A baldachin, or baldaquin (Italian: baldacchino or baldachino), is a canopy of state 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. A cloth of honour is a simpler cloth hanging vertically behind the throne, which may be combined with a canopy.
In the Middle Ages, a hieratic canopy of state or cloth of state was hung over 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. Emperors and kings, reigning dukes and bishops were accorded this honour. In a 15th-century manuscript illumination (illustration) 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.
Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII was a personage of such importance that in her portrait by an anonymous artist, c. 1500 (illustration) she prays under a canopy of estate; one can see the dosser against the gilded leather wall-covering and the tester above her head (the Tudor rose at its center) supported on cords from the ceiling. The coats-of-arms woven into the tapestry are of England (parted as usual with France) and the portcullis badge of the Beauforts.
In the summer of 1520 a meeting was staged between François I and Henry VIII of England, where the ostentatious display of wealth and power earned the meeting-place the name of The Field of Cloth of Gold. Every detail of protocol and ceremony was worked out. There Catherine of Aragon sat under a canopy of estate lined with sewn pearls to watch the two kings joust. At the climax of the brief reign of Lady Jane Grey, when, determined to save his own neck, the Duke of Suffolk signed the proclamation that made Mary Tudor Queen, he went immediately to his daughter's apartments and tore down her canopy of estate, telling her she was no longer Queen. The canopy of estate may still be seen in some formal throne rooms (illustration).
The state bed (illustration, right), a lit à la Duchesse—its canopy supported without visible posts— was delivered for the use of Queen Marie Leszczinska at Versailles, as the centrepiece of a new decor realized for the Queen in 1730–35. Its tester is quickly recognizable as a baldachin, serving its time-honoured function; the bedding might easily be replaced by a gilded throne. The queens of France spent a great deal of time in their chambre, where they received the ladies of the court at the morning levée and granted private audiences. By the time Marie Antoinette escaped the mob from this bedroom, such state beds, with the elaborate etiquette they embodied, were already falling out of use. A state bed with a domed tester designed in 1775-76 by Robert Adam for Lady Child at Osterley Park and another domed state bed, delivered by Thomas Chippendale for Sir Edwin Lascelles at Harewood House, Yorkshire in 1773 are two of the last English state beds intended for a main floor State Bedroom in a non-royal residence.
Bernini's design for the Baldachin incorporated giant solomonic columns inspired by columns that ringed the altar of the Old St. Peter's. These columns were originally donated by Constantine and a false tradition asserts they are the columns from the Temple of Jerusalem; however, the columns are probably from a church in Byzantium. The lowest parts of the four columns of Bernini's Baldachin have a helical groove, and the middle and upper sections of the columns are covered in olive and bay branches, which are populated with a myriad of bees and small putti. Pope Urban VIII's family coat of arms, those of the Barberini family, with their signature bees, are at the base of every column.
All of these combined to create an upward feeling of movement.
A baldachin may also be used in formal processions, including Royal entries, coronation or funeral processions, to signify the elite status of the individual it covers. The origins of such an emblemmatic use in Europe lay in the courts of the Neo-Assyrian state, adopted in Athens perhaps as early as the late seventh century, but relegated to the use of women by the late fifth century (compare parasol).
Such canopies might be made of anything from muslin to heavy brocade, or even constructed of less flexible materials, and are supported by poles, whether affixed to a carriage, or carried by people walking on each side. An Egyptian Pharaoh, for example, was escorted both in life and in death by such a canopy of estate.