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A baldachin, or baldaquin (from Italian: baldacchino), is a canopy of state typically placed over an altar or throne. It had its beginnings as a cloth canopy, but in other cases it is a sturdy, permanent architectural feature, particularly over high altars in cathedrals, where such a structure is more correctly called a ciborium when it is sufficiently architectural in form. A cloth of honour is a simpler cloth hanging vertically behind the throne, usually continuing to form a canopy. It can also be used for similar canopies in interior design, for example above beds, and for processional canopies used in formal state ceremonies such as coronations, held up by four or more men with poles attached to the corners of the cloth.
"Baldachin" was originally a luxurious type of cloth from Baghdad, from which name the word is derived, in English as "baudekin" and other spellings. Matthew Paris records that Henry III of England wore a robe "de preciosissimo baldekino" at a ceremony at Westminster Abbey in 1247. The word for the cloth became the word for the ceremonial canopies made from the cloth.
In the Middle Ages, a hieratic canopy of state (or "estate"), cloth of honour, or cloth of state was hung above the seat of a personage of sufficient standing, as a symbol of authority. The seat under such a canopy of state would normally be raised on a dais. The cloth above a seat generally continued vertically down to the ground behind the seat. Emperors and kings, reigning dukes and bishops were accorded this honour. In a 15th-century manuscript illumination the sovereign Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller in Rhodes sits in state to receive a presentation copy of the author's book. His seat is raised on a carpet-covered dais and backed with a richly embroidered dosser (French, "dos"). Under his feet is a cushion, such as protected the feet of the King of France when he presided at a lit de justice. The King of France was also covered by a mobile canopy during his Coronation, held up on poles by several Peers of France. The Virgin Mary in particular, is very often shown sitting under a cloth of honour in medieval and Renaissance paintings where she is shown enthroned with saints.
Margaret Beaufort, Queen Mother, at prayer, by an anonymous artist, about 1500.
Held over the Virgin by angels, in an altarpiece by Lorenzo Lotto
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