Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Painted Silk Banners of the Late Middle Ages

             The standard was a valuable symbol within medieval society. In the time of high chivalry when there was no mass media and duplicated images were only as advanced as a woodcut, one’s heraldry was the only direct pictorial symbol of their renown. Your heraldic device, livery colours and badge were allotted to your name, becoming more recognizable in the eyes of the populace than your face. Both military and personal banners were carried in war, tournament and upon your death, they were carried in funeral procession[1], but the shapes, designs and ceremony associated with a banner could differ greatly between European cultures in the Middle Ages. Although the age of high pageantry is considered to be the 13th- 15th centuries, aspects of pageantry date back as far as the Roman Legion and as far forward as the present day. Standards and banners were integral to military and chivalric culture and because of this they were in high demand in the age of High Chivalry through the 14th and 15th centuries especially. This demand spurred the need for faster, less expensive production methods.[2] This was the beginning of the rise in popularity of the painted banner, produced by artist rather than the hand appliqued and embroidered examples that became reserved for highest aristocracy through this time period.[3]The examples I have focused on studying and reproducing are banners which were painted on both sides and used in martial, military and funerary pageantry. Due to the rough treatment of military paraphernalia, not a great deal of examples of military banners remain intact. There are however some few extant examples, fragments, depictions in art and records of banners captured in battle that give us both insight and inspiration in regards to these beautiful testaments to the Chivalric Age.

Page from King Rene Book of Tournament

Styles and their Historical Use:
Examples of 14th and 15th century banners vary in design and shape and this is for a number of reasons. There are a range of common banner types from the Middle Ages with specific meaning and uses. Although there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of standardization between cultures there are many commonalities and at least similar proportions for similar banner types shared between associated European cultures.
The armies of Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy had a very distinctive style and design layout for their military banners that was a means of visually identifying companies, which is well documented. Standards both personal and military are common among many cultures but both French and English culture seemed to have developed the creation of the rank ‘Knight Bannerette’, which elevated knights who distinguished themselves in battle to a higher station, in which they could lead troops on the battlefield on par with a Baron.[4] As the name would suggest, this meant the Knight would display a Bannerette that sported his personal device, rather than that of his Sovereign, whose livery was represented on the Standard.

Standard: Outdoor heraldic display. Side hoisted. Long and tapered. Generally for military use. Came into use in the early 14th century.[5] There are a large scope of variations in form and design used on standards, changing between time, culture and specific use. Standards do not bear merely a device, but were usually in such a way that it incorporates a locative badge at the chief, a motto and livery colours and badges, both personal and/or of one’s Sovereign.
Standards are generally understood to bear bifurcated tails (Eve, G.W., Banner’s In Pageantry, Pg. 393)(McGill, P., Pacou, A., Erskine Riddell, R, The Burgundian Army of Charles the Bold: The Ordonnance Companies and Their Captains, Pg42)
The Standard is considered the most important of banner styles of the middle ages. The size of military standards in the Middle Ages varied heavily and could be based on rank as suggested in the 1908 article ‘Banner’s In Pageantry’ by George W Eve,

“The Size of standards varied considerably according to the rank of their owners, their length at one time ranging from four yards for a knight, five yards for a Baron and so gradually increasing until that for the King was nine yards long when it was to be carried in battle, and even longer when it was to occupy a fixed position such as that before the royal tent.”[6]

Eve’s article focused heavily on pageantry in England, but the Standards of the Burgundian armies of Charles the Bold measured from between 65cm-100cm high by 1.75m – 3m long. Their standards were proportioned 3-1 Width to height.[7] Again, their grand standards had bifurcated tails, however the Burgundians had a very organized system of banner display and as standards needed replacing, it is speculated that the Conducteurs of the ordonnances began an exercise in opulence, introducing a second standard called a guidon, which matched the design of that ordonance’s standard, but bore a single pointed tail. The standard of each company was to be carried by the banner bearer who rode in a 4 horse lance. [8]

