No, not the movie or the book. While gazing at Sr. Emmanuel’s Lenten banner in chapel, I was struck by its purpleness. Knowing that purple is a color both of royalty and of penitence, I wondered if there was a connection. It is not immediately obvious.
Ancient royal purple was produced by the dye made from the gland of a tiny sea snail, the murex (See cloth at left.). Beginning in about 1500 BC, the citizens of Tyre and Sidon developed the dye through a long, difficult and expensive process requiring thousands of snails. Because of the expense, the use of Tyrian or imperial purple was restricted to kings, nobles, priests and magistrates. The color was rich, bright and colorfast, varying in hues from crimson to violet.
Cardinals in the Catholic church wore purple until 1464, when Pope Paul II changed the color to crimson, as Tyrian purple was no longer available. Bishops wore purple, but not of the imperial hue. In time a broader spectrum of colors became available. The Council of Trent in the 16th century standardized liturgical colors, assigning purple to Advent and Lent.
Liturgical clothing expresses the church’s life in Christ. White serves as symbol of the resurrected Christ. Red, of Christ’s love, the blood of the martyrs, and the fire of the Spirit. The darker, more somber color of purple connotes the church’s share in the kingship of Christ realized through Christ’s suffering and death. Our use of purple, then, is a sign both of penitence in these seasons of preparation, and of expectation of the coming of Christ, when all colors will be united into the white of resurrected glory.
Sr. Christa Kreinbrink, OSB