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Painting on Cloth in the Mediaeval Period



There is a widespread assumption that medieval textiles were decorated only in the original weaving, as brocade or tapestry, and embellished only by embroidery. When we look at a miniature of an interior, we assume that the ornate wall hangings were woven to a prince's order. When we look at a carved angel, we assume that the delicate relief on the hem of a robe represents skilful embroidery. And it cannot be doubted that much of it does represent what we assume it to represent.

However, beside the crafts of weaver and embroiderer, and long intertwined with them, was the craft of painter, or painter-stainer. Painters provided designs, and sometimes competition, for textile craftsmen. Although paint was a cheap and fast alternative to woven or embroidered decoration, it was not despised, but was used in period for all the same purposes as the more costly cloth.

A Word on Media and Pigments

Today, most painters buy their paint prepared, in tubes or cakes. In period it was necessary for the artist or apprentice to grind the colours, mull them on a slab, and mix them into the appropriate medium. Common media were egg tempera made of the yolk, the whole egg, or egg and oil mixtures; size distemper made from animal glues (hides, horns, bones) or fish guts; oils such as walnut or linseed oil; a solution of gum arabic in water; a solution of lime in water for wall-painting, and glair made of beaten egg whites, used for manuscript work. Supports other than parchment were usually sealed, smoothed and whitened with coats of chalk or gesso (plaster) in a size medium.

Who Were the Painters?

There are three terms that come up repeatedly in the study of medieval painting. They are "painting" (also peynting), "staining" (also steyning or stayning) and "imager" (also imaginer and imaginatour). An imager seems to have been a maker of statues or relief-carvings such as alabaster tablets, who would also have painted, since most carving in period was painted and gilded, and work accounts suggest that one artisan carried it through. Painting and staining are differentiated today in that painting involves colour with body or opacity, and staining involves dyes or transparent colours. There seems to have been a similar distinction in the Middle Ages, but the words were often used carelessly. (The English "stained glass" is "painted glass" in other languages.) In Tudor times, although the craftsmen themselves may have distinguished between painters, who painted wood, plaster, etc., and stainers, who stained hangings, Tudor wills and inventories regularly use the term "painted cloths".

In the Book of Crafts, Etienne Boileau divides 13th century painters into "painters and saddlers" who embellished "shields, saddles, litters, chariots and banners" and the "painters and imagers" who painted statues, murals and altarpieces. Similarly, a 1292 Paris tax register divides artists into "saddlers, imagers, illuminators and painters" according to their materials. In 1391 the Paris painters and saddlers divided into separate guilds, with the painters' statutes limiting them to painting walls and to distemper or oil painting on cloth. In Spain, by the fifteenth century, painters guilds were populous enough to separate into painters of altarpieces, fabric painters, and painters of interiors.

In 15th century Bruges, the Guild of St. Luke included saddlers, glass and mirror workers, and painters. The painters divided themselves into panel painters (schilders) and fabric painters (cleederscrivers). Some 40 percent of the membership were specified as fabric painters in the guild registers. The two groups sued each other some three times over such issues as hiring away each other's apprentices and who was allowed to paint with oil (the schilders won that one). Two records of journeymen turning in their masterworks specify that the cloth painted in distemper was known as cloth of Bruges "appele draps de Bruges".

In Strasbourg and Basel, painters had organised themselves into the fraternities of St. Luke from the 13th century, later expanding to include shield-makers, saddlers, wood-carvers and turners, and glaziers. Town accounts list Master Herman of Basel, of the guild of painters (molern und schiltern), hired to repaint and gild the town standard. Other painters, including Hans Holbein the Younger, are recorded as painting flags for towns and military companies.

Accounts from the king's works in England list Alexander of Abingdon, described as an Imager or Imaginator, who turned his hand to paintings, ironwork, waxwork of some kind, a painted cloth and "small images", perhaps statues, for Queen Eleanor's tomb in 1291.

In York, the painters, stainers and goldsmiths were all of one guild. The London guild of painter-stainers, however, had a dispute with the goldsmiths' guild in 1268, during which the stainers were backed by the tailors' guild.

In Italy, workshop records show that artists within each trade produced a wide range of products. Painters accepted commissions for panels and banners, reliquaries and altarcloths, furniture and walls. Sculptors produced statues and mirror cases. Sculptors might paint their work, and painters carve reliefs.

The medieval artist was a craftsman, ready to apply himself to any paying enterprise, with any material that would provide the result his patron or customer desired.

Painters as Designers

Cennino Cennini, in his Libro dell'Arte expects that the painter will act as designer; "... you sometimes have to supply embroiderers with designs of various sorts" and explains how to sketch with charcoal and fix a drawing with ink on damp cloth. For special problems, such as work on velvet, "it will be less trouble for you to work each thing out on white silk, cutting out the figures or whatever else you do, and have the embroiderers fasten them on the velvet". Examination of the red velvet Chichester Chasuble, c.1330-50, shows that this procedure was used in England as well.

Renate Kroos, discussing the exhaustive research work of Maria Schuette, describes the stylistic development of pictorial embroidery (Bildstickerei) as a branch of painting. The direct connection between textile design (Textilentwuerfen) and painting has only one restriction; embroidery designs, sketched in rapid and spontaneous ink, were carried out in slow and patient thread, a prim (sproede) and clumsy (schwerfaellig) material. (Kroos is rather hard on embroiderers, describing them as Nichtkuenstler, non-artists, and apparently viewing changes to the original design as disregarding the intention of the designer rather than representing creative choices made by the embroiderer).

The German embroiderers do not seem to have formed guilds, but to have been sub-contractors of the painters who designed the church vestments and hangings, and flags and banners.

The royal workshops were well documented, and enough of that documentation survives to show that a court painter was expected to turn his hand to any work that the king desired. In 1330 John de Kerdyff and John de Chidelee designed and supervised the embroidery of three counterpanes for the churching of Philippa of Hainault. The designs were of "beasts, babewyns and knots".

