Before joining the church I worked in the world of textile chemistry (when this country actually had a textile industry!) specifically in the dyeing of fabric and garments. We think nothing, nowadays, of wearing clothes of all kinds of colours. The technical knowhow of making synthetic dyes has meant we can dye most fabrics almost any colours we fancy with relative ease. But it wasn’t always so. Years ago most colours were made from vegetables, roots and, even, creatures. The madder plant gave us various reds and oranges; the woad plant gave us blues; certain onions will give a beige type colour and beetroot – well I’m sure you can guess! The shells of certain beetles gave us deep red (cochineal) and purple was obtained from certain sea snails. Tyrian purple, as it was called, was highly prized and extremely costly. Twelve thousand snails would only get you about one and a half grams of useable dye – enough for a small headscarf, say.
Because of this purple was seen as the “royal” colour since only those of high birth (hence wealthy) could afford it. A similar thing happened in artists’ colours too. Here it was the deep vibrant blue (ultramarine) that was expensive, being made from crushed lapis lazuli; a semi-precious mineral at one time only found in Afghanistan. So scarce and expensive was it that it became only used for special things and for depicting special people. The colour became associated with the Virgin Mary and from about the thirteenth century a sort of informal agreement between artists emerged that Mary’s clothes would be blue.
But back to purple! Why do we have purple in church in Lent? In the passion stories in the four gospels Jesus is mocked by the Roman Guards. In Matthew they put a scarlet Robe on him; in Mark and John it is a purple robe; and in Luke it is described as a richly coloured robe. He is dressed in a fine robe fit for a king so that he can be derided as anything but a king in their eyes. Jesus, King of the Jews, but on his way to a death reserved for servants and lowlife. When Jesus, himself, chooses to make a kingly entrance He did it just like King David did generations before, riding on a beast of burden, an ass. That time we commemorate with Palm Sunday, of course.
So purple reminds us of the royalty and kingship of Jesus but, also, that this was done to him in a mocking and cruel way by the brutal soldiers who were about to crucify him. A king but, also, a suffering servant.
When you see the Priest’s purple stole and the purple hangings in church think on these things.