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Lift high the royal banner: making banners can be fun, involve all ages, revolutionize worship space and communicate the gospel visually.

Banners are part of our everyday lives. Malls use them as seasonal decorations. Universities display them at convocations for the different faculties. People use computer-generated banners to celebrate birthdays and special occasions. But churches, following in the footsteps of Solomon's beautifully decorated temple, have used banners for thousands of years.

Types of Banners

* Picture only

Who needs words to communicate an idea? The images on these works can be as simple as a crown of thorns or as intricate as the finely woven vine on a banner I saw in a large Anglican cathedral.

* Words only

In one United church I attended, two white banners were decorated with the word "Hallelujah" repeated all over the banners in various media and in different scripts, spellings, directions and colours. As a child, I studied these beautiful works of art endlessly during services.

* Pictorial with printing

One of the most effective banners I ever saw had only two words on it: "His hands." Above was a large handprint with a bloody nail mark. Simple, yet striking.

* Sequential

Erskine Church in Hamilton, Ontario, has two series of small banners -- one for Advent and one for Lent. During these seasons, a new symbol is added each week around the circular balcony in the sanctuary. One Mennonite church I visited has a series of banners, representing a growing shaft of light, hanging left to right across the front of the church. Another sequential banner had ribbons on it which were lengthened and changed in colour according to the progression of the church calendar.

All types of banners can vary in size, shape and hem style (single-pointed, double-pointed, wavy, jagged). Variations in ribbon, supporting dowelling, heading and trim can change the look of a piece dramatically.

In the militaristic societies of the Old Testament, banners were important symbols of lineage, history and power. The analogy used in Song of Songs of a love as "terrible as an army with banners" would have been readily understood by anyone in ancient times. Banners were carried into battle, and the capture of the enemy's standard meant military and moral victory. How agonizing it would have been for the Jews to see Romans marching into their land, arrogantly displaying the confiscated standards of conquered peoples. The same pain and despair were on faces as huge red and black swastika banners were marched into conquered countries by the Nazis during the Second World War.

In an article in Christian Week, Gerry Bowler gave a succinct history of banners. Archaeologists, he says, have discovered that churches used banners more than 1,500 years ago. Even sixth-century Egyptians used textiles bearing symbols such as the cross and the lion which were later incorporated into Christian art. With the Crusaders, banners included both the military and religious as battle was waged under the sign of the cross. Medieval churches were decorated with military flags as knights enshrined their standards there. During the Reformation, banners were raised high in the front ranks of marching groups, from peasant armies to protesting Roman Catholics. More recently, banners have become brilliant tools in the hands of the Salvation Army, the rebuilders of Coventry Cathedral and the innovative artists emerging from Vatican II.

Making a Banner

1. Start a file of clippings from magazines, newspapers and other publications containing pictures for possible banner consideration.

2. Collect ideas, designs and materials. Someone at Erskine donated fabric sample books. The variation, colour and beauty of the material reminded me of butterfly wings. So each child worked on his or her own butterfly, and a vibrant message was created with our "Born Again" banner.

3. Materials. Sheets, cheap fabric remnants and old curtains can provide backgrounds. Make sure the material is heavy enough to hold items without buckling. Use white glue or glue guns or sewing to attach the items to your banner. Felt is an excellent material to use for background, decorations and lettering. Letters can be pasted, embroidered or painted. (I use an overhead projector to outline the lettering before applying water-based paint.) Let your imagination go wild in decorating your banner. Our butterfly banner used all of the following: sequins, buttons, ribbons, pipe cleaners, chenille strips, felt, coloured glue, fabric strips, fabric trim and whatever else we could find. You will, of course, have to buy dowelling and ribbon or cord to hang the banner.

Bowler credits Canadians with renewing the interest in liturgical art. Banners made by Canadian artist Norman Laliberte for the Vatican pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1964 caused such a sensation that others began to reintroduce banners into religious settings. By the 1990s, Canadian artists, he says, had emerged as "among the world's finest in the use of liturgical textiles." There are many reasons Canadian churches use banners.

Things to Remember

Here are some words of caution from someone who has learned from her mistakes:

* Communicate one idea. Don't make the art so "busy" people miss the message.

* Get the big picture. Stand back when assembling a banner to see how it looks from a distance: whether the lettering is straight and if the arrangement is the most effective possible. Remember, something lying flat looks very different when hanging.

