Liturgical colors are those specific colors which are used for vestments, altar covers, and analogion covers within the context of services of the Church. The symbolism of colors may serve to underline moods appropriate to a season of the liturgical year or may highlight a special occasion.
There is a distinction between the colour of the vestments worn by the clergy and their cassocks, which with a few exceptions does not change with the liturgical seasons.
The Typikon itself does not specify a complex color scheme for vestments, but only for light or dark vestments. Many clergy who follow Byzantine practice have adopted the more complex color scheme that was developed in Slavic practice, but you will also see many diverse colors used in vestments that do not easily fit into the that scheme.
Slavic practice was influenced by western liturgical practice, and developed a fairly complex color scheme, though there are a number of variations based on regional or local customs.
The most authoritative description of the Russian liturgical color scheme is found in Bulgakov's Nastol'naya Kniga Sviashchenno-sluzhitelia (Reference Book for Priestly Church Servers).
The most important feasts of the Orthodox Church and the sacred events for which specific colors of vestments have been established can be united into six basic groups:
- The group of feasts and days commemorating Our Lord Jesus Christ, the prophets, the apostles and the holy hierarchs. Vestment color: gold (yellow) of all shades.
- The group of feasts and days commemorating the most holy Mother of God, the bodiless powers, and virgins. Vestment color: light blue or white.
- The group of feasts and days commemorating the Cross of our Lord. Vestment color: purple or dark red.
- The group of feasts and days commemorating martyrs. Vestment color: Red. [On Great and Holy Thursday, dark red vestments are worn, even though the church is still covered with black and the holy (altar) table is covered with a white cloth.]
- The group of feasts and days commemorating monastic saints, ascetics, and fools for Christ. Vestment color: green.
The Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), Holy Trinity Day (Pentecost), and Holy Spirit Day (Monday after Pentecost) are, as a rule, celebrated in green vestments of all shades.
- During the Lenten periods, the vestment colors are: dark blue, purple, dark green, dark red, and black. This last color is used essentially for the days of Great Lent. During the first week of that Lent and on the weekdays of the following weeks, the vestment color is black. On Sundays and feast days of this period, the vestments are of a dark color with gold or coloured ornaments.
Funerals, as a rule, are done in white vestments.
Note: In earlier times, there were no black vestments in the Orthodox Church, although the everyday clothing of the clergy, especially the monastics, was black. In ancient times, both in the Greek and in the Russian Churches, the clergy wore, according to the Typikon, "Crimson Vestments": dark (blood) red vestments. In Russia, it was first proposed to the clergy of St. Petersburg to wear black vestments, if possible, to participate in the funeral of Emperor Peter II (1821). From that time on, black vestments became customary for funerals and the services of Great Lent.
White is worn for the feasts and post-feasts of Epiphany, Transfiguration, and Pascha. In antiquity, Christmas and Epiphany were celebrated as one feast, the Theophany of the Lord, so, in some places, white is worn on Christmas Day, but gold is worn from the second day of Christmas until Epiphany.
In Russia, at Liturgy on Holy Thursday, a white altar cover is used to represent the linen tablecloth of the Mystical Supper [the priest wears dark red, and the church remains in black until after Liturgy, when the priest's vestments return to black]. The church cloths and the vestments of the priest are changed to white at the prokeimenon of Holy Saturday Liturgy. In Muscovite custom, white is worn for Paschal Matins, bright red is worn at Pascha Liturgy. In some places white is worn from Ascension to Pentecost. In Carpatho-Russian style, white, exclusively, is worn in the Paschal season. White, the color of the Resurrection, is worn at funerals and memorial services.
Green is worn for Pentecost and its post-feast, feasts of prophets, and angels. In some places, green is worn for the Elevation of the Holy Cross in September. In Carpatho-Russian practice, green is worn from Pentecost until Ss. Peter and Paul fast. Green is often worn for Palm Sunday.
Gold is worn from Christmas to Epiphany, and in some places, during Advent. Gold is worn when no other colour is specified. In one tradition, gold is worn on all Sundays (except when white is worn), including even the Sundays in all the fasting periods.
Red is worn for Ss. Peter and Paul fast, Ss. Peter and Paul feast, for Advent, for the angels, the Elevation of the Cross (September 14), and for feasts of martyrs. In Moscow's style, and on Mount Athos and at Jerusalem, bright red is worn on Pascha [after Matins] and on the Nativity.
Blue is worn for all feasts of the Virgin, Presentation of the Lord, Annunciation, and sometimes on the fifth Friday of Lent (Akathist). In Carpatho-Russian parishes, blue is worn for the Dormition fast and feast, and is worn until the Cross Elevation, sometimes even until Advent.
Purple is worn on weekends of Lent; black is worn weekdays. In some places, purple is worn on weekdays of Lent (gold on weekends).
Black is worn for weekdays in Lent, especially the first week of Lent and in Holy Week. In Carpatho-Russian, formerly Uniat parishes, black is worn on weekdays for funerals and memorial services and Liturgies, as is done in the Roman Church, though this is not universally true any more.
Orange or rust is worn in some places for Ss. Peter and Paul fast, and in other places for Ss. Peter and Paul feast through the Transfiguration.
Please note that when we say "feast," we include the period from the vigil of the feast until its apodosis. The length of these post-feasts vary, and are given in the Liturgical Calendar and Rubrics. Generally speaking, there is a post-feast of about a week for each of the twelve major feasts. As you can see, there is great variety in ways of doing things.
- Wikipedia: Liturgical Colors
- Nastol'naya Kniga Sviashchenno-sluzhitelia, by S. V. Bulgakov, Volume 4, Moscow,1983, translated in "The Messenger" of St. Andrew's Russian Orthodox Cathedral,Philadelphia, June, July-August, September, 1990.