What Is An Alb?
A white linen vestment with close fitting sleeves, reaching nearly to the ground and secured round the waist by a girdle (cincture). It has in the past been known by many various names: linea or tunica linea, from the material of which it is made; poderis, tunica talaris, or simply talaris, from the fact of its reaching to the feet (tali, ankles); camisia, from the shirt-like nature of the garment; alba, (white) from its colour; and finally, alba Romana, this last seemingly in contradistinction to the shorter tunics which found favour outside of Rome (cf. Jaffé-Löwenfeld, "Regesta", 2295). Of these the name alba almost alone survives. Another use of the word alb, commonly in the plural albæ (vestes), occurs in medieval writers. It refers to the white garments which the newly baptized assumed on Holy Saturday, and wore until Low Sunday, which was consequently known as dominica in albis (deponendis), the Sunday of the (laying aside of the) white garments. This robe, however, will be more conveniently discussed under the word "Chrismal". From the usage mentioned, both Low Sunday and Trinity Sunday, together with the days preceding seem sometimes to have been called Albæ. Possibly our Whit-Sunday, the Sunday after the Pentecost baptisms, may derive its name from a similar practice. In this article we shall treat of the origin, symbolism, use, form, ornamentation, material, and colour of the alb.
It is impossible to speak positively about the origin of this vestment. Medieval liturgists, e.g. Rupert of Deutz, favoured the view that the Christian vestments in general were derived from those of the Jewish priesthood, and that the alb in particular represents the Kethonet, a white linen tunic of which we read in Exodus, xxviii, 39. But a white linen tunic also formed part of the ordinary attire of both Romans and Greeks under the Empire, and most modern authorities, e.g. Duchesne and Braun, think it needless to look further for the origin of our alb. This view is confirmed, first, by the fact that in the Eucharistic scenes of the catacomb frescoes (e.g. those indicated by Monsignor Wilpert in his "Fractio Panis") the white under-tunic is not always found; and, secondly, by the silence of early Christian writers under circumstances which lead us to expect some allusion to the relation between Jewish and Christian vestments, if any such were recognized (cf. Hieron., "Ad Fabiolam" Ep. 64, P.L., XXII, 607). The fact that a white linen tunic was a common feature of secular attire also makes it difficult to determine the epoch to which we must assign the introduction of our present alb as a distinctly liturgical garment. The word alba, indeed, meets us not infrequently in connection with ecclesiastical vesture in the first seven centuries, but we cannot safely argue from the identity of the name to the identity of the thing. On the contrary, when we find mention of an alba in the "Expositio Missæ: "of St. Germanus of Paris (d. 576), or in the canons of the Fourth Synod of Toledo (663), it seems clear that the vestment intended was of the nature of a dalmatic. Hence we can only say that the words of the so-called Fourth Synod of Carthage (c. 398), "ut diaconus tempore oblationis tantum vel lectionis albâ utatur," may or may not refer to a vestment akin to our alb. The slender available evidence has been carefully discussed by Braun (Priesterlichen Gewänder, 24), and he concludes that in the early centuries some sort of special white tunic was generally worn by priests under the chasuble, and that in course of time this came to be regarded as liturgical. A prayer mentioning "the tunic of chastity," which is assigned to the priest in the Stowe Missal, helps to confirm this view, and a similar confirmation may be drawn from the figures in the Ravenna mosaics, though we cannot be sure that these last have been preserved to us unaltered. Before the time of Rabanus Maurus, who wrote his "De Clericorum Institutione" in 818, the alb had become an integral part of the priest's sacrificial attire. Rabanus describes it fully (P. L., CVII, 306). It was to be put on after the amice. It was made, he says, of white linen, to symbolize the self-denial and chastity befitting a priest. It hung down to the ankles, to remind him that he was bound to practice good works to his life's end. At present the priest in putting on the alb says this prayer: "Purify me, O Lord, from all stain, and cleanse my heart, that washed in the Blood of the Lamb I may enjoy eternal delights." The symbolism has evidently changed but little since the ninth century.
As regards the use of the alb, the practice has varied from age to age. Until the middle of the twelfth century the alb was the vestment which all clerics wore when exercising their functions, and Rupert of Deutz mentions that, on great festivals, both in his own monastery and at Cluny, not only those who officiated in the sanctuary, but all the monks in their stalls wore albs. The alb was also worn at this period in all religious functions, e.g. in taking Communion to the sick, or when assisting at a synod. Since the twelfth century, however, the cotta or surplice has gradually been substituted for the alb in the case of all clerics save those in greater orders, i.e. subdeacon, deacon, priest, and bishop. At present the alb is little used outside the time of Mass. At all other functions it is permissible for priests to wear a surplice.
Beyond a certain enlargement or contraction as to lateral dimensions, no great change has taken place in the shape of the alb since the ninth century. In the Middle Ages the vestment seems to have been made to fit pretty closely around the waist, but it broadened out below so that the lower edge, in some cases, measured as much as five yards, or more, in circumference. No doubt in practice it was pleated and made to hang tolerably close to the figure. Towards the end of the sixteenth century again, when voluminous garments were everywhere in vogue, St. Charles Borromeo prescribed a circumference of over seven yards for the bottom of the alb. But his regulation, though approved, cannot be said to make a law for the Church at large.
Much greater diversity has been shown in the ornamentation of the alb. In the early ages we find the lower edge decorated with a border sometimes both rich and deep. Similar embroideries adorned the wrists and the caputium (head opening), i.e. the neck. In the thirteenth century the fashion of "apparels", which apparently originated in the north of France, rapidly became general. These were oblong patches of rich brocade, or embroidery, sewn on to the lower part of the alb both before and behind. Similar patches were attached to the wrists, producing almost the effect of a pair of cuffs. Another patch was often sewn on to the breast or back, sometimes to both. To these apparels many names were given. The commonest were paruræ, plagulæ, grammata, gemmata. This custom, though it lingered on for centuries, and in Milan survives until the present day, gave way finally before the introduction of lace as an ornament. The use of lace, though permitted, ought never to lose the character of a pure decoration. Albs, with lace reaching above the knees, are not, strictly speaking, en règle, though there is a special decree of 16 June, 1893, tolerating albs with lace below the cincture for canons at Mass, on solemn feast days. Formerly a decree of the Congregation of Rites prohibited any coloured lining behind the flounce, or cuffs, or lace with which the alb might be decorated, but a more recent decree (12 July, 1892) sanctioned the practice. In point of material the alb must be made of linen (woven of flax or hemp); hence cotton or wool are forbidden. The colour must now be white. Much discussion has been caused by the frequent occurrence in medieval inventories of albs which apparently comply with neither of these regulations. Not only do we read of blue, red, and even black albs, but albs of silk, velvet, and cloth of gold are frequently mentioned. It has been contended that in many cases such designations must be regarded as referring to the apparels with which the albs were adorned; also that the albs of silk, velvet, etc. were probably tunicles or dalmatics. But there is a residue of cases which it is impossible to explain satisfactorily, and the prevalence at least of blue albs seems to be proved by the miniatures of early manuscripts. Moreover, the use of silk and colours instead of albs of white linen has lasted on in isolated instances, both in East and West, down to our own days. It may be added that, like other sacerdotal vestments, the alb needs to be blessed before use.
- article from the Catholic Encyclopedia at www.newadvent.org