Depiction of Burgundian Standard with St. Thomas
Glarus, Reigional Archive; Glarus Book of Colours

Guidon: Large Standard which tapers in shape. Sized between 65cm-100cm high by 1.75m – 3m long, guidons were used by the Burgundian Armies of Charles the Bold in the 1470’s, bearing specific design to match the Standard of the unit, bar bearing a single pointed tail.
The Burgundian Companies where identified by their banners, which all bore a patron saint particular to that company and differing colour schemes, but all bore the badge and the inscription “Je Lay Emprins”(I have Undertaken It)[9], the personal motto of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Guidon’s are said to have been invented as Conducteurs of the Burgundian army became competitive with the splendor of their pageantry. Guidon’s were carried by the Senior Chef d’Escadre (Wing Leader)[10]

Depiction of Burgundian Guidon with St. Thomas
Illustration from The Burgundian Army of Charles the Bold: The Ordonnance Companies and Their Captains

·         Bannerette/ Banner: Outdoor heraldic display. Common in the 14th and 15th century. Side hoisted and rectangular. Bearing the personal arms of a ‘Knight Bannerette’, an elevated rank of knighthood. Commonly measuring between 1.2m square to 2.3m high x 1.6m wide.[11]
 Bannerettes carry an exact depiction of one’s personal the bearers have earned the right to display their personal arms.[12] Common on both French[13] and English[14] Medieval culture.
            The ceremony for the creation of a Knight Bannerette is inruiging and moving. If I knight particularly distinguished themselves on the field so much that they were deserving of recognition, their soverign would take their pennon and tear off its tail, making it square. This ceremony was of great significance in Chivalric culture.[15]

A page from Legh’s Men of Arms

(also known as Sir Thomas Holme’s Book of Hours)

Late 15th/early 16th century


·         Pennon: Outdoor heraldic display. Side hoisted. Short and tapered. A pennon will usually only display ones’ personal badge, an aspect of your device with your livery colours. Or that of a Company in and Ordinance. Usually displayed on pike tips, lances and finials.

Detail from Tractatus de ludo scacorum, depicting a 14th century knghit and pennon
Unknown Artist, Illuminated Manuscript

·         Cornet: Smaller rectangular banner used in by the Burgundian Armies of Charles the Bold in the 1470’s. Measuring between 30-50cm high by 1.5-2.5m long and once again bore a matching design to the Standard and Guidon of that Company. Originally carried by the Company’s Chef d’Escarde. (Wing Leader) In the later stage of the Burgundian wars the cornet was tranfered to the care of the Chef de Chambre (Head of House), as the introduction of the guidon for further lavishness.[16]

Depiction of Burgundian Cornet
Illustration from The Burgundian Army of Charles the Bold: The Ordonnance Companies and Their Captains

·         Vexillum: Church banners painted on linen or silk for use in religious ceremony and processions. Carried by clergymen. These are not military banners, however I wanted to include them because the process for painting on silk clearly references the use and construction of vexillum. These were items of great splendor, quite often bearing gold leaf and the most beautifully painted icons.

The Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John
Aretino Spinello, 1370
Tempera and Gilt on Canvas (Painted on both sides)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Materials and Production:

·         Carriers: Silk (taffeta), linen canvas
·         Media: Paint (Definitely tempera, some examples may be oil), gold and silver leaf
·         Fringing: Adhered silk fringe (As seen on the ‘Lady of Ghent Banner’ and various extant Burgundian examples.)