Hennequin de Bruges, an artist of the kingís court, designed the famous Angers Apocalypse tapestry, woven 1375-1381. His cartoons were based closely on miniatures from manuscript books (Fonds Salin ms 30 and Cambrai Library ms 482), translating these tiny compositions to a tapestry set 138.25 m. long.

As tapestry weaving became an industry, painters were called on to design both "petits patrons" (small sketches), and "grands patrons" (full-size cartoons). There was enough of this work that painters known as "portraitists" specialised in producing grands patrons, in tempera on linen. This is not to say that portraitists did no other work, only that the bulk of their commissions came from the weaving shops. The grands patrons became the property of the master weaver, and remained in use for as long as they were fashionable and held together.

The city records of Tournai mention several portraitists, including families that carried on the trade. Four generations of the Kien family appear on the rolls of the Painters' Guild, and two individuals in legal proceedings, one Jean Kien for selling sheets of gilded pewter as gold. The workshop of the Kiens and their apprentices continued from 1423 to about 1525. Another family, Le Bacre, was in business for three generations, from 1451 to 1514, and in 1502 apprenticed Marion and Helaine Regnault, the only recorded women portraitists of the period.

The Arras and Tournai shops were closely connected. In 1449 Bauduin de Bailleul, a painter of Arras, painted the cartoons for a set of eight tapestries of the history of Gideon commissioned by the house of Burgundy, which were then woven in Tournai, completed in 1453. About the same time, the painter Jacques Daret provided a Resurrection painted in distemper on canvas for the Abbe de St-Waast, to be woven by Wuillaume au Vaissel of Arras. The painting, 8.64 m. long, was kept and displayed by the Abbe. Daret, along with Rogier van der Weyden, was a student of Robert Campin, famous for his panel painting. Campin, in 1438, made sketches for a set of painted cloths of the life of St. Peter, for which he received 8 livres. The painter who executed the cloths, Henry de Beaumetiel of Tournai, received 49 livres.

The Confraternity of the Blessed Virgin in Hertogenbosch, in 1493 commissioned Heironymus Bosch to paint cartoons for a stained glass window in their new chapel. For this purpose they gave him "a pair of old bed linens". Another design (patron) was painted on linen for "the jewel to be worn by Our Lord on Corpus Christi Day" of 1474, the jewel to be made by the goldsmiths.

The elaborate decorative schemes that royal feasts and state occasions called for "required the combined skills of tailors, painters and embroiderers". The Great Wardrobe accounts in 1350-2 use the term "protrattorum" for painters doing design work, and "pictorum" or "stannatorum" for those doing the painting or staining. Protrattors were always specified when heraldic display was prepared, and paid the highest rate, 2 pence a day. They were probably expected to have a good knowledge of heraldic rules, and seem to have supervised embroiderers and painters.

Painted and Stained Cloth Products

There are some problems in discovering the variety of ways in which painted cloth was used in period. The first is the lack of surviving examples. Cloth is far more perishable than metal or stone, even than wood, and when fashions changed, cloth was easily discarded and reused. When one considers the negligence with which expensive royal tapestry was treated when its vogue had passed; the Nine Heroes tapestry cut into curtains and cushion covers, the Unicorn tapestries used to protect fruit trees from the frost, it is hardly surprising that less costly decorations should have been lost entirely. Of 14th century paintings on linen, only eight survive, in Italy and Germany.

One turns to documentary evidence, wills, contracts and inventories. Then there is the problem of terminology. What is a cloth "depicted" with images? Woven, embroidered, stencilled or painted? Even "depeynted" is not as certain as it appears, since it could be used to mean "decorated" in almost any manner.

Many promising citations must be ruled out for lack of certainty. For example, in a 1386 bequest, Laurence Gleseworth of London left his daughter a coverlet and red tester covered (operat') with unicorns, and three hangings covered (operatis) with grey trefoils. How they were worked is unknown. The wardrobe accounts for Eleanor of Castile include "pictured cloths" from Cologne, another tantalising clue.

Cennini, being prescriptive rather than descriptive, leaves no doubt. He is more concerned with the material than the purpose but mentions banners, hangings and palls, along with a section on block-printed and painted linen cloth "for garments for little boys or children, and for certain church lecterns". This last was obviously a cheap substitute for the expensive brocades.

14th c. German block prints on linen, Cooper Union Museum

I. Ornament of the Middle Classes

It should be remembered that the furnishing of a mediaeval house would look very sparse to today's eye. It would also look rather gaudy, since the few pieces of furniture would have been painted in bright colours. Beds were hung with colourful cloth curtains and canopies, and benches decked with cushions. In a house of any substance, the walls too would have been at the least painted. Better, they would have been hung with cloth, perhaps woven with a pattern, painted or stencilled, and for the wealthy, tapestry.

In France and Flanders, painted linen hangings were made not only as cartoons for tapestry, but as goods in their own right, known as "toiles peintes" or "draps peints". Bruges shops specialised in this trade to the extent that toiles peintes were often known as "toiles de Bruges". A number of toiles peintes from the late medieval period are held in the Musee de Reims. Van Mander, writing in 1604 of "Rogier of Bruges" (Rogier Van Der Weyden) says "in this period it was the custom to paint large cloths with large images and to decorate rooms with these cloths in place of tapestry. And they were done in egg or glue colour. Herein was he a good master."

The English term was "counterfeit arras", that is, imitation of Arras tapestry. This name seems to have been reserved for Flemish work, the common English term still being "painted cloths". A Statute of Richard III meant to protect English craftsmen from the importation of cheap foreign goods rules "that no merchant stranger, after the feast of Easter next coming, shall bring into the realm of England to be sold any manner of ... painted glass, painted papers, painted images, painted cloths, etc."

