Kamal Hourani is a first year student in the Religious Studies Program at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. He is also a participant of our Digital Disciples Program.
Facets of Orthodox Aesthetics
Khouria Krista West is a professional seamstress and has been running Krista West Vestments for over 18 years. Invited by Father Philip Zymaris, Professor of Liturgics at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Khouria Krista gave a lecture in the school’s Reading Room entitled: “Facets of Orthodox Aesthetics.” She discussed the theology of beauty in the church and the significance of liturgical textiles in services.
Weaving a slight tangent into the discussion, Khouria Krista wanted to communicate her strong disapproval of strict rubrics over liturgical vestment colors in the Church. She said that she hopes that on her tombstone is the statement: “There are not six liturgical colors.”
Most practicing Orthodox Christians will have noticed certain common traditions concerning color just after a year or two of seeing services. Blue is associated with feasts of the Theotokos. White is for the Resurrection. Red is for the Advent season and feasts of martyrs. Green is for Pentecost. Purple is for Lent. So on and so forth.
Contrary to popular belief, such cut and dry rules are not actually the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Khouria Krista goes into a few details about this in an article that can be found here.
She begins by noting that the oldest Typikon rubrics only appoint to certain seasons or feasts bright or dark colors. For example, Lent is a time where dark colors are meant to be used while the Paschal season is bright. There is no specification on one specific color.
This is not to say that the more common traditions concerning color are invalid or meaningless. The color blue is associated with human nature in church art, so wearing blue for feasts of the Theotokos would be a reference to her humanity, which is common to all of us. The angels who proclaimed the Resurrection wore white, and white is associated with purity and light; therefore, white has become the quintessential color of Pascha.
Breaking from tradition
Khouria Krista does not mean to bash on these traditions, but rather she wants to expose us to the rich variety of colors we can create and the vast number of traditions that exist throughout the world that do not conform to the standard expectations.
For example, many communities in America choose purple for Great Lent, but burgundy and black are also used throughout the Orthodox World.
In most Slavic churches, red is worn on the great Paschal Liturgy while the other churches would wear white.
These differences in practice should not bother us. Rather, they should open our eyes to the wealth of symbolism and beauty we possess in our church. Each color one clergymen may choose to wear captures a ray of light refracted from the vast whole of a feast. Red on Pascha reminds us of Christ’s spilled blood and the blood used by the Hebrews in the Passover to protect themselves from the Angel of Death. Black during Lent forces us to think about the stains of our souls while burgundy or purple mirror the scarlet robe (or purple robe, depending on which gospel narrative you are reading) put on Christ by the Roman soldiers during His torture.
A fuller expression of theology
To force ourselves into a system of universal color rubrics would be a deliberate rejection of the depth of our theology. If we embrace the full spectrum of colors we have at our disposal, these colored rays will come together to form a fuller ray of Christ’s light, which permeates our whole Christian experience.
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