Liturgical Colors in Leipzig

May 7th, 2012 Post by

Using color to mark times and seasons of the Church Year is nothing new to most of us. The idea of using liturgical colors seems so normal to us, that you can often find people with strong opinions about such matters, as:

  • Should Advent be violet or blue?
  • Should rose be the color for the weeks of Gaudete and Laetare, or is parading your Pastor around in pink something to be avoided like the plague?
  • Should weddings and funerals retain the seasonal color, or should we be flexible enough to use other colors on such occasions?

As we talk about how common it is to have colors associated with the times of the Church Year, we also find that these colors have meanings that are commonly associated with them. Violet is held to be a color of repentance, which makes it fitting for the penitential seasons. Purple and royal blue are seen as regal colors and thus are an appropriate color to use in confession of Our Lord’s coming as King during the Advent season. White, a color of purity (as in Isaiah 1:18 and Revelation 7:14,) has been connected to the Feast of the Holy Trinity and to the seasons and festivals that have some general relationship to Christ. Red, as the color of fire and blood, is often connected to Pentecost and the festivals of the holy martyrs.

These ideas are so common among us that I had simply come to take such things for granted. Doesn’t everybody look at the colors of the Church Year this way?

One day, my bubble was burst by a reference that I found in Guenther Stiller’s Johann Sebastian Bach and the Liturgical Life at Leipzig. (If you’re looking for descriptions of the liturgical practices of the late period of Lutheran Orthodoxy, this book is a gem. And — it is available for $25 + shipping from cph.org.) I was completely baffled by Stiller’s reports from the notes of the sexton at St. Thomas Church:

“On the eve of Reformation ‘the blue pulpit parament was hung,’ [and] on the Purification of Mary ‘the green pulpit parament was hung, and likewise the green paraments for altar and lectern’. Although ‘black paraments’ were used throughout Lent, the ‘bright hangings’ were put up on the eve of Palm Sunday, and ‘this decoration remained the whole day, even though the Passion is preached at Vespers’. Also on the eve of Maundy Thursday ‘bright colors were used,’ but after the noonday service on Maundy Thursday ‘the bright colors were removed and replaced by the black.’ Also regarding Easter Eve it is reported that ‘bright colors were used,’ and the remark concerning the First Sunday in Advent is interesting: ‘No black paraments are used, but the red and the green colors remain’…. On Maundy Thursday ‘the liturgist [Administrator] is robed in the green chasuble’. For Good Friday: ‘On this day the liturgist wears the black chasuble’. For Epiphany: ‘On this festival the dark chasuble [das Messgewand mit dem Mohr] is customarily used’. Also on Palm Sunday ‘the liturgist donned the green chasuble’” (Stiller, 65).

Reading through these notes, you find some liturgical colors being used in ways that are not familiar to us today. We might appreciate some of it: Black fits our understanding as a color of mourning – which would be appropriate for Lent and for Good Friday. The “bright colors” used on Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday/Easter Sunday are similar to our own use of white on those days. But – blue on Reformation Eve? (We would expect green or possibly red.) And – green on the Purification of Mary? (If observed, we would probably use white – for a festival that is connected to Christ.) And yet again, red or green for the First Sunday in Advent? What was going on?

Wait. There’s more. During Bach’s time in Leipzig, you would not merely have found an unfamiliar use of colors. Beyond this, you would also have noticed – that those Lutherans in Leipzig did not always feel the need to make their colors match! It says above that the “bright hangings” on Palm Sunday, which were also used on Maundy Thursday (till mid-day, when they were exchanged for black paraments,) were paired (throughout both days) with a liturgist who consistently wore “the green chasuble”.

To our twenty-first century eyes and ears, these things might all seem quite unusual. So, what should we say about all of these things?

First, we have to say a word for the sake of the adiaphorists out there who are always scandalized by attention to liturgical details. We do not believe that our Lutheran churches are reconciled to God based on their choice of fabric colors. We do not claim to merit God’s grace, favor, forgiveness of sins, or salvation, etc., by choosing the correct color scheme – however pleasant (or sore upon the eyes) that might be. For this, the color that matters most is the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, which cleanses us from all sin.