14th century Netherlands documents list eighteen painted cloths, which suggests that rather more existed. A 1331 bequest by Maroie d'Amerin of Tournai is a painted cloth "drap a ymages peintes". Douai account books describe the 1361 sale of a painted cloth with the images of St. Barbara and St. Nicholas. Mons account books in 1398 include works by Jehan, painter of Mons, including a cloth painted (pointure) with the Assumption of St. Eloy and with St. Christopher.

A 1365 inventory of the goods of Stephen le Northerne, lists two "painted cloths". Since Stephen was only an ironmonger, and the cloths were valued at 18 pence, it seems likely that these were actually painted and not woven or embroidered. The grocer Richard Toky owned three painted cloths in 1391 and a 1406 inventory of the goods of John Oliver, draper, lists a full "steyned sale", painted hangings to furnish a room or "salle". Richard Gilbert, gentleman of Salisbury in 1376, had "stained cloths" hung in his hall and parlour, one showing the story of Solomon. The technical term "stained" is reliable, as in the 1463 bequest of John Baret of Bury of "the steyned cloth of the Coronacion of Oure Lady" and one of the Seven Ages of Man.

Fairly clear is John Wodewey of Lewes with bequests in 1405 of "my tablet painted with the story of the Day of Judgement, two curtains painted with angels". Joan Buckland's 1450 will bequeaths both an arras woven with the Annunciation, and a set of "stayned" hangings. (Arras was the generic English term for tapestry.) Joan is unusual in owning an arras hanging, though she had a large and comfortably furnished manor house. "Woven tapestry was exceptional until the 16th century, and so it remained".

John Wodewey's curtains were very likely bed curtains, since window curtains were not used until the late 15th century, and then only in wealthy houses. Richard Toky owned four beds, one with a stained tester (hanging at the head) as well as his painted cloths. In 1543, Katheryne Brase, widow of a haberdasher, had painted selars (canopies) on the bed in her own chamber and on the one in the kitchen. She also had painted cloths in her own chamber, valued at 2 pence the yard, to a total of 3 shillings 8 pence. The 30 yards of painted cloth in her hall and 18 yards in the kitchen chamber were valued at 3 pence the yard. In contrast, a single cushion of needlework was worth 3 shillings. Robert Herryman, a clothworker of London, in his 1540 will lists a number of bed-hangings, including a "valance of paynted lynen cloth". In 14th century Florence, the merchant Francesco Datini commissioned the painting of a pair of bed curtains, and bought the paints himself, perhaps to be sure of the quality.

When window curtains and blinds did come into use, they too might be painted. The London Skinners' Hall paid in 1497 for "the curtains and painting of them which hang afore the glas windows in this hall".

During the later part of the 16th century, painted cloth hangings became ever more common as middle-class property, as is shown by English wills and inventories. However, these rarely mention the subjects or motifs. Inventories for the town of Dudley in Worcestershire, covering this period, are a fascinating source of household goods; listing painted cloths in almost every other list, but never once a subject or description, other than the rare "old" or "broken". In William Harrison's 1577 work, Description of England, he writes that "the wals of our houses on the inner sides in like sort be either hanged with tapestrie, arras worke, or painted cloths, wherein either diverse histories, or herbs, beasts, knots, and suchlike are stained, or else they are seeled with oke".

The inventories for Hardwick Hall in 1601 list not only the tapestry set of the Story of Ulysses, but a set of hangings for summer use of "woollen cloth stayned with frett and storie and silk flowers". These may have been Flemish work, since at the same date it was written that "Painting on Cloth is decayed, and not one hundred yards of new painted cloth made here in a year, by reason of so much Flanders pieces brought from thence". Evidently Richard III's statute had not been enough. Even in 1517 one of the complaints of the Evil May Day apprentice riots was that the Dutch brought over ready-wrought wainscot, stools, tables, chests, and painted cloths. The earliest record of Flemish import is a 1384 Customs record of Walter the son of Walter, on his ship Saynt Marischip, bringing in "12 steynd clothis" from Camfere (Kampen, North Holland) valued at 13 shillings 4 pence.

It may have been that Flemish work was simply better. In 1460 Alessandra Strozzi arranged the purchase of three draps de Bruges, to be resold elsewhere. The subjects were the Holy Face (possibly a Veil of Veronica), the Adoration of the Magi, and a peacock in foliage.

Germany and Sweden also used painted cloth hangings, though surviving examples date from the 16th and 17th centuries. German hangings are on linen, and some are flocked. The example I have seen, from the 17th century, bears a strong resemblance to the columns and brocade patterns of guadamaci, the gilded and stamped leather wall hangings. Painted hangings were popular in Sweden into the 19th century, and fell into two categories. In the north, hangings were made to fit wall panels, and often displayed in a room set aside for festival celebrations. In the south, they were long narrow cloths meant to hang above benches, and only brought out for the festivals. The southern style also used more religious motifs.

London Guild houses were decorated with painted cloth hangings until wainscoting became popular. Blacksmiths' Hall was hung with stained cloths in 1496, while in 1527 the Goldsmiths were discussing whether to replace their stained hangings or put in wainscoting. In Bruges, the Tanners' Guild in 1479 had a linen hanging before the chimney, painted with a lion holding the guild flag in one paw.

In 1496 Florence, the Compagnia dell'Annunziata discussed which artist they should commission their new standard from. They eventually decided that Piero della Francesca was acceptable. He was an accepted master at that time, but he was not above painting a banner. Of course, he would be expected to keep to the terms of the contract, which usually specified the length of time allowed for the work to be finished. When the Company of Saint Sebastian ordered a banner from the painter Neri di Bicci, they specified that it must be finished within six weeks. Several Italian company banners survive.