* Make the lettering uniform. Inconsistencies stick out like a sore thumb. When letters are inconsistently sized and poorly spaced, an otherwise beautiful banner looks cheap.

* Don't put a date on the work unless it is specifically designed for a special occasion. The banner will have a longer "wall life."

* When working with children, use non-toxic paints. Only older children should use glue guns -- and make sure they are low-temperature craft guns. To avoid accidents, keep the decorating materials some distance away from the bolt of background material. Closely supervise the attachment of decorations or do this yourself. And as there is no point in a written message if it cannot be read, ask an adult to do the lettering for a co-operative children's banner.

* Finally, a note about colour. Any number of liturgical resources will list the appropriate colours for different church seasons. Such colours link us with the whole church, past and present. Nevertheless, as anyone admiring stained-glass windows will see, any combination of colours which creates beauty should be used. And keep in mind the psychology of colour, the emotions each colour prompts and the moods different hues create.

Banners provide non-architectural change. In A Community of Joy: How to Create Contemporary Worship, Timothy Wright addresses the need for churches to make sanctuaries visitor-friendly. One way, he suggests, is by hanging banners to enhance the worship atmosphere. Mae Runions, a Canadian textile artist and professional banner-maker, says fabric adds a dimension different from paintings: "Fabric has a warmth to it, and an inviting kind of appearance. It warms up a space."

Unlike frescos or large statues, banners can be changed for seasons or special occasions or they can be removed easily if they become passe. They can also act as portable fabric space dividers -- or change the acoustics by "soaking up" sound.

Banners appeal to different learning styles. Many churches seem stuck in the age of radio -- with all elements in worship geared toward learning by hearing. Over the years, churches forgot the rich visual lessons of the medieval cathedral -- the peasants' "bible in glass and stone." "We have a great responsibility to put our faith into visual terms in this visual age, and to make our sanctuaries the place for visually communicating the word," says Rob Frost in his book Breaking Bread. "Even if a service is `boring,' the church walls can be alive with colourful symbols which will enrich worship."

Sometimes it is more economical to hang something on a wall than to repaint it. Banners can remodel an outdated sanctuary for minimal cost. They also provide a way to recycle old materials. By using leftovers, we made our "Born Again" banner for under $20. I have seen beautiful works of art made of silk but I have also come across equally marvellous creations made out of bed sheets. Different materials convey a variety of feelings. "A rich piece of silk says something far different from a piece of a monk's cloth or burlap, even though they are dyed the same colour" (Literary Resources).

Banners are good communicators. They are the internal billboards of the church. They can disturb, uplift or simply be a source of beauty. "We are thinking, not of beauty (or art) for its own sake, but of beauty which draws attention to the Lord of beauty. This beauty is seen in our church buildings ... in our symbolism ... in our musical expressions," say worship specialists Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror.

Banners give artistic people of all ages an opportunity to minister to others in the congregation. They encapsulate memories: people can point to one and say, "I helped make that." In a sacred setting, they add a human touch. At Erskine, our banners involve a variety of people working on different parts of them -- a great way to build community involvement!

In their painful struggle to survive, Protestants came to abhor anything smacking of papal regalia. But we now appreciate what we lost in the ceremonial beauty of liturgy. Vestments, robes and banners can all be used to enhance worship, reflecting the church seasons and their significance. Banners are "another sign of the welcome and long-over-due end of the divorce between the arts and the children of the Reformation," says Professor Bowler.

Banners have served God's people for thousands of years. Let's continue to "lift high his royal banner" into the next millennium.


Art of the Spirit: Contemporary Canadian Fabric Art by Helen Bradfield, Joan Pringle and Judy Ridout (Dundurn, 1992).

Banners and Flags: How to Sew a Celebration by Margot Carter Blair and Cathleen Ryan (Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich, 1977).

Quick and Easy Banner Designs by Carol Jean Harms (Concordia, 1996).

Banner Patterns for Worship by Carol Jean Harms (Concordia, 1988).

His Banner Over Me Is Love: Dynamic Designs for Worship Settings by Dale A. Bargmann (Concordia, 1995).

Dawn Martens is the music director at Erskine Church in Hamilton, Ont.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Presbyterian Record
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Martens, Dawn
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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