Lamborghini for Lent.

What this meant practically, is that there was no great uniformity of color and people did not expect it. Someone might buy a bolt of burgundy cloth one year and then buy another bolt the next year, but they wouldn’t dream that the cloth would be the exactly the same color from year to year or even bolt to bolt. It rarely could—natural dyes require a whole host of influences working together, like humidity, pH, and mordants (these are the chemicals that affix dyes to cloth) to create a specific shade. Since there was no expectation that no two batches of cloth would be the same, there was certainly no expectation that vestments would be the same. So, “red” vestments could be apple red to rust red to wine-red to reddish-pink and everything in-between. Notice in the icons how often saints grouped together are all wearing unique vestments. If you saw clergy attired like this in your church, you might be tempted to say they didn’t “match”. But a world of natural dyes and great inconsistency in the colors of fabrics, would necessitate people’s expectations being very different. Again, there is an inherent flexibility with natural dyes and what one priest wore in one city might vary greatly from what another priest wore in another. But, in 1856, this all changed, technologically speaking, almost overnight. A young chemist was trying to find a source of cheap quinine to cure malaria and accidentally discovered what was then called a synthetic “mauve” dye (but which is different in color from what we call “mauve” today). Other synthetic dyes were invented in a rapid succession, and in the space of ten short years, almost completely wiped out the use of natural dyes. Who would want to go to the trouble of soaking cloth multiple times in stale urine (yes, that was a common mordant for natural dyes) and then praying for just the right weather and then spending weeks dyeing the cloth when you could put a little packet of dye in water and get consistent results every time? By the mid-1860s, William Morris, a Pre-Raphaelite painter and textile master, was championing natural dyes as being more complex and rich-looking than synthetic ones, and he was seen as a quaint throw-back. Synthetic dyes had taken hold and because they had taken hold so quickly, there was a collective societal loss of the remembrance of what natural dyed colors looked like.

Almost overnight, expectations about color were changed. Synthetic dyes were fairly consistent, so you could have the same color from year to year. While synthetic colors are definitely more strident and harsh than the colors natural dyes produce, they were easy to create and any color was now available to any person, regardless of financial status. Color stopped being a luxury for the privileged few. This is certainly a boon of the modern age, but the down side is two-fold: first, colors can be harsh and un-natural—it’s impossible to dye a cloth construction-zone-yellow with natural dyes—and, second, colors became much more categorized. Where we used to have gold, we now have peach, amber, daffodil yellow, ale, ochre, wheat, saffron, etc. This means that some of the gold brocades available to me are what I tend to think of as “liturgical” gold, that is, a deep, rich gold with occasional tints of verdigris or ochre and others are of the schoolbus-yellow gold variety and truly horrific. They are strident and thin, lacking the beauty, calm, and depth of a really good color. We now have good and bad colors, where with natural dyes, all the colors were beautiful, because they were only the colors that could occur in Nature herself. This lead to having narrower and narrower groups of colors, leaving behind the inherent flexibility of natural dyes and heading into a new land of regimented color.

Add to this the fact that in the late 19th and early 20th century when many Orthodox Christians were immigrating to the US, the only US source for liturgical brocades were Roman Catholic and Episcopalian liturgical goods suppliers, and we’ve got a major disaster, aesthetically-speaking, on our hands. Roman Catholic and Episcopalian ordos specify actual color names, and so many brocades have to be only one color, or at best, two to meet their standards, such as gold/white, or blue/gold. It’s a Western, “we must have rules” approach to color. Where is an Eastern blue and gold and pink and green brocade to be found?

I occasionally have someone tell me with very firm conviction, that a particular color has “always” been worn in the Church. My standard response now is to say when someone says “always” about color in the Church, it’s probably wrong. For the last 150 years we may have worn that synthetically-dyed brocade produced by a supplier of Roman Catholic liturgical goods in this particular diocese, but that’s not “always”. When I was in Crete, I saw brocades with blues, pinks, corals, browns, all sorts of colors I had never seen in liturgical brocades before. Many were produced before synthetic dyes were invented and I was charmed by their natural loveliness.

So, what are we to do in our parishes today? Well, I strongly recommend re-embracing color, and that means “all” color. Get comfortable with gold/red/white or blue/green/gold brocades. I’m a great fan of three or more color brocades as they often can look more elegant and beautiful than their two-color cousins. This can still be quite a tall order, given the fact that many ecclesiastical tailors in the US, including myself, still have limited choices when it comes to brocade. But, there are an increasing number of multi-colored brocades coming on the market, particularly in the real metal category. So, it’s certainly not impossible to create very Eastern-looking vestments from Western supplies. The most important thing to ask yourself is “Is it beautiful?” If the gold looks harsh or tinny or thin, then reject it. If you’re not sure, then get out a book with photos of icons and compare the colors.

Start thinking of colors in terms of bright and dark, and not just by names like gold, white, or green. Notice the contrast when your priest changes vestments or the different color tradition in a neighboring parish. With Holy Week and Pascha coming up, this is an excellent time to observe how the colors change and complement the services of the Church.

Began to think of the world of Eastern Orthodox vestments and textile furnishings as being limitless, rather than limited.  Keep an open mind when it comes to color and be ready to be delighted.