1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Alb
ALB (Lat. alba, from albus, white), a liturgical vestment of the Catholic Church. It is a sack-like tunic of white linen, with narrow sleeves and a hole for the head to pass through, and when gathered up round the waist by the girdle (cingulum) just clears the ground. Albs were originally quite plain, but about the 10th century the custom arose of ornamenting the borders and the cuffs of the sleeves with strips of embroidery, and this became common in the 12th century. These at first encircled the whole border; but soon it became customary to substitute for them square patches of embroidery or precious fabrics. These “parures” “apparels” or “orphreys” (Lat. parurae, grammata, aurifrisia, &c.), were usually four in number, one being sewn on the back and another on the front of the vestment just above the lower hem, and one on each cuff. When, as occasionally happened, a fifth was added, this was placed on the breast just below the neck opening. These “apparelled albs” (albae paratae) continued in general use in the Western Church till the 16th century, when a tendency to dispense with the parures began, Rome itself setting the example.
The growth of the lace industry in the 17th century hastened the process by leading to the substitution of broad bands of lace as decoration; occasionally, as in a magnificent specimen preserved at South Kensington, nearly half the vestment is thus composed of lace. At the present time, so far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, apparelled albs are only in regular use at Milan (Ambrosian Rite), and, partially, in certain churches in Spain. The decree of the Congregation of Rites (May 18, 1819) says nothing about apparels, but only lays down that the alb must be of white linen or hemp cloth. There is no definite rule as to the material or character of the ornamentation, and attempts have been made, especially in England, to revive the use of the apparelled alb.
In the Roman Church the alb is now reckoned as one of the vestments proper to the sacrifice of the Mass. It is worn by bishops, priests, deacons and subdeacons under the other eucharistic vestments, either at Mass or at functions connected with it. It is sometimes also worn by clerics in minor orders, whose proper vestment is, however, the surplice—itself a modification of the alb (see Surplice.) The alb is supposed to be symbolical of purity, and the priest, when putting it on, prays: “Make me white and purify my heart, O Lord,” &c. In the middle ages the parures, which originally had no mystic intention whatever, were taken to symbolize the wounds of Christ; whence probably is derived the custom surviving at the cathedral of Toledo, of the singers of the Passion on Good Friday being vested in apparelled albs.
In England at the Reformation the alb went out of use with the other “Mass vestments,” and remained out of use in the Church of England until the ritual revival of the 19th century. It is now worn in a considerable number of churches not only by the clergy but by acolytes and servers at the Communion. Where the ritual, as in most cases, is a revival of pre-Reformation uses and not modelled on that of modern Rome, these albs are frequently apparelled. For the question of its legality see Vestments.
Both the alb and its name are derived ultimately from the tunica alba, the white tunic, which formed part of the ordinary dress of Roman citizens under the Empire. As such it was worn both in and out of church, the few notices remaining which suggest a special tunic for ministers at the Eucharist merely implying that it was not fitting to use for so sacred a function a garment soiled by everyday wear. The date of its definite adoption as a liturgical vestment is uncertain; at Rome—where until the 13th century it was known as the linea or camisia (cf. the modern Italian camice for alb)—it seems to have been thus used as early as the 5th century. But as late as the 9th and 10th centuries the alba is still an everyday as well as a liturgical garment, and we find bishops and synods forbidding priests to sing mass in the alba worn by them in ordinary life (see Braun, p. 62). Throughout the middle ages, moreover, the word alba was somewhat loosely used. In the medieval inventories are sometimes found albae, described as red, blue or black; which has led to the belief that albs were sometimes not only made of stuffs other than linen, but were coloured. It is clear, however, from the descriptions of these vestments that in some cases they were actually tunicles, the confusion of terms arising from the similarity of shape (see Dalmatic); in other cases the colour applied to the parures, not to the albs as a whole. Silk albs appear in the inventories, but only very exceptionally.
The equivalent of the alb in the ancient Churches of the East is the sticharion (στιχάριον) of the Orthodox Church (Armenian shapik, Syrian Kutina, Coptic stoicharion or tuniah.) It is worn girdled by bishops and priests in all rites, by subdeacons in the Greek and Coptic rites. By deacons and lectors it is worn ungirdled in all the rites. The colour of the vestment is usually white for bishops and priests (this is the rule in the Coptic Church); for the other orders there is no rule, and all colours, except black, may be used. Its material may be linen, wool, cotton or silk; but silk only is the rule for deacons. In the Armenian and Coptic rites the vestment is often elaborately embroidered; in the other rites the only ornament is a cross high in the middle of the back, save in the case of bishops of the Orthodox Church, whose sticharia are ornamented with two vertical red stripes (ποταμοί, “rivers”). In the East as in the West the vestment is specially associated with the ritual of the Eucharist.
The whole subject is exhaustively treated by Father Joseph Braun in Die liturgische Gewandung (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1907). See also Bibliography to the article Vestments.