Originally published on Aleteia, republished with their permission
During the penitential season of Lent, it has become a custom for priests of the Roman Rite to wear vestments of the color violet. This is a tradition that was gradually adopted, as initially priests only wore the color white.
In the ancient world the color violet (often called “purple” in the English language) was associated with royalty. As History.com explains, to make the color purple, “dye-makers had to crack open the snail’s shell, extract a purple-producing mucus and expose it to sunlight for a precise amount of time. It took as many as 250,000 mollusks to yield just one ounce of usable dye, but the result was a vibrant and long-lasting shade of purple.”
This resulted in kings, such as the Roman emperors, as well as the Persian king Cyrus, choosing the color purple to be their primary color of clothing.
When the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus before his crucifixion, they “clothed him in a purple cloak, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on him” (Mark 15:17). Then Pilate showed Jesus to the crowd, saying, “what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:12).
From this horrific scene, purple became associated with Jesus’ Passion and death. Christians then saw purple as a reminder of Jesus’ Passion, with the color itself a call to repentance for sin.
Over many centuries the color lost its connection to royalty and then became gradually more and more symbolic of penance and sorrow for sin.
Violet thus became a perfect color for the Lenten season, calling to mind Jesus’ passion, our call to repentance, and even the reality that Jesus is the true “King of kings” who rules over our hearts.