The period method for painting and gilding on cloth as described in editions of Tambroni and the Milanesi which have been included in ‘Il Libro dell’ Arte’ (The Craftsman’s Handbook) by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, Translated by Daniel V. Thompson Jr, are as follows…


Now let us speak about how to worth on cloth, that is, on linen or on silk. And you will adopt this method for cloth: in the first place, stretch it taut on a frame, and begin by nailing down the lines of the seams. Then go around and around with tacks, to get it stretched out evenly and systematically, so that it all has every thread perfectly arranged. When you have done this, take gesso sottile and a little starch, or a little sugar, and grind these things with the kind of size with which you tempered the gesso on panel; grinding them good and fine; but first put on an all-over coat of size without any gesso. And it would not matter if the size were not as strong as for gesso. Keep it as hot as you can; and, with a blunt soft bristle brush, lay some on both sides, if you are going to do painting on each side. Then, when it is dry, take a cloth; take a knife blade which is even on the edge, and as straight as a ruler; and lay some of this gesso on the canvas with this edge, putting it on and taking it off evenly, as if you were scraping it down. And the less gesso you leave on, the better it is; just so you fill up the interstices between the threads. It will be amply sufficient to put on one coat of gesso. When it is dry, take a penknife which scrapes well, and look over the cloth to see whether there is any node or knot in it, and get rid of it; and then take your charcoal. Draw on cloth just the way you draw on panel; and fix it with wash of ink. Then I will teach you, if you wish, how to lay the diadems or grounds in gold, burnished as on panel, which on any cloth or silk, are ordinarily laid with a mordant, that is, with the linseed one. But, because this method is a source of wonder among the others, since much (…) done, I will tell you about it. And you may roll up and fold the cloth without hurting the gold and the colours.
First take some of this gesso sottile, and a little bole: and temper this gesso with a little white of egg and size, and lay a coat on the part which you wish to gild. When it is dry, scrape it a little bit; then take bole, ground and tempered, just like what you lay on panel, and in the same way put on five or six coats of it. Let it stand for a day or so. Lay your gold just as you do on panel, and burnish it, holding a very smooth and solid board underneath this cloth, keeping a cushion between the cloth and the board. And in this way stamp and punch these diadems, and they will be just the same as on panel, But you must (varnish them) afterwardl because sometimes these banners, which are made for churches, get carried outdoors in the rain; and therefore you must take care to get a good clear varnish, and when you varnish the painting, varnish these diadems and gold grounds a little too.
In the same way as for anconas you should paint, steop by step, on this cloth; and it is more pleasant to work on it than on panel, because the cloth holds moisture a little; and it is just as if you were wirking in fresco, that is, on a wall. And I will also inform you that, in painting, the colours must be laid in many, many times, far more than on panel, because the cloth has no body as the ancona has, and it does not show up well under varnishing when it is poorly laid in. Temper the colours the same as for panel. And I will not enlarge upon this any more.”[17]

The period method for painting silk on both sides as described in editions of Tambroni and the Milanesi which have been included in ‘Il Libro dell’ Arte’ (The Craftsman’s Handbook by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, Translated by Daniel V. Thompson Jr, are as follows…


If you have to do palls or other jobs on silk, first spread them out on a stretcher as I taught you for the cloth. And, according to what the ground is, take crayons, either black or white. Do your drawing, and fix it either with ink or with tempered colour; and if the same scene or figure has to be executed on both sides, put the stretcher in the sun, with the drawing turned toward the sun, so that it shines through it. Stand on the reverse side. With your tempered colour, with your fine minever brush, go over the shadow which you see made by the drawing. If you have to draw at night, take a large  lamp on the side toward your design, and a small lamp on the side which you are drawing, that is, on the right side; thus there might be a lighted taper on the side which is drawn on, and a candle on the side which you are drawing, if there is no sun. And if you have to draw by day, contriveto have light from two windows on the side with the drawing, and have the light from one little window shine on what you have to draw.
Then size with the usual size whenever you have to paint or gild; and mix a little white of egg with the size, say one white of egg to four goblets or glasses of size. And when you have got it sized, if you want to lay any diadem or ground in burnished gold, to bring you great honour and reputation, take gesso sottile and a little Armenian bole, ground very fine together, and a little bit of sugar. Then, with the usual size and a very little white of egg, mixed with a small amount of white lead, you put on two coats of it thinly wherever you wish to gild. Then apply your bole just as you apply it on panel. Then lay your gold with clear water, mixing it a little of the tempera for the bole; and burnish it over a good smooth slab, or a good sound, smooth boar. And stamp and punch it likewise over this board.
Furthermore, you may paint any subject in the usual way, tempering the colours with yolk of egg, laying the colours in six or eight times, or ten, out of regard for the varnishing; and then you may gild the diadems or grounds with oil mordants; and the embellishments with garlic mordants, varnishing afterward, but preferably with oil mordants. And let this serve for ensigns, banner and all.”[18]