Next, we point to the Augsburg Confession and the Apology, where we remember both our Christian liberty with regard to such churchly customs (Augsburg Confession XXVI:43-45) as well as our commitment to fostering harmony with such ancient customs “as can be observed without sin or without great inconvenience” (Apology XV:49-52). Where we might preserve the traditional liturgical forms (Apology XXIV:1), it is good for us to do so – for the sake of preserving order in the church (Augsburg Confession XXVI:40).

How is this to be applied to our use of colors in the Church Year today? For the First Sunday in Advent, should we give up both purple and blue – in exchange for the Leipzig custom of putting up red paraments and wearing green chasubles? As we consider this, we might also find it good to be guided by the wisdom of a quotation, cited approvingly in our Augsburg Confession (XXVI:45):

“And in the Tripartite History, Book 9, many examples of dissimilar rites are gathered, and the following statement is made: It was not the mind of the Apostles to enact rules concerning holy-days, but to preach godliness and a holy life [to teach faith and love].”


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  1. Carl Vehse
    May 7th, 2012 at 09:48 | #1

    “First, we have to say a word for the sake of the adiaphorists out there who are always scandalized by attention to liturgical details.”

    Don’t forget to distinguish such “scandalized” adiaphorists from the far more common adiaphorists who rather see these references to the use of difference liturgical colors as confirmatory example of change in liturgical traditions that can be congruent with the edification of the Church.

  2. boaz
    May 7th, 2012 at 10:54 | #2

    The confessions are adiaphorist, and while some folks are scandalized by liturgical detail, others merely think its extremely difficult if not impossible for the church, as a church, to make rules for adiaphoric matters like colors ofparaments without binding consciences. If we can make rules merely by adding the proviso that the rule is for order and not necessary for salvation, then why don’t we have dress codes, tithing requirements, fasting rules, etc? Why can’t we as a church say no meat on fridays as longs we also say that following this rule is not necessary for salvation? Because we recognize consciences are delicate and will feel guilt over breaking such rules, and folks have enough to feel guilty about without adding rules about human tradition. I don’t feel guilt that my church has female acolytes, or that a other former church had a blended service, as much as I dislike those things and worked to end them. Not by arguing for a rule from tradition against them, or by being scandalized and taking offense, but by trying to show how they don’t teach doctrine as well as better practice and gaining agreement, which is true unity.

    This is just another example that practice varies, and has always varied. I do think its annoying as heck that churches in agreement to use traditional liturgies still can’t agree on colors or to use the historic lectionary, and haven’t rewritten ds1 and ds2 to say and with your spirit. If liturgical lutherans can’t agree on such simple, basic matters, how can we fault those whom we are asking to make even greater changes to their practice?

  3. Richard Lewer
    May 7th, 2012 at 10:57 | #3

    Or is the multiplication of liturgical colors an aid to the profits of companies producing paraments and stoles? Do “visiting” pastors have to expand their collection of stoles to keep in sync with the variations of congregational practice? Do our members understand the colors we are using now?

  4. John Rixe
    May 7th, 2012 at 11:40 | #4

    @boaz #2

    How about crossing yourself – right to left, or left to right?  Every vicar we get annually seems to do it different.   :-)

  5. Joanne
    May 7th, 2012 at 13:48 | #5

    Who controlled the church order in Leipzig in 1735? Probably a committee with the assignment of a noble from the Catholic Lords, overseeing the function of the Lutheran liturgical practices. It would be very interesting to find that the Catholic Lords of Leipzig and Dresden took any pains or serious concern about Lutheran order coordination. The pietist University at Halle, the love child of Calvinist Frederick of Brandenburg, and the new Enlightened University of Goettigen churning out pietists and enlightened pastors, were pushing very hard against Lutheran orthodoxy. What we have described here is one of the last of the centers of Lutheran Orthodoxy in Europe. This is not the best situation or time for seeking what the Orthodox Lutherans would consider their best practices. Or, paradoxically, maybe it is. Sometimes desuatude preserves Venice, if you get my drift.

