Stained and Painted Cloths

Stained and Painted Cloths

In this article, I want to look at a somewhat neglected form of textile commonly used in medieval churches and homes, stained and painted cloths.  Most surviving medieval textiles from English churches are made of fine materials, silk velvet or silk damask, with delicately worked silk and gold embroidery.  When these items were commissioned, they were costly. At the time of the Reformation in England, they still had considerable material value and could be sold for repurposing. Some vestments were even recycled and repurposed for use in the reformed liturgy of the Church of England, and a large proportion of the surviving medieval copes remain simply because they were adapted to serve as communion table carpets.

It is clear, however, by looking at fifteenth and sixteenth-century inventories of English church goods, that there was a second class of textiles in everyday use in church alongside this rich embroidery. There are numerous references to textile items made of what is referred to as ‘stayned’ (stained) or ‘paynted’ (painted) linen cloth.

Stained and painted cloths

Stained and painted cloths in primary sources

I’ve quickly gone through a couple of primary sources sitting here on my bookshelves to give you an indication of the breadth of items produced from stained or painted linen.   Firstly, I spent about ten minutes flicking through the Edwardian Inventories of Buckinghamshire taken in 1552 & 1553 when the trappings of the Catholic religion were just about to be destroyed. I found the following references:

Horton: ‘iiij banner clothes of lynnon clothe paynted’ p. 56

Latimer: ‘ij hangynges of lynyn pentyde for the awter’ p. 49.

Buckland: ‘two paynted clothes of canvys hanginge before the altares’ p. 95.

Little Horwood: ‘iiij banner clothes peyntyd & on crosse clothe of green sylke and an other payntyd’ p. 85.

Dunton: ‘peyntyd crosse cloth of buckram’. p. 81.

Swanbourne: ‘ij paynted clothes of canves’ and interestingly ‘certayn other lynnen clothes paynted and some unpaynted be distributed to the poore people of the paryssh’. pp. 82-83.

These cheap clothes had little market value.

Eddlesborough: ‘a canopy staynyd a vayle to draw byfore the hye altar staynyd’ p. 68

Datchet: ‘a paytyd cloth that did hange befor our lady’. p. 55.

Amersham: ‘a linen clothe to the sepulture / a valens for the same of peynted clothe / a canaby clothe paynted a vayle peynted / a peynted clothe for the great roode’ p. 51.

Kingsey: ‘ij hangynges a fore the aulttr stayned’ p. 2

And from Oxfordshire:

Newnham Murren: ‘two banners and oon stremer of steyned lynen’ p. 99.

Horspath: ‘a peynted lynen cloth for the sepulcre … a peynted lynen cloth for Lent’ p.64.

From this quick flick through these sources, it is evident that stained or painted material was used for processional banners and pennants, as altar frontals and dossal curtains, as coverings for crosses on Lent, for hangings before images and hangings before the Easter Sepulchre in the chancel.

The iconography and imagery on stained and painted cloths

This rather bald information found in these confiscation inventories does not indicate the decoration on these stained and painted cloths. For a sense of that, we have to look at earlier inventories from a time when the late medieval religious settlement was still relatively secure.  An inventory of 1529 from the well-equipped church at Long Melford in Suffolk, gives us the following details of stained or painted clothes:

‘over John Hill’s altar is a good stained cloath of the Trinity, of the gift of Robert Collett’.

‘at St Edmund’s altar is a painted cloath of St Michael and Our Lady’.

‘Three long cloaths hanging before the rood loft, steined or painted with the Dawnce of Powlis’. 

‘before St Anthony a stained cloath with part of the mownt’.

(D. Dymond and C. Paine, Five Centuries of an English Parish Church (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 76-77).


From the 1504 inventory of goods in another well-equipped church, St Mary the Great in Cambridge:

‘A ffrounte steyned with the Resurrexcion in the middes of lynyn’

‘two curtyns of the same with angelles steyned upon them.’

‘lynnyn clothes steyned with crosses for Lente’

‘a Clothe for the Roode lofte steyned with Moyses’

‘a curteyn of white with gilte Rosis steyned of lynyn clothe.’

‘a peynted auter clothe with seint lawrence and seint stephen’

‘a nother auter clothe steyned with seint andrewe’

‘a nother auter clothe steyned with our lady piete’

E. Foster (ed.), Churchwardens’ Accounts of St Mary the Great Cambridge from 1504 to 1653 (Cambridge, 1905), pp. 8, 10, 13.