Much mediaeval art was produced to order, for patrons, but work was also done "on spec", for expected markets. An inventory of the articles in the shop of Thomas Trewe, a London haberdasher in 1378, include "1 cloth painted with Him Crucified and other figures" worth 2 shillings 4 pence. The records of Robert Stodley, a London mercer, in 1536 mention a "saynt Johans cloth of sarcenet staynyd with the Image of saynt John" valued at 3 shillings. An alabaster carving of St. John's head at that time would have only cost one shilling. These carvings (which were also done "on spec") were often covered between devotions with a cloth, called a St. John's cloth, sometimes of "bawdkyn" which seems to have been a brocade of silk and gold threads. The Stodley cloth may have been a painted version of these.

Religious work was fairly certain of a buyer. In the 14th century and later, the legend of Veronica, who watching Christ carry the cross, wiped the sweat from his face in pity, and found her veil imprinted with his portrait, inspired a market in painted veils. These were most likely intended as icons, rather than fraudulent relics, in fact Veronica's name is a garbling of "vera icon". I know of none that have survived, but the Veil or Napkin is shown in paintings of the Bearing of the Cross, and these suggest what the Veronica veils would have looked like.

Veronica with veil, c.1390 and c.1490 (Sterling pl. 42 & pl.118)

II. Ecclesiastical Uses

Churches were among the great users of painted cloth. As early as 1127, Abbot Conrad ordered a "linteamina depicta" for St. Michael's Church in Hildesheim. "Depicta" does not certainly mean painting, but until 1875 there was a surviving 12th century painted linen, meant as an altar hanging or perhaps a pall, and likely commissioned for the Cologne Church of the Holy Apostles.

Mary with Apostles and donor, 19th c. copy of 12th c. original (Wolfthal, pl.6)

Later, in 1377, the collegiate church of St. Ame inventory records "one other linen cloth, painted (painct) with the Resurrection of Our Lord". In 15th century Lille, the chapel of the Hopital Comtesse had a painted hanging of the Tree of Jesse.

In Tournai, Jehan du Gardin made a bequest in 1433 to the church of St. Jehan des Caufours of two painted linen cloths of the Passion. Margarete Asshcombe, widow of London, in her 1434 bequest to the church of St. Mary Staining gives precise details of "a shete ... to be peynted at the persons coste aforeseyde forto hange to-fore ij auteres in the seyde Churche." The church is called St. Mary Staining because it stood in Staining lane, once the home of painter-stainers, so the gift is appropriate. A 1499 bequest to the church of Northfleet provided "iij stayne cloths for iij autres."

As noted in the wills, altars were usually hung with cloths. Two surviving altarcloths, one from 14th century France and one from 16th century Spain are both painted in grisaille (monochrome). The French cloth, the famous Parement de Narbonne, was probably meant for Lenten use, as inventories suggest that sombre grisaille was considered appropriate then. Charles V of France, who likely commissioned the parement, favoured grisaille painted vestments and hanging, and several appear in 1379 inventories. The Spanish cloth is exceptionally large, and confining the pigments to inexpensive carbon black may have been an economic necessity.

Two 15th century German altarcloths, more modest in both size and artistry, also survive. One shows the Crucifixion, the other the Evangelists and Saints. Both are on linen.

15th c. antependium, Herzog Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig

One type of ecclesiastical cloth often needed at short notice was the pall, the cloth hung over the coffin. Philip the Good commissioned a painted linen pall for Albert II, the Holy Roman Emperor.

Whether or not the Shroud of Turin itself is painted, as a 1357 investigation concluded, copies of it were painted to act as icons. There was also a tradition that the shroud could miraculously and conveniently reproduce itself on other pieces of linen, to spare it the dismemberment the bodies of saints suffered.

copy of the Shroud of Besancon (Wolfthal pl.4)

A manuscript c.1300 (College of Arms, Arundel ms 30) describes the subjects of long-lost painted dorsaria, the cloths hung behind the choir stalls in the Abbey Church of St. Edmund at Bury. The subjects included the parable of Dives and Lazarus, the Wedding Feast at Cana, the Holy Infancy, and the Ascension. The cloth before the cross was painted with a Christ in Judgement and Angels with the Instruments of the Passion.

Inventories made after the Dissolution include several painted or stained cloths. Long Melford in Suffolk had three long cloths before the rood loft, stained with the "Dance of Powlis", which Tristram suggests meant a copy of the Dance of Death wall-painting of Old St. Paul's, and a Lenten cloth painted with "whips and Angels".

In 1459 the cathedral of Angers ordered a set of six tapestry hangings of the Life of St. Maurice and his Companions, from Paris. Unusually, the cathedral retained the grands patrons, and these were hung in the church all year round, with the tapestries only taking their place during festivals.

The cloister of St. Clara in Cologne had a similar strategy in 1350. The large altarpiece (2.9 m. x 3.5 m.) has two sets of wings. The panel wings were used on the holiest days, the framed linen wings on other days.

detail of painted linen wings, St. Clara

A very specialised use for stretched and framed painted linen was doors to cover the organ pipes and protect them from dust and flies. Three sets of painted doors survive, one painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in the Basel Cathedral.

The canons of the church of St. Anatole in Salins, in 1502 ordered fourteen tapestries of the life of their saint. The grands patrons cost them 39 livres for the linen and 84 for the painting. In this case the cartoons probably returned to the master weaver.

In Germany in 1525, the collegiate church of Essen commissioned Bartholomew Bruyn to paint an altar for 380 florins, and to paint and gild three silk flags for 21 florins.

When the Painters' and Goldsmiths' guild of Bruges ordered a banner as an offering to the church of St. Sauveur, it was of course a painted banner. The 1544 commission was performed by Lancelot Blondeel, and depicted the Madonna between St. Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths, and St. Luke, the patron saint of painters. St. Luke bears a strong resemblance to Blondeel.

Processional and plague banners (carried in penitential processions during plagues) were often of painted cloth, for reasons of speed. Some survive in Italy. A French hanging of 1420 from the Carmelite Convent of Le Puy may be such a banner. It depicts Mary sheltering people under her cloak, a subject chosen for plague banners, but its origins are unclear.

plague procession from Tres Riches Heures, showing banners


The Confraternity of the Blessed Virgin in Hertogenbosch ordered a painted linen banner of St. Mary of Egypt to be carried in processions. Jan van Aken took the commission in 1434.

