The Ornamentation of Albs

This past Sunday at one of the Masses I wore the alb (white robe worn under the priestly vestments, over street clothes) pictured in the photo above, with red “IHS” embroidery around the bottom. I was a bit surprised by the number of people who asked me about it after Mass! Perhaps it’s because the decoration on it was so bold, whereas other albs have embroidery in white or gray — and so not as noticeable. But people wondered if there was any special meaning connected with it.

The word “alb” means “white” and so that is ordinarily the color that such garments should be. As the garment that covers over the priest’s street clothes, and so helps him “put on Christ” — the Christ in whose person he acts in the sacred liturgy (in persona Christi) — it makes sense that it should be white. There are off-white variants, but I think a pure white is most appropriate.

With regard to the further ornamentation or decoration of the alb, there are really no rules at present; all we have are historical precedents to go by. These generally fall into four categories:

  1. Lace decorations;
  2. Woven decorations;
  3. Embroidered decorations;
  4. Appareled decorations.

A lace decoration can be seen in the following photo of another alb I have; the bottom 12″ or so of both the sleeves and the lower hem are comprised of lace (with a religious design, although that’s not strictly necessary) instead of a solid fabric:

The color of the cassock that the priest is wearing underneath shows through the lace in these cases, or it is permitted for a red backing to be sewn in. This red backing for non-prelates was sort of “tolerated”, not enthusiastically approved (I have the references to various decrees for those who are interested — use the contact form), but in any case they did catch on in some places. So red or black behind the lace.

Sometimes, of course, instead of having a hem of lace, there might be an insert instead — on the bottom, on the sleeves, or both. There are also various types that are lace or a decorated sheer fabric from the waist down. Some people find these styles very distasteful. Some are also very insecure about them.

A woven decoration usually is of the pulled-thread variety. Several rows of threads might be pulled out of the weft of the fabric, and the warp threads that remain might then be bunched together in decorative designs, possibly with further embroidered accents. Here is an example of this type of decoration, made popular especially during the papacy of St. John Paul II by his MC (incidentally, these are often also an example of an off-white base color):

An embroidered decoration is precisely like that pictured in the photo at the top of this post. It may take any number of forms and be in any number of colors.

Finally, there are albs that are “appareled“. This means that a strip of cloth that complements the other vestments the priest is wearing is attached to the bottom, as well as other parts (the amice — or what is worn around the neck — and sometimes also the sleeves). This illustration shows some examples of albs that have apparels attached to them:

Notice the rectangle of decorated fabric at the bottom in each case — and on at least two cases that are visible (2nd and 3rd from the left), also on the sleeves. All the cases show the apparel decoration around the neck — a sort of decorative collar — as well.

Appareled albs are far less common nowadays. The most common types are the lace, woven, or embroidered varieties mentioned above. Or, plain white with no decoration, which many prefer (and which I often wear also).

Most all of these decorations are purely aesthetic. The idea being, these garments honor God and are meant to veil the individual identity of the priest; we should offer our best and most beautiful to the Lord. This offering is most fittingly made with a clean conscience by someone who is actively pursuing holiness, lest it be merely a matter of aesthetics.

In some cases decorations might display the rank of the priest wearing them, through a certain color or other insignia that might be proper to his rank. But this is fairly uncommon nowadays.

The fact that so many asked me about these details this past week suggests to me that people are concerned with the particulars of worship — not only the broader strokes but the finer particulars that we include in our offering to God, the source of all beauty and holiness. These particulars depart fairly radically from what we wear “on the street”, because what we do at the altar is anything but ordinary; only by entering into the ritual formality and solemnity of our Rite do we fittingly call to mind and, indeed, take an active part in the sacred drama.

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