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P Purple and Scarlet
Nature Bulletin No. 749   March 28, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

On Easter Sunday in Roman Catholic churches, in celebration of the Resurrection, the priests are appareled in white vestments and have laid aside the purple vestments worn all during Lent. In their liturgical code, white signified joy; purple signifies penance; black, green and red signify sorrow, hope and love.

White, except in Oriental countries where it is a badge of mourning, is commonly regarded as a symbol of innocence and purity. In Roman times, purple also had another significance: it was a symbol of royal or noble rank. Robes dyed with Tyrian purple, obtainable only from the Phoenicians, were so costly that only kings, magistrates and wealthy nobles could wear them.

In the New Testament it is variously related that after Pontius Pilate had condemned Jesus to be scourged and crucified, the Roman soldiers placed a platted crown of thorns upon his head, stripped him of the white garments He always wore, and clothed him with purple. Then they spat upon him, smote him, and on bended knees saluted him: "Hail, King of the Jews!" "And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple from him, and put his own clothes on him, and led him out to crucify him . (St. Mark 15:20.

Tyrian purple, actually a deep crimson called Purpura in Latin, was a precious dye prepared by a process known only to inhabitants of the ancient city of Tyre in Phoenicia, and it yielded immense wealth to them. It was obtained from the secretions of certain marine snails and related mollusks found in the Mediterranean and Red seas. A blue dye -- really violet in color -- was secured from another species of shellfish.

The ancient Phoenicians were a Semitic race who inhabited a narrow strip of the Syrian coast, about 200 miles long and 20 miles wide -- now Lebanon -- and their two principal cities were Tyre and Sidon. They became the most skillful shipbuilders and navigators, the most far-ranging explorers, and the greatest merchants of their time. They imported and exported exotic products from every known land: gold, silver, copper, and even tin from Britain; spices, perfumes, precious stones and silks from the Far East; fine linens from Egypt; and wool from Arabia, woven into robes. Their artisans wrought vessels of glass, brass, silver and gold. When Solomon built a temple for the Lord, the cedars and firs of Lebanon furnished its timbers, expertly hewed by the shipbuilders in Sidon.

In addition to Tyrian purple, the Phoenicians produced other dyestuffs -- notably kermes, the Arabic name for the scarlet dye used in coloring linens and wool in Biblical times. They are mentioned many times in the Old Testament. When the Lord commanded Moses to build a tabernacle. He specified that: "Moreover thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine-twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet. (Exodus 26:1.

Kermes was derived from little scale-insects which infest an oak (Quercus coccifera) abundant in mountainous regions of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and southeastern Europe. This oak, branching profusely from the bottom upward and with an abundance of leaves, covers rocky hills with a dense underbrush of small trees. Its branches and twigs become covered with white fluffy tents and, beneath them, what appear to be small spherical galls: the female insects with densely packed masses of eggs. From those scales or "galls", collected and dried, the scarlet dye was obtained. There is a striking parallel between kermes and cochineal, a carmine dye derived from a tiny insect that infests prickly-pear cacti. (Bulletin No. 203)

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