The pageantry of miracle and mystery plays was assisted by painted cloth. A Passion play performed at Mons in 1501 used paintings on linen to represent Heaven with gold stars, a palace with pillars, and damask.

Church officials purchased cloth hangings for the interiors of cathedrals, churches, and occasionally for their own houses. Pope Urban V in 1367 bought 56 painted linens of the Life of St. Benedict from the painter Matteo Giovanetti, for the college at Montpellier. The canons of Cambrai purchased ten cloth paintings between 1469 and 1506. Since the subjects included the god of love, children bathing, and Solomon and Sheba, as well as the Mystery of the Mass, it is probable these were for their homes rather than churches.

Cardinal Wolsey was a devoted collector of both tapestries and counterfeit arras, and his inventories from 1522 and later list a number of the latter, with subjects. This includes scenes from the Romance of the Rose and from the Life of King David, one of Judas, and some that may have been scenes from romances, one with "a ship at one end with a man and a woman in it" and another "that hath a king in the myddes of it sytting in a pavyllion" within a border of the arms of "Seynte Cuttebarte and my Lord Rootheall". There were also six pieces of "counterfeit Triumphs". These are all quite similar to the subjects in inventories of true Arras.

III. Court Functions

Although the inexpensiveness of painted cloth made it attractive to the middle classes, it was also found among the belongings of royalty and nobles. Queen Isabella had a hall hanging painted with the Apocalypse, and a dorsal (back hanging) and a banker (bench cover) of worsted painted with the Nativity, according to a 1360 inventory. Cicely of York, mother of Edward IV and Richard III, listed a "cloth of St. John Baptist of sarcenett painted" in her will. In 1509 an inventory of Edmund Dudley, King's Minister, (made after his arrest) recorded, besides much Arras work, a "pece of fyne counterfett Arys" and two stained cloths with imagery in the gallery of the London house he rented.

Robert of Anjou, King of Naples, was rare among Italian noblemen in commissioning paintings on linen. In 1336 an artist of Naples painted four Franciscan subjects on linen for Robert and his wife. Possibly the less costly cloth support was considered appropriate to the Franciscan ideal of poverty.

Madonna and Child with Saints, Franciscan Master (Wolfthal pl.10)

King Alfonso of Naples continued this practice, purchasing three paintings on linen by Rogier van der Weyden, showing the Mocking of Christ, the Passion, and the Mater Dolorosa.

As mentioned above, court painters could be called upon to execute any variety of work, frequently large-scale projects in limited time. They painted banners and horse-coverings for wars and tourneys, costumes and stage-hangings for processions, stencilled bed-hangings and clothing with gold and silver, and whatever other embellishments their royal patron desired. It is likely that most of this work was done at short notice, the speed of painting being its advantage over embroidery and weaving.

Stencilling was a particularly useful technique for quick work. Stencils came into use in the 13th century and "made possible the rapid decoration of literally acres of cloth, as well as wood or plaster"

Another technique that the painter-designer employed was that of stamping or painting gold on finely woven silk (sendal) or linen (sindon). In 1348 Philippa, Queen of England, received a set of room hangings stamped (vapulat) in gold Ss. In 1350 the altar of the chapel at Windsor was furnished with a covering of red sindon stamped with golden eagles. Other entries record eight horse trappings stamped with arms for the jousts held at Canterbury. The technique was useful for banners and pennons as well. The pennons for a royal funeral in 1348 required 2,000 leaves of gold.

14th c. French silk, stamped with gold fleur-de-lis (Staniland fig.3)

In England, the court also called on London workshops for large-scale work. The 1340s Wardrobe accounts show that the painted, stencilled, stamped and appliquéd cloths required for royal feasts were regularly made up at the same workshops.

The Wardrobe accounts for 1347 mention painted tunics, cloaks, crests and masks for the Christmas festivities. These would probably have resembled the costumes seen in the marginal illustrations of the Romance of Alexander.

costumed players from Romance of Alexander, Bodleian ms.264

In the accounts for 1350-2 are entries for:

"3 curtains of sindon afforc.

7 cushions of sindon de triple stained (distannat) with the history of King Alexander and other histories

1 back hanging (dossor),

3 side curtains (coster) of white worsted stained in the same manner"

which employed "5 operar. stannatorum at 12 º d. each for 33 days" This was a bed for the king, and the only entry in this account where the terms distannat and stannatorum were used. Probably most of the king's furnishings would have been of more costly work.

In some cases, one must assume that speed was required, for there is little else to explain why paint was preferred. Palgrave describes a linen document bag, painted with the lions of England in heraldic colours, executed c.1280. This was presumably connected with the court, and not overly large. Of the same date is a seal bag, embroidered with the lions of England, attached to a charter of Edward I at Westminster. Similarly, there seems little to choose between the Mitre d'Eveque, painted in grisaille on silk samite c.1360, and the Minden Mitre worked in silk, pearls and silver-gilt motifs c.1400.

left: Mitre d'Eveque (Wixom VI 4) ; right: Minden Mitre (Staniland 1991 p.48)

Speed and cheapness would have been deciding factors for many of the banners and flags that were ordered from painters. Campaigning and tourneying in all weather is hard on cloth, and outfitting soldiers or retainers at short notice required work that could be turned out at speed. Melchior Broederlam, painter to Philip the Bold of Burgundy, designed and painted flags as well as the wings of an altarpiece. In 1396 he provided two large gilded satin flags painted in oil, two smaller flags, all for 23 francs, and one hundred lance-pennons, for 12 francs. Thirteen years earlier, Philip had called on both his court painter Jean de Beaumetz and a Parisian painter, Colart de Laon, for painted pennons. Colart received 342 francs for painting 4,024 pennons on buckram. Philip also had applique flags made, some with the detail work painted.

