Gold Brocade and Renaissance Painting

Rembrandt Duits is the Deputy-Curator of the Photographic Collection at the Warburg Institute, where he has worked since 1999. He studied Art History and Iconology at the University of Utrecht, where he received his PhD. Dutis has a wide range of art historical interests, and has been published in the fields of textile history, Renaissance material culture, Renaissance and Byzantine art, historiography, and iconography. In addition, he created and maintains the Warburg Institute Iconographic Database, which has digitized about twenty percent of the Warburg Institute Photographic Collection’s mythological and astrological subjects.

His book Gold Brocade and Renaissance Painting: A Study in Material Culture grew out of his PhD thesis. It deals with the social and economic significance of gold brocaded textiles in Renaissance Europe, both in reality and in contemporary depictions. Gold brocade, primarily manufactured in Italy, was universally understood as a symbol of splendor. It would be owned only within the grandest courts or by prominent religious figures. Although slightly less prosperous courts may not have owned much gold brocade, it was much more affordable to include it in paintings. Such painted depictions of these textiles provide insight into the skills and techniques of court painters, as well as the meaning and symbolism that gold brocade possessed.

Gold brocade, often referred to as “cloth of gold”, was primarily manufactured in Italy. These fabrics were so luxurious and expensive that they invariably signaled royalty to viewers, and were universally understood as a symbol of splendor. Gold brocaded textiles therefore would be owned only within the grandest courts or by prominent religious figures.

In the 14th century, the Italian court in the city of Lucca was among the very first to use large quantities of gold brocaded silk textiles. At this time, the papacy also possessed substantial amounts of gold brocaded silk, in a variety of ground colors. Such fabrics would have been used in liturgical accessories and garments, as well as for other ceremonial purposes. There are even records from 1369 that Pope Urban V had a cloth-of-gold canopy over his bed, and another record to suggest that he owned cloth-of-gold ear warmers produced in Lucca.

I chose to show a fragment of cloth-of-gold so that we may use our imaginations about the purpose or purposes that this textile could have served. This fragment has been dated to 15th century Italy, and depicts lions and peacocks. In Christian symbolism, the lion represents Christ’s resurrection and the peacock represents immortality. It is composed of gold threads on a blue silk ground. The contrast between the blue and the gold allows us to clearly distinguish these long gold floats in the weft direction.

Less wealthy courts and churches may not have been able to afford gold brocaded textiles. However, for a much more affordable price, they could depict it in paintings. In fact, in the very specific economic niche of royal-gift-giving, gold brocade and paintings came to be in direct competition with each other towards the middle of the sixteenth century. Such painted depictions of these textiles provide insight into the skills and techniques of court painters, as well as the meaning and symbolism that gold brocade possessed.

A popular medium for painting in the fifteenth century were panel paintings and altarpieces. In fact, panel paintings were so relatively inexpensive that they frequently do not appear on contemporary inventory records. Donors would commission panel paintings of religious figures, and would commonly have depictions of themselves included.

This panel painting depicting Mary and Jesus was once part of an altar piece at the Dominican church of Ascoli Piceno. It is Tempera on wood with a gold ground, created in 1472 by Carlo Crivelli. The Madonna is depicted wearing an elaborate gold brocaded cloak with a green silk ground and green lining. We can see a very large-scale repeating pattern of floral scrolling motifs and leaves. Gold brocade would have been an obvious choice here, as it plainly represents divinity, purity, and heavenly wealth. It’s also notable that the Christ child is depicted completely in cloth-of-gold.

Embroidered altarpieces also existed at this time, and are found in the inventories of Philip The Good and Charles The Bold. These would have been both incredibly expensive and fragile. Also, there is evidence that the Popes did not use painted altar pieces, but rather, preferred cloth-of-gold.

Members of the court and nobility wore gold and silver brocade in their clothing - although the quality and quantity of it varied according to status. These expensive and prestigious textiles could have been given on special occasions, such as for a wedding, or for no occasion at all, but purely to ensure the maintenance of appearances. For his illegitimate daughter, Phillip The Good gave the equivalent of half the cost of building the Medici palace just to ensure that she was dressed finely enough to maintain the honor of her rank.

This dress is known as the golden gown of Queen Margaret of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It has been carbon dated to between 1403 and 1439. It was pillaged from Denmark, and is now housed by the Uppsala Cathedral Museum in Sweden. In its original state, this dress was composed completely of woven gold brocade on a red silk lampas ground, with two warps and two wefts. The gold thread is strips of silver wrapped around silk threads. It would have been woven in northern Italy in the beginning of the fifteenth century.

The dress was actually recreated in 2010 by the Cathedral of Uppsala in conjunction with Durán Textiles. We can see from this replica how the original dress was meant to look, completely covered in a heavenly golden glow. Up close, we can see the intricate pattern that the gold brocade makes with the red silk ground. While this modern textile is screen printed and the original was woven, the design is exactly the same and the same scale. It creates what closely resembles the classic Italian Renaissance pomegranate pattern - it features large fruits, flowers, garlands, leaves, berries, small pomegranates, and crowns. The replica dress is currently on exhibition in The Swedish History Museum.


Duits, Rembrandt. Gold Brocade and Renaissance Painting: A Study in Material Culture. London: Pindar Press, 2008. pp. 111 – 156.

2 views0 comments