    And, I might suggest that just because the traditional term used was “Green chasuble” it might have been gold just trimmed in Green to distinquish it from the 3 other gold chasubles. And there is very likely to have been more than one green chasuble, etc. Can you imagine how large the vestment collection must have been and where it would have been stored? And the liturgists wanting the long green chasuble instead of ‘the green one that is just too short for me.” Casual description by a simple color could mean anything, the chasuble with the Mohr, might just have an image of St. Maurice on it, with no indicaton of color of the chasuble as a whole.

    Unless these vestments have miraculously survived in a museum, I’ve been in the St. Thomas sacristei museum and I didn’t see any preserved vestments there, we’ll have to make very delicate interpretations of the written descriptions. And is this really a description of the vestments or just an ordering list where the brief discriptions would have had meaning only in that time at that place?

    I want this book and is there, are there museums/churches in Europe that have preserved the Lutheran vestments with good documentation? You Halle alumni out there are just plain German Methodists. Buzz off when the Orthodox Lutherans are talking about their history. And, have you seen my collection of internet pictures of Lutheran confessionals? Guaranteed to make a Halle graduate (pietist) foam at the mouth.

  6. Phil
    May 7th, 2012 at 20:14 | #6

    The Roman usage for Lent is violet, while the Sarum usage is unbleached cloth with black and red symbols (“lenten array”, http://medieval-church-art.blogspot.com/2009/03/lenten-array.html). Different rites have had characteristically different liturgical colors, which doesn’t mean that each parish was just doing whatever; it just means that each rite had its characteristic traditions that were more or less uniformly observed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the old Lutheran usages ultimately reached back before the Reformation to the North European liturgies, which were not so much Roman as fusions of Roman and Gallican / Mozarabic elements, and might well have been as different from Rome as Sarum was.

    Since Luther’s Formula Missae only said what to do differently, and didn’t prescribe every point of rite and rubric, I wouldn’t be surprised if many local traditions and variations continued to exist after the Reformation. To read back Tridentine Roman Catholicism, with its fixed near-universal liturgy and ritual, back into the pre-Reformation Holy Roman Empire (again, there wasn’t even a Germany!) is an anachronism. Unfortunately, many of the pre-Reformation German liturgical texts were lost during the Thirty Years’ War. Yet I don’t think we can immediately conclude that, because Lutheran vestments were different from present-day Roman usage that Lutherans took up, Lutherans were just doing whatever they felt like, wherever they were. I suspect it was more likely that whatever was mentioned in the Church Orders was observed, superseding certain medieval usages, and whatever else was mentioned was left alone to continue as local tradition until it gradually fell out of use under war, or Pietism, or Rationalism.

  7. Rich
    May 8th, 2012 at 12:26 | #7

    Since the focus is on color, how and why did the practice of altar flowers originate?

  8. May 8th, 2012 at 19:05 | #8

    I believe these practices regarding liturgical colors date from the period of liturgical decline at St. Thomas, so I’m not sure how indicative they are of orthodox Lutheran practice: “The deciding impulse toward the secularization of the liturgical practice came during Superintendent Johann George Rosenmueller’s term of office (1785-1815). . . In the notebook of the St. Thomas sexton after 1785 memoranda repeatedly turn up that have to do with changes in the liturgy. . . certain definite, intentional, individual decisions that on principle broke with the received liturgical tradition show clearly to what extend these numerous, clearly well-meant reforms actually released an ominous process of disintegration.” (Stiller pp. 158-159)

    If you have Stiller read–and weep!–pp. 158ff on the decimation of St. Thomas. It is astonishing how in just a few years this man undid centuries of fruitful labor by dozens of faithful clergy going back to the days of Luther and cantors going back to Bach. However, I have known of modern-day cases where once mighty congregations have been similarly decimated. There is one I know of that once had several fine choirs, handbell choirs, and still has a beautiful pipe organ, not to mention a gorgeous gothic sanctuary. Now the choirs have all folded and the organ sits silent, replaced by a quite poor “praise band.” And they wonder why attendance has plunged to only a fraction of what it was before all these “well-meant reforms.” Exactly like Rosenmueller the pastor says the problem is they haven’t gone far enough eliminating remaining vestiges of the old liturgical worship.