Charles the Bold's reorganisation of his troops after 1470 gave each of the companies and squadrons its own painted flag. Some of these are still extant, having been captured by the Swiss.

Burgundian company standard, Historical Museum, St. Gall


In England in 1350, streamers and standards were needed in haste for an attack on the Spanish fleet off Winchelsea. Accounts for the ship le Marye record a streamer "painted with a figure of St. Mary in the head and quartered with the king's arms" 32 ells long (36.57 m.) and 5 cloths wide (6.85 m.).

Other state occasions were also demanding of painters. In 1419, Melchior's student, Hugues de Boulougne, Court Painter to Philip the Good, was ordered to make two large battle standards, two armorial banners, six large trumpeters flags, and two hundred lance pennons, all in black satin, for the funeral of Philip's father. Pierre Coustain and Jehan Hennecart, court painters to Charles the Bold, were responsible for the decorations for his wedding in 1468, as well as flags in 1472. Jehan painted the Ducal Standard with St. George and the Dragon and motto, receiving 30 livres for his work.

In 1393, when Philip the Hardy met with the English at Lelingien, his personal tent is recorded as being made of wooden planks in the form of a castle with towers, and the walls covered with toiles peintes. Philip was a collector of Arras tapestries, and presented them to the English dukes and envoys as gifts. Philip the Bold in 1379, more modestly gave away a cloth with "pluseurs ymaiges", painted by Jean de Beaumetz for the large sum of 30 francs.

While the English Wardrobe accounts show that the tents and  pavilions used by the royal household were most often decorated with applique of dyed cloth, the pavilions and stages used for royal processions and tourneys could be painted. A late example is a 1581 banqueting hall with canvas walls painted to look like stone, and ceiling painted with suns, clouds and stars. It was reportedly 106.5 m. around, and supported by 30 poles, each 13 m. tall.

The entry of Queen Isabel into Paris, as described by Froissart, gives an idea of the elaborate decoration involved in royal processions. When they came to the street of St. Denis, the "conduit was covered over with a cloth of fine azure painted full of flower-de-luces of gold, and the pillars were set full of the arms of divers noble lords of France; and out of this fountain there issued in great streams piment and claret.Ö"

This was one of the more modest stages of the progress, so one can see that the workshops would have been well occupied with hangings, stages, costumes and more. One common feature of such occasions was the hanging of decorated cloth along all the streets. The accounts for the 1468 Joyous Entry into Bruges of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York include a payment to Hugo van der Goes (primarily a panel painter) for "figures to be attached to cloths on the sides of the street and elsewhere". This suggests an applique like that used for embroidery on velvet but on a rather larger scale.

None of this glory survives, except in period paintings and chronicles. Evidence can also be taken from the Triumphs of Caesar, a set of canvas wall hangings painted by Andrea Mantegna in the 1480s. There has been much debate about the first purpose of these paintings, whether they were intended as grands patrons, as festival decorations, as substitute frescoes, or as works in their own right. In fact, tapestries were woven after their pattern and the Gonzago family did use them as festival or stage dressings on several occasions, but documentary evidence is unclear whether the paintings were used as decorations because they were portable, or were portable because they were meant to be decorations.

Painted hangings were useful for much outdoor pageantry. A 1412 tournament in Malines used painted linen hangings.

From Panel to Canvas

Medieval paintings were done on panel, that is, the support was of wood. Sometime during the Renaissance, stretched canvas supports became the standard. There seems to have been little scholarly attention to the shift, but it is not unlikely that the existing tradition of painted cloth played a part.

There are disadvantages to wood supports. They crack, they require much preparation to be made smooth and white, they are heavy, and restricted in size. Cloth on strainers is smooth and white, and can be large without becoming immensely heavy. Cloth does, however, need to be sealed in some way, to prevent it absorbing too much expensive pigment, or allowing the colour to "bleed" and spread. Cennini recommends sealing the cloth with a coat of gesso before painting and using a tempera medium. Northern practice seems to have been to seal the cloth with a coat of size or gum water, and to paint in distemper.

While painters in the Netherlands, such as Dieric Bouts and Pieter Brueghel had begun to experiment with distemper painting on linen during the 15th century, Andrea Mantegna was the only Italian painter to make much use of it. Some thirty of his distemper paintings have survived.

Meanwhile the popularity of Flemish linen paintings was growing in Europe. The Medici owned twenty, some in ornate frames, listed in inventories of 1482 and 1492. This must have improved the status of painting on cloth.

However, most surviving linen paintings are small images meant for private devotion, plentiful because of their cheapness. This lack of expense was a virtue to the worldly practical mind, and also to the spiritual ideal of poverty.

During the 16th century, Giovanni and Gentile Bellini and Titian were still using panel as well as canvas supports, with only Tintoretto using predominantly canvas, perhaps because of his preference for large compositions. Some close examination of Tintoretto's paintings has been done, showing that the support is linen, sealed with a thin layer of gesso, possibly scraped as Cennini suggests for cloth and the medium is a drying oil. Some of the grounds are not white gesso, but a dark, ochre-based ground.

The Volpato ms. of the late 17th century includes a discussion of the disadvantages of the old-fashioned (16th century) gesso ground on canvas, and the advantages of the new style ground of red ochre in oil. It may be that the improved status of canvas led to experiments to increase its potential.

Mantegna realised one of the advantages of cloth when he suggested in a letter to his patron, Ludovico Gonzago that portraits painted in distemper on linen could be rolled on a dowel for easy shipping. Cennini, after describing his method of painting and gilding cloth, asserts that "you may roll up and fold the cloth without hurting the gold and the colours". This is an obvious benefit for the banners and festival hangings that must be stored between uses, but the shipping problems for a painting sent as a gift or tribute were a deciding factor in several cases. Philip the Good sent Jan van Eyck to Portugal in 1429 to paint the Infanta during the marriage negotiations. The painting is recorded as having been done on linen, for transport back to the Duke. Duerer also used canvas for portraits sent some distance.

