The Pseudo-Distinction Between Rose and Pink


After Gaudete Sunday I noticed a number of priests on social media posting on the supposed difference between rose and pink. I claim that this distinction has very little foundation in reality; it has more to do with contingent cultural associations with the word “pink” than with a fair reading of the rubrics of the Roman Missal, or of the actual tradition of vestment making in the Roman Rite. The rubrics indeed speak of rose, but this could just as well be translated pink, since Latin does not have a separate term for pink. Indeed many languages (eg. German) make no distinction between the two colors.

Both of the English words are derived from flowers, but roses and pinks come in myriads of overlapping shades.

Indeed, as soon as one begins to think about the naming of colors, one’s native Platonism begins to give way, and one begins to suspect that there is something to the structuralist argument for the division of reality by naming as being a bit arbitrary. One doesn’t have to swallow de Saussure’s theories whole to see that the imposition of color names involves a certain amount of arbitrary choice. To Homer, after all, the sea was the color of wine.

Father Edward McNamara gives a sort of Newtonian-objectivist account of the supposed distinction between rose and pink:

Rose (“rosaceo“) is defined by the dictionary as “a moderate purplish-red color; purplish pink.” The liturgical color is thus a lightened violet and is darker than the pale hue usually associated with pink. It is rather a tincture closer to that of a pale incarnadine or the reddish “Naples yellow” used by artists. Pink, “any of a group of colors with a reddish hue that are of low to moderate saturation and can usually reflect or transmit a large amount of light; a pale reddish tint,” is not counted among the liturgical colors.

If one takes a less Newtonian and more Goethian approach (surely more applicable in aesthetic matters), or simply the approach that one took as a child learning to mix paint, then one could say that on Fr. McNamara’s account rose is mixture of red, white, and a little blue, whereas pink is a mixture of only white and red. But persons who have made a study of Latin color names are by no means unanimous in confirming such a view. The Calabrian Renaissance poet Antonia Telesio, has the following to say about rose:

Iucundissimus omnium est color roseus, atque humano corpori, si id formosum est quam simillimus. Itaque os, cervicem, papillas, digitos roseos poetae dicunt: id est candidos, rubore sanguinis penitus diffuso cum venustate: isque color proprie est, quem communis sermo incarnatum vocat. Refert enim maxime omnium pueri nitorem ac virginis: rosam non Milesiam intelligo quae nimis purpurea ardere quodammodo videtur, nec rursus albam: sed quae utrinque decorem accepit, et quia corpus hominis imitatur, quod lingua vernacula carnem appellat, eadem id genus rosarum incarnatum nominavit. Cicero colorem hunc suavem dixit.

That is to say, rose according to Telesio, is the color of human flesh— resulting from the red blood shining through the white skin.

Learned bloggers have indeed argued that the history of dye making argues for an admixture of blue in liturgical rose, but if one looks at actual historical examples, one can find all manner of shades of rose from almost red to almost violet to the palest of pastel pink:

And such diversity is quite normal. Usually liturgical colors allow for a wide variety of shades; just consider the different shades of liturgical green that one can find often from the same place and time. So whence comes the pseudo-distinction of rose and pink? We can get a clue from a post from the early days of the excellent New Liturgical Movement blog:

I’ve often found too many “rose” vestments to be far less rose coloured than they are pink. It seems to me a deeper, almost purplish hue of rose (sometimes referred to as “dusty rose”) would be more befitting the sacred rites, and also the masculine nature of the priesthood, and that the other can be quite distracting and not as befitting the former.

The reference to “the masculine nature of the priesthood” is I think the key to the problem. In many parts of the world pink is considered a sort of effeminate, missish color unbefitting to men. This seems a rather arbitrary convention, but perhaps not entirely arbitrary, since the flesh that Telesio describes as candidos, rubore sanguinis penitus diffuso is found maxime in virginibus (though also, I note, in pueris).