    If you read Stiller pp. 158ff the parallels to today are amazing.

  9. Pastor Charles McClean
    May 8th, 2012 at 22:41 | #9

    @Rev. Kevin Vogts #8 I find myself in agreement with Phil at #6. The color usages referenced in the Stiller book would seem to be indicative not of liturgical deterioration but of the diverse color usage of the medieval church as continued in Lutheranism. It was Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) who first referred to the use of red, white, green, and black; violet was soon added. In his Rationale Divinorum Officiorum William Durandus (1230-1296) explains the usage. (Lutheran Cyclopedia, 1955 ed., p. 241). But it was not until the Tridentine reforms of Pius V that uniformity in liturgical practice, including color usage, was established in the papal Church. I think it is unlikely that the Lutheran churches would then have followed suit! This usage was eventually adopted in Lutheranism; it seems to have happened during the 19th century confessional/liturgical revival. Unless my memory fails me, this color usage appears in Wilhelm Loehe’s Vom Schmuck der heiligen Orte. It does appear in Friedrich Lochner’s Der Hauptgottesdienst (CPH 1895, p. 283f). Citing an article from the Allgemeine Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirchenzeitung 1895, No. 50 (December 13), col. 1203, Dr. Piepkorn describes the chasubles found in the vestment-presses of Saint Thomas Church, Leipzig, in the 17th century – long before Bach’s day: for Advent, green velvet with our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem; for Christmas, the Circumcision, Epiphany, and the Purification of Mary – white damask with the Mother of God embroidered on it; for the Annunciation, white damask with a crucifix; for Palm Sunday, green with palms embroidered; for Maundy Thursday (“Gruendonnerstag”), green damask; for Good Friday, black velvet; for Easter, with crucifix embroidered in pearls; for Quasimodogeniti, Ascension Day, Whitsunday, red-brown velvet with the Trinity embroidered in pearls and gems; for Trinity, St. John Baptist, the Visitation, red velvet with the Virgin and Child. For the Sundays in Lent there was a choice of two chasubles, black and dark violet velvet. On other Sundays five were used in rotation: green damask, red figured velvet, dark red plain velvet, red satin, violet-brown velvet (AC Piepkorn, The Survival of the Historic Vestments in the Lutheran Church, pp.42f). In Piepkorn’s study of the vestments there are occasional references to the inventories of other churches which for the most part have only a few chasubles,e.g. at Reetz (Rzeczyca) there were in 1580 three chasubles: green velvet, red damask, black cloth (Piepkorn, p.20). As late as 1841 the King of Denmark decreed that all new chasubles must be of red silk velvet with a gold cross (P. Severinsen, The Proper Communion Vestments, p. 32. Even in the familiar color usage there are of course certain differences, e.g. the optional use of blue for Advent which has medieval precedent. The use of (what is called) “scarlet” for Holy Week also reflects the medieval custom of using dark red vestments during the last two weeks of Lent; the first four weeks were in that case kept in unbleached linen. Although the General Rubrics of the altar book for our 1941 Hymnal, The Lutheran Liturgy, prescribed violet for the Gesimas (with green as an alternative), that use has now disappeared from the LSB. The history of color usage has always fascinated me, but it surely seems wisest to follow the color usage of our authorized service books. It has good historic precedent, it is easily explained, and it is familiar to our people. I do think it is a great pity that so few of our churches clothe their altars in a full frontal – rather than the short frontlet hanging down a few inches, or the antependium covering a third of the altar front , or (strangest of all) two pieces of cloth which look like pulpit falls or overgrown stoles. The frontal is an ancient usage of both the Eastern and the Western Church. Its use is amply documented in pictures of Lutheran churches from the 16th century on. The point of the “paraments” is not to have bits of cloth showing the liturgical colors but to clothe the altar – which is itself a symbol of the Great High Priest who sacrificed Himself for us. “The Lord reigneth, He is clothed in majesty…” (Psalm 93). I am also put in mind of an anonymous saying that Dr. Piepkorn loved to quote: “Our very best is only just good enough for God.” It is clear that the Church of Saint Thomas in 17th century Leipzig understood that!

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