Mantegna also argued that painting on canvas was more durable. This argument was convincing at the time, and in 1491 frescos in Venice and elsewhere were being replaced by large canvases. Vasari noted that cloth "does not split and does not grow worm-eaten" and can be painted "with very little expense and labour".

It was probably not the flexibility of cloth that encouraged its use so much as its adaptability. Cloth stretched in an ornate frame has much of the appearance of panel, and perhaps it was the imitation of panel models that made canvas acceptable to patrons. For cloth can be made up to imposing size without danger of cracking, immense weight, or immense cost.

Another advantage that Mantegna seems to have had in mind is that large cloth paintings, such as his Triumphs of Caesar, have the grandeur of frescoes, but do not require the artist to work at his patron's residence, under his patron's eye. Given that they took some six years to complete, this must have reduced stress for the artist.


Painted cloth hangings served as inexpensive substitutes for tapestry. Painted, printed, stencilled, stamped and flocked cloth served as inexpensive, practical substitutes for woven patterns and brocades. And finally, painting on cloth became accepted as art, supplanting panel and fresco as the primary support.

Appendix 1: Methods of Painting on Cloth

Surviving painter's manuals give directions for painting on cloth, whether for use by embroiderers, or as decoration in itself.

Compositiones Variae, and Mappae Clavicula, treatises from the 8th century and later, provide instructions for gilding and painting on cloth, along with wall and panel.

De Coloribus et Artibus Romanorum instructs that linen cloth should be dipped in hot size, stretched over a panel and left to dry, then burnished with a glass muller, fastened on a wooden frame and painted with size, egg, or gum media.

Alcherius, in De Coloribus Diversis Modis Tractatur in Sequentibus (1398) recommends several coats "On cloth and sindone it is more necessary that this colour should be layd on twice, while tempered with size, before it is put on for the last coat tempered with white of egg." Each coat is to be burnished when dry, with a tooth or stone, before the next coat is laid.

In Alcherius' 1411 work Experimenta de Coloribus, he tells of a method attributed to painters in London, of stretching canvas over woollen cloths laid on the floor. The woollen cloths absorb excess moisture and prevent the paint from spreading. To paint large works, the painters would walk "with their clean feet over the said cloths".

Jehan le Begue's Experimenta de Coloribus (1431) describes an English technique of painting on cloth that has been saturated with gum water, stretched on the floor and dried.

Cennini, in Il Libro dell'Arte devotes a section to cloth painting, for linen or silk, and covering the special problems of velvet, dark cloth, and gilding on wool. For linen or silk, the cloth should be stretched on a frame, coated with size on both sides, and gesso sottile in size worked into it and scraped down. Like Alcherius, he recommends several coats of paint; "the colours must be laid in many, many times, far more than on panel, because the cloth has no body..." The colours are to be tempered "the same as for panel" which means yolk tempera. Gilding and punching can be accomplished by laying a coat of gesso sottile in a size and glair medium, followed by five or six coats of bole in glair. After this the leaf can be laid, burnished, and stamped, with a board and cushion under the cloth to support the work. He advises varnishing with a good clear varnish "because sometimes these banners, which are made for churches, get carried outdoors in the rain".

Special instructions are given on how to paint the same scene on both sides of the cloth, for a double-sided banner. In the case of blue or black cloth, there is no coat of gesso, only the coats of size, the designs are drawn with tailors' chalk and fixed with white lead, then another coat of size is laid. The painting may be tempered "in the usual way", or you may cut figures out of white cloth, glue them to the dark cloth, and paint in washes on those. "And you get more done, and cheaply, and it is handsome enough at the price." A similar applique method is suggested for velvet, the alternative being sizing it and beating the pile flat with a bristle brush.

The 1350 Great Wardrobe Accounts, while not interested in the method of painting, do provide supply lists for the ships' standards and streamers. They appear to have been painted with indigo, white lead, and orpiment in a size medium (19 gallons), and sealed with 49 lb. of candle wax. Sealing would be necessary for cloth exposed to seawater.

A Spanish document of 1355 refers to painting on linen or canvas with size as a "modus teutonicus" and attributes it to a German monk working in Venice. The technique became sufficiently popular that there is a Spanish word meaning "linen or canvas hanging painted with size"; that is, "sarga". There is a German equivalent, "Tuechlein", which also has a specialized meaning in illuminator's work, like English "clothlets" (linen scraps saturated in dye).

Cennini's rules for block-printing and painting linen call for a stretcher like "a cloth-covered window, four feet long, two feet wide" and a block of wood with a repeat design carved on it. The cloth is stretched on the frame, the block is inked with vine black in a varnish medium, and the design rubbed in with a porringer. The block can also be inked with white lead, red lead, vermilion, indigo with white lead and so on, in a varnish medium, as appropriate for the colour of the cloth. The single colour block print should be embellished with paint, using colours with no body, such as saffron or brazilwood in a lye medium, or verdigris in size.

Though Cennini does not describe it, a similar method was used for flocking on linen or canvas. The design was painted, stencilled or block printed with a varnish or slow-drying glue, and powdered wool was scattered over it. This gave the appearance of velvet. In the 17th century and later, powdered silk and metallic dust were used to imitate gold and silver brocade. In 1626, the Painter-Stainers Company of London claimed that "flock work" came under their monopoly.

Appendix 2: Some Surviving Examples:

I have included painted cloths in this appendix when I had a majority of the following information: material, medium, size, approximate date, present location, and possible purpose. Some other examples appear in the body of the paper, but with less information available.

Parement de Narbonne

Parement de Narbonne, Musee de Louvre, Paris

The Narbonne altar cloth is grisaille in black ink on silk 2.86 m long and 77.5 cm high, painted with scenes of the Passion and Resurrection. It was executed about 1375, probably commissioned by Charles V, since he and Jeanne de Bourbon appear kneeling on either side of the Crucifixion scene, a typical donor position. The artist is unknown, but the style is similar to that of the Tres Belles Heures of the Duc de Berry, so it may be assumed that he was a court artist.