A breadth of decoration on these stained or painted cloths is described, some purely decorative, but some clearly figurative. Some of these cloths were clearly for Lenten use, what we now term Lent Array, but it appears many were also for everyday use.  The cloths for the rood loft are interesting to note, stained at Long Melford with the ‘Dance of Paul’s,’ i.e. the Dance of Death and at Cambridge with a figure of Moses.

Stained and painted cloths

How were stained and painted cloths made?

So how were these painted cloths manufactured?  The Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex has recreated a domestic painted cloth for the 15th-century Wealden Farmhouse House called ‘Bayleaf’, which gives us some insight into the processes involved in producing such items for church use. The cloth at Bayleaf hangs behind the high table in the open hall of the house. The artist Melissa White has created a paled cloth painted to replicate the patterns found on more expensive figured silks and velvets. 

The production of these cloths is relatively straightforward. A course and inexpensive linen canvas is first sized with rabbit skin glue and stretched on a frame. The cloth is painted using Distemper, raw pigments mixed with the rabbit skin glue size, then painted onto the cloth with various brushes while still warm. In Melissa White’s reconstruction at Bayleaf, the pigments are relatively inexpensive: lampblack, chalk white, and different earth colours, including red and yellow ochre. The only costly pigment used is the brightly coloured Vermillion. The result is vibrant, rich and attractive, but compared to embroidered textiles, the cloths would have been quick and cheap to produce even with elaborate figurative decoration.

Stained and painted cloths

Stainers and Painters – what’s the difference?

Those who produced such painted textiles were known as ‘Stainers’ and were distinctive to the ‘Painters’ who only painted solid objects. The industry producing such cloths in London was sufficiently vibrant by the early 15th century that the Stainers could organise themselves into a livery company. In 1502 they joined forces with the Painters to form a joint company, the ‘Painter-Stainers’, which continues.

Surviving stained and painted cloths

Sadly, only a handful of medieval stained and painted cloths from a church context survive in Europe, and there is only one example from England. These painted cloths were particularly vulnerable during the Reformation purge in England. Of little monetary value and already much used for domestic furnishing, they were given away to the poor (as at Swanbourne) or sold for a few pence to hang in dwellings. If not repurposed, they might be discarded altogether with little financial loss to the parish.

Stained and painted cloths

The Hessett burse

Only one English survivor of this type of work from a church context exists.  It is a burse of the early fifteenth century and was found sometime before 1869 at the bottom of the parish chest at Hessett in Suffolk.  It is now on display in the British Museum.  Once again, of coarse linen, the front has been painted with Christ’s face, appearing in a cusped opening.  It\’s a Vernicle, the miraculous image of Christ\’s face that appeared on the cloth offered to Jesus by Veronica on the way to the Cross.  An appropriate image in this context, given that the burse is designed to contain the linen cloths used at the Mass and on which the Host was consecrated.  In the four corners of the burse are images of the Four Evangelists, and all this imagery is contained within a twisted ‘candy cane’ border. 


Stained and painted cloths

On the reverse, in a similar opening, is seen an Agnus Dei, a symbol of the sacrifice of Christ.  The painting of the reverse of this burse is in much better condition than on the front, suggesting that it was less exposed to the sun.  Some sense of the original richness of the piece can be seen here.  The blue of the opening has been painted, not with blue pigment, but with layers of grey, a technique also in wall paintings in this period.  There is the use of red and yellow oxide, a hint of green and the ubiquitous Vermillion, the latter preserving its richness even on the faded front of the burse.  Two tassels survive; these have been dyed pink. A beautiful piece and the sole surviving example of an artistic medium that was ubiquitous in the medieval churches of England.  

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9 thoughts on “Stained and Painted Cloths”

  1. I visited Hessett last week and was most interested to hear about the burse and also a pyx-cloth found together in the trunk (made of undyed linen openwork). I wonder about the dyes used for the tassels: I imagine this was most likely to be madder, which I grow easily in Bury St Edmunds

          1. I thought madder or thinner relatives like bedstraw or cleavers was the main red dye at that time? There were techniques around to get pinks and strong reds- there was a technique called “Norwich Red” , which alludes me with my own experiments. Which end of the A14?!

          2. Brasil and lac are mentioned as dyestuffs, even for linen and leather. I am only suggesting that they equally could be given the quality of the work and general lavishness of it, but as you say, it could be other dyestuffs too.

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