St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oakland, its giant cross with purple fluttering cloth and large entry door wreaths pops with brilliant purple, especially on the earliest bleak days of the season, when the trees are still bare and the sky is inevitably gray and drizzling.
It looks terrific, but this heathen-turned-blogger decided to seek out a different type of higher power to answer a question that likely all you Catholics already have figured-out: why is purple the color of Lent? I did the Googling, so you don’t have to. Here’s what I found out:
Tyrian purple was associated with royalty. It is also appropriately known as “royal purple.” The color was largely a status symbol as purple dye was the most painstaking and expensive to produce and therefore purple-dyed fabric was prohibitively expensive for anyone else. From a 2013 New York Times Science article:
To make Tyrian purple, marine snails were collected by the thousands. They were then boiled for days in giant lead vats, producing a terrible odor. The snails, though, aren’t purple to begin with. The craftsmen were harvesting chemical precursors from the snails that, through heat and light, were transformed into the valuable dye. The compounds that turn purple in this process serve a defensive role in the snail — they protect the egg masses from bacterial infection.
Fair enough, but how does this get us to the Bible? Don’t worry, they’re related. The explanation is that the regal color is a mockery of the “King of the Jews,” deployed by Pontius Pilate and his soldiers at a crucial spot in that greatest story ever told. From Mark 15:17-20:
And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.
Ouch! In third grade Mrs. Yuchmow taught us to never start a sentence with “And.” Small style quibbles aside, I guess we have an explanation. In perhaps the original example of a group turning an epithet on its head to take back ownership, the Catholic church now recognizes Tyrian purple as the symbolic color of the season. And they look great doing it.