Mitre d'Eveque, Musee de Cluny, Paris

(see text for illustration)

Associated with the Parement, but by a different artist, is a grisaille mitre, India ink on silk, painted between 1350 and 1370 with the Entombment and Resurrection, with saints. These pieces were most likely intended for use during Lent, for which grisaille was considered appropriate.

Vierge Protectrice

La Vierge Protectrice, Musee Crozatier, La-Puy-en-Velay

This is a distemper painting on linen, executed about 1420 probably as a banner, measuring 1.45 by 1.90 m. The subject is the Madonna sheltering all the classes of humanity within her mantle, which is supported by two saints. The clergy are on her right and the laity on her left. Among the laity are the king Charles VI, Isabeau de Baviere, and the Dukes of Berry, Anjou, and Orleans, and three figures who may be the donors. The artist is believed to have been part of the household of the Duc de Berry.

Entombment and Deposition

Toiles Peintes, Musee de Reims, Reims

This is a set of "counterfeit arras" on canvas. They are probably late 15th or early 16th century. The subjects are all Biblical, and are believed to have been modelled on miracle play performances. Some may be missing, but surviving are the Passion in 12 cloths, Vengeance of the Lord in 7 cloths, 4 cloths from the Story of Suzanne, and 1 each for Judith, Esther and the Apostles.


The Story of Job

Story of Job, Pinacoteca, Cremona

Two toiles peintes, probably Flemish, tempera on coarsely woven canvas, painted probably about 1500. The cloths are quite large, 1.67 m. by 2.6 m., suggesting that they were meant as imitation tapestry. They may have been larger originally, as there is no border and the edges of the pictures are truncated.


Justice of Herkinbald hanging

Justice Set, Rathaus, Cologne

A set of four paintings with the theme of Justice, painted between 1507-1510 for the Council Chambers at Cologne. The cloths are each about 2.44 m. by 2.24 m. Painted on linen, probably toiles peintes. The story of Herkinbald, pictured above, is also found on tapestries.

St. Mary Magdalene banner

St. Mary Magdalene with a Crucifix and Angels, Metropolitan Museum, New York

A processional banner, tempera on linen, painted on both sides. Painted by Spinello Aretino in 1375 for the Confraternity of Borgo San Sepulcro. Members of the flagellant confraternity kneel at the Magdalene's feet and angels serenade her.


Flag of the City of Ghent


Flag of the City of Ghent, Musee de la Byloke, Ghent

City flag, 2.77 m. long by 1.04 m. wide, painted in oils on both sides of a loose weave canvas. Commissioned in 1481 from the painter Agnes van den Bossche, the only Flemish cloth painting attributable to a woman painter.

Lepers banner

Lepers Banner, Louvre, Paris

Processional banner painted in 1502, probably for the Lepers Hospital of Bruges. 94 cm by 77 cm, painted on both sides in tempera, and apparently waxed, which would support its use outdoors. The two sides are not identical. The artist is unknown, but the donor is believed to have been Jean de Gruthuys.

St. Donatus banner

St. Donatus, Museo Nationale di San Matteo, Pisa

This is a processional banner, tempera on linen, painted about 1400 by Taddeo di Bartolo, a Sienese painter commissioned by the Confraternity of San Donnino. Members of the confraternity are shown kneeling at the saint's left, while a man attacked by a mad dog kneels at his right. The cloth is stretched in wooden frame, and apparently gessoed to support the gilded and punched background.


St. Anthony banner, both sides

St. Anthony Abbot, Pinacoteca Comunale, Deruta

A double-sided plague banner, tempera on linen in a wooden frame with pole, painted c. 1470 by Niccolo di Liberatore. The front shows St. Anthony enthroned, with members of a flagellant confraternity kneeling at his feet, with a gold background. The back shows SS. Francis and Bernardino of Siena, with a damasked background. Above both are scenes of the Passion.


Madonna della Misericordia banner

Madonna della Misericordia, church of San Francesco, Montone

The Italian version of la Vierge Protectrice, tempera on linen, painted in 1482 by Bartolomeo Caporali, probably ordered by the Confraternity della Misericordia, whose members kneel in the protection of the Virgin's mantle. SS. Francis, Anthony of Padua, Bernardino of Siena, and Sebastian also appear. This served as a plague banner, as an angry Christ is shown hurling plague arrows which are turned aside by the Madonna's mantle. The background appears to be gilded, with some punchwork.


Madonna della Soccorso banner

Madonna della Soccorso, Museo di San Francesco, Montefalco

Tempera on linen, painted by Francesco Melanzio for the Confraternity of San Niccolo da Tolentino, about 1500. This banner depicts a legend specific to Umbria and Tuscany, of the Virgin saving a child from being carried off by the devil, after his angry mother had wished the devil to take him. The repentant mother and members of the confraternity kneel at the Virgin's feet as she beats the devil off with a club.


section of the Triumphs of Caesar set

Triumphs of Caesar, Hampton Court

Set of 9 wall hangings, tempera on linen, painted in the late 1480s by Andrea Mantegna for the Duke of Mantua. Each piece is about 2.78 m x 2.79 m. (9x9 ft.) The subject is a triumphal procession in classical Rome. Martindale describes the medium as tempera, but it may be distemper (size) as little of it remains and the two media can be difficult to distinguish.

San Eutropia sarga

Sarga de San Eutropia, El Espinar

A huge altarcloth, 15.35 m. high by 5.06 m. across, grisaille (carbon ink) painted in distemper on canvas. Painted 1574-78 by Alonso Sanchez Coello, for the church in which it still hangs. It is suspended on rollers in the roof and cellar, so that it can be rolled out of the way and the altar revealed.


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