Study of Extant Examples and Primary Sources:

Battle standard of the Ghent civic militia emblazoned with the Maid of Ghent
Agnes vanden Bossche (attributed to), 1482 Bruges
9 x 3ft
Linen canvas, painted, silver leaf, silk fringe
Ghent City Museum, Ghent, Inventory Number 787

Battle Standard of the City of Ghent (Maid of Ghent Banner)
Military Standard painted on dyed black, linen canvas. Linen was the cheapest carrier for banner art works.[19]  The Maid of Ghent banner has a horizontal seam running through it (taking care with seams in fabric when stretching to be painted is made reference to in The Craftsman’s Handbook, quoted previously.) Stretch garlands are also visible at the sides.[20]
The fringe that embellishes the edges of the standard is an adhered green silk fringe, bought from Janne de Wilde, the same vendor from which the black linen canvas was procured. [21]The medium appears to be oil, since the brush strokes have a great deal of texture.[22] Although egg tempera was the most common paint medium in the early to mid-Middle Ages, it would be possible for the transition into oil tempered paints to be in use in Brughes during this time, as egg tempera was gradually being phased out in favor of oil paints and resins through the 15th century.[23]
There are also remaining traces of silver leaf which covered the lion originally; proving metallic leaf was being employed on painted military banners.[24]

Tent flag of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Burgundian Wars 1476/77, bearing the Duke’s personal arms and badge.

32 x 58 cm. Canvas, painted.

Origin: Murten (FR), battlefield.

Swiss National Museum, Zurich, Switzerland

Tent Flag of Charles the Bold
            Painted on linen canvas. This example bears the personal device of Charles the Bold in the hoist and the motto ‘Joyaulx’ through the body. This differs from the vast majority of the banners sported by his Armies, which bore the motto “Jay le Emprins.” (I have undertaken it) On the top edge there is a remnant of adhered silk fringe.

Detail from the Lower Left Panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

(The Adoration of the Lamb of God) Polyptich

Jan Van Eyck, 1430-32

Oil on Oak

Saint Bavo Cathedral. Ghent.

Bannerette in the Ghent Altarpiece
            Although this is just a depiction of banners, the Ghent altarpiece offers some insight to the finish of period banners.
            In particular the Red bannerette interests me because of the gold crosses. The way that Van Eyck has shaded this particular feature looks like the gold is metallic, as it is more heavily shadowed and highlighted than the other banners pictured, as if it is reflective.
Although the theme of this particular polyptich is allegorical, Van Eyck has depicted the figures in contemporary dress. This could suggest that this particular panel was an attempt toward verisimilitude, and therefore the banners would also be depicted as true to life.
Funeral Banner of Count Friedrich VII. Von Toggenburg 1450 - 1500
93 x 87 cm Silk Taffeta, Painted
Swiss National Museum, Zurich, Switzerland, Inventory number KZ-5720.1-2

Funeral Banner of Baron Petermann Raron, d. 1479, After 1479.
86 x 81 cm Silk Taffeta, painted.
Swiss National Museum, Zurich, Switzerland. Inventory number: KZ-5722

Funeral Banner of Count Walraff of Thierstein, died 1427. 1400 – 1500
94 x 85 cm Silk Taffeta, painted
Swiss National Museum, Zurich, Switzerland, Inventory number KZ-5721

