The word derives from late Latin bandum, a cloth out of which a flag is made (Latin banderia, Italian bandiera). German developed the word to mean an official edict or proclamation and since such written orders often prohibited some form of human activity, bandum assumed the meaning of a ban, control, interdict or excommunication. Banns has the same origin meaning an official proclamation, and abandon means to change loyalty or disobey orders, semantically "to leave the cloth or flag".
A heraldic banner is usually square or rectangular.
A distinction exists between the heraldic banner and the heraldic standard. The distinction, however, is often misunderstood or ignored. For example the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom is in fact a banner of the royal arms.
Banners in churches have, in the past, been used mainly for processions, inside or outside of the church building. However, the emphasis has, in recent years, shifted markedly towards the permanent or transient display of banners on walls or pillars of churches and other places of worship. A famous example of large banners on display is Liverpool R.C. Cathedral, where the banners are designed by a resident artist.
For banners used in the Eastern Orthodox Church, see Khorugv.
The prophet Isaiah was commanded to raise a banner and exalt his voice (Isaiah 13:2). Habakkuk received a similar order to write a vision upon tables that could be read by one who runs past it (Habakkuk 2:2). Today, banners are used to communicate the testimony of Jesus Christ by evangelists and public ministers engaged in Open Air Preaching.
In Britain, trade union banners have been made since the 1840s, and at May Day parades, they could be counted in the hundreds. The iconography of these banners included mines, mills, factories, but also visions of the future, showing a land where children and adults were well-fed and living in tidy brick-built houses, where the old and sick were cared for, where the burden of work was lessened by new technology, and where leisure time was increasing. The same kind of banners are also used in many other countries. Many, but not all of them, have red as a dominant colour.
These are often made commercially on a plastic background. The banner industry has been evolving from the traditional cut-vinyl banners to banners printed with large format & wide format inkjet printers on various vinyl and fabric materials using solvent inks and uv-curable inks.
A number of British towns and cities have whole series of banners decorating their city centres, effectively advertising the town or its special features and attractions.
Protest banners are either carried by demonstrators during a protest march, typically at the head of the procession, or fixed to walls, trees or other stationary objects to be read by anyone who happens to pass by.
As an art form, the protest banner can have an elaborate design or just consist of a slogan hastily scribbled or sprayed on a piece of canvas, cloth, or cardboard. In the August 2003 issue of The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, Yates Mckee notes that "the protest banner explicitly announces its instrumentality; it is designed for application in the service of an end outside of itself, which is why it is barely afforded the status of a 'medium' in the discourse of art-criticism. Indeed, this relation of means and ends traditionally governs the distinction between 'art' and 'propaganda'."