Why do some bishops wear amethysts?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | December 10, 2020

Question

An article entitled, “Why a bishop always wears a cross” (The Compass, 8/28/2020), talked of various bishops and abbots and their pectoral crosses adorned with amethysts. What is the significance of the amethyst (color, stone)? — Green Bay

Answer

The color purple is assigned to bishops and red to cardinals. (However, the older color associated with bishops is green, as can be seen in Bishop Ricken’s coat of arms. The hat — called a galero — at the top is green. This color originated in Spain.)

The use of the color purple has a few reasons — one goes back to ancient Rome, when only the nobility and the imperial court could “wear the purple.” Purple was a very expensive dye and thus rare. It symbolized both power and responsibility.

As Michael Poradek, assistant to Abbot Dane Radecki of St. Norbert Abbey, told The Compass, “From what I understand, the purple color that is characteristic of bishops comes from the tradition of royalty and judges. It was the most expensive dye color to produce, so was reserved for the upper-classes. Bishops then, being from that educated class with religious authority status in the community, were associated with the color and the tradition continued.”

The purplish color bishops wear for church attire is actually called “amaranth red,” a form of fuchsia. Like a cardinal’s scarlet red color, it is meant to remind us that bishops are the shepherds and must be prepared to shed their blood for the sheep. For this instance, purple is considered a form of red, for church purposes.

The dye for bishops’ vestments originally came from the amaranth flower. There is another dye that comes from the same flower, called “amaranth purple,” and it looks very much like the purple you see on the buttons and piping of a bishop’s formal cassock.

The amethyst is the best known purple gemstone, so it became associated with bishops as the color purple did. (It is not as often associated with abbots and abbesses, but can be, since they are fairly equal in rank to a bishop — within their religious community.)

Green Bay Diocese Museum Board, told The Compass that there are many amethysts associated with church jewelry, crosses and chalices. “Amethysts are found in Wisconsin,” she added, “and may have been more ‘available’ for use in the crosses a hundred years ago.”

Amethyst is a form of quartz, which is very common in Wisconsin, though not as a mineral used for export.

Steffel noted that the tiara worn by Alice in Dairyland “contains native stones from Wisconsin, including an amethyst in the center. This amethyst is recast into a pendant for the departing Alice, and a new one inserted at the start of the next reign.” This has been the case since 1984, according to the aliceindairyland.com website, and the tiara also contains citrine and gold beryl, mined in Wisconsin.

 

Kasten is an associate editor at The Compass and has a master’s in theological studies degree from St. Norbert College, De Pere.

 

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