Assorted Funerary Banners
            These funeral banners show how some banners were entirely painted, as we can see the cracked paint exposes the natural silk beneath is undyed.
            The rudimentary nature of the design and craftsmanship interests me in these examples. One could speculate that if these banners were produced upon the death of these nobles, that they would need to be produced in a hurry, making paint the most suitable medium that suited the task, as painting a banner is a much faster process than sewing a beautiful appliqued version.You can see that these banners were most likely produced in a hurry or with lower level of craftsmanship than other examples as the marks from the canvas being tacked down for stretching are visible, leaving a rough finish. I have also found references stating that sumptuary laws were put in place limiting the use of appliqued banners for those of the highest ranks of nobility.[25] This would suggest that painted banners became the more usual heraldic carrier due to cultural paradigm with no lack of social necessity. 

Images During Restoration of the Three Crowns Banner, municipal banner of Cologne
Artist Unknown, probably designed by Stephen Lochner, After 1450
170 x 104cm, Silk, Painted© Raimond Spekking / 
CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Three Crowns Banner, municipal banner of Cologne
Artist Unknown, probably designed by Stephen Lochner, After 1450
170 x 104cm, Silk, Painted
Cologne Municipal Museum in the Armoury

Three Crowns Banner of Cologne
            Municipal banner of Cologne. Painted on pre-dyed silk. This banner has an applied silk fringe and possible gold leaf.
            The amount of small detail suggests that this banner was purely for municipal use and was never intended to see battle.
I believe the long tail may be the hoist?


C. Cennini, D.V. Thompson, The Craftsman’s Handbook;“Ïl Libro dell’Arte”, Dover Publications, USA, 1960

G. W. Eve, Banner’s In Pageantry, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol 55 No. 2885, Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce, March 1908

P. McGill, A. Pacou & R. Erskine Riddlell, The Burgundian Army of Charles the Bold: The Ordonnance Companies and Their Captains, Freezywater Publications, Lincoln 2001

O. Neubecker, Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning, Tiger Books International, Great Britain, 1977

D.V. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, Dover Publications, New York, 1956

D. Wolfthal, Agnes van den Bossche: Early Netherlandish Painter, Woman’s Art Journal Vol5 No.1 (Summer-Spring 1985), Woman’s Art Inc, 1985

Online Resources:

Victoria and Albert Museum Online Collection:
Swiss National Museum Online Collection:

Ghent City Museum Online Collection

Three Crown Banner Restoration Images:
© Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)
The Getty Foundation:
The British Library Manuscript Collection:

[1] Brooke-Little, J.P., An Heraldic Alphabet, Pg. 194
[2] Eve, G.W., Banner’s In Pageantry, Pg. 395
[3] ibid
[4] Eve, G.W., Banner’s In Pageantry, Pg. 393
[5] Ibid, Pg. 394
[6] Ibid, Pg. 394
[7] McGill, P., Pacou, A., Erskine Riddell, R, The Burgundian Army of Charles the Bold: The Ordonnance Companies and Their Captains, Pg41-42)
[8] Ibid
[9] O. Neubecker, Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning, Pg 202
[10] [10] McGill, P., Pacou, A., Erskine Riddell, R , The Burgundian Army of Charles the Bold: The Ordonnance Companies and Their Captains, Pg42
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid
[13] Ibid
[14] Eve, G.W., Banner’s In Pageantry, Pg. 393
[15] Ibid
[16] McGill, P., Pacou, A., Erskine Riddell, R, The Burgundian Army of Charles the Bold: The Ordonnance Companies and Their Captains, Pg41-42

[17] C. Cennini, D.V. Thompson, The Craftsman’s Handbook;“Ïl Libro dell’Arte”, Pg 103-104
[18] Ibid, Pg. 104-106
[19] D. Wolfthal, Agnes van den Bossche: Early Netherlandish Painter, Pg. 9

[20] Ibid, Pg. 8
[21] Ibid
[22] Ibid
[23] D.V. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, Pg 62
[24] Ghent City Museum Online Collection
[25] Eve, G.W., Banner’s In Pageantry,

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