Fragments of a Confraternity Banner
Medieval and Renaissance painters worked on a wide variety of objects, not just pictures intended to be hung on walls. Here we have a rare survival of an important type of artwork from this time: a painted banner.
Banners like this were designed to be seen from a distance. They were usually around 2.5 metres high, and hung from a tall wooden cross which would be carried at the head of public processions.
Made in Milan in around 1500, the banner from which these came was possibly associated with the important confraternity of the Immaculate Conception (the belief that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin). This was set up in Milan under the sponsorship of the Franciscan Order. Behind the group of kneeling men we can see part of a figure of a saint, apparently dressed in brown robes – perhaps Saint Francis.
Medieval and Renaissance artists worked on a wide variety of objects, not just pictures intended to be hung on walls. These two paintings – Male Members of a Confraternity and Female Members of a Confraternity – are a rare survival of an important type of artwork from this time: a painted banner.
Made in Milan in around 1500, they were painted on silk or linen which was later mounted on wooden panels. Banners like this were designed to be seen from a distance. They were usually around 2.5 metres high and hung from a tall wooden cross, which would be carried at the head of public processions, such as those organised by confraternities.
Confraternities were an important feature of society. They had their own rules and meeting places, and organised public events such as processions, funerals and services of remembrance for their members. The medieval equivalent of charities, they ran hospitals, looked after orphans and prisoners, and distributed food, clothing and money to the poor.
Each confraternity had its own guildhall and church or chapel where saints' feasts and other devotions were celebrated, and for which they commissioned frescoes, crosses and altarpieces as well as banners. The Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints by Benozzo Gozzoli and The Adoration of the Kings by Paolo Veronese were painted for confraternity chapels in Florence and Venice.
Behind the group of kneeling men we can see part of a figure of a saint, apparently dressed in brown robes – perhaps Saint Francis. In 1475 the confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was set up in Milan under Franciscan sponsorship. It was hugely successful, and was soon able to build – and sumptuously decorate – a new chapel attached to the church of San Francesco (now destroyed). In 1483 they commissioned Leonardo da Vinci and Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis to paint an altarpiece for the chapel.
Could these paintings have come from a banner made for this confraternity? Another piece of the same banner, showing God the Father – an appropriate part of an image of the Immaculate Conception, like in this version by Carlo Crivelli – was in a private collection in Milan in the mid-nineteenth century. We will probably never be able to confirm this tempting hypothesis.