The Ursula Shrine Linnen Armour (Padded Jack Series I)

The Saint Ursula Shrine, painted by Hans Memling before 1489, is one of the best known works of the Flemish art of the 15th century. This liturgical shrine is not very big. In fact, the painted panels are only 35cm high. The paintings depict the martyrdom of St. Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins in Cologne and feature a wide selection of arms and armour. Among them are two pieces of thick linnen armour, both worn over mail.


Three of the side panels of the Ursula shrine by Hans Memling.

We will call these items padded jack for the remainder of this article, even if this term comes with a lot of problems. The right one of the two figures wearing a jack also wears metal reinforcements on the outer arms. These are known as jack chains among reenactors. Let us look at this figure a bit more. Given the panel is 35cm high, the figure itself stands at 14cm; the armour about 5cm high. The amount of detail that went into this figure is very impressive. What do we see exactly?


The 2nd figure wearing a linnen armour from the Ursula Shrine.

We see a padded jack with attached or semi-attached arms. We look at it from the back. The torso is very tight around the waist. It looks as if the various layers of cloth would be held together by knots, likely running through all layers. These knots are arranged in a regular fashion, forming lines of knots and resulting in a grid-like look. If we count the vertical lines from the left armpit to center of the back, we get five vertical lines of knots, with one line running down from the armpit, one line hitting the outer edge of the armpit, then two lines running down from the shoulder and a central line in the center of the back. We can assume that the right side of the back has the same number of vertical lines, but the right armpit is not visible.


The visible structures emphasized (scheme by Christian Folini)

The upper rim around the neckline seems to be enforced by an additional piece of cloth covering the edges of the various layers underneath. The neckline is running fairly low giving view to the mail worn underneath. The top horizontal fold hits the neckline in the center. To the left of the neckline there is only one knot visible. The top knot expected on the outer vertical line hitting the shoulder is not visible. It is most likely covered by a strap indicated in the painting. The central knot of this topmost horizontal line is missing as it would lie above the neckline. There are nine horizontal lines visible. The third one from below is around the
  tight waist. The line closest to the lower edge is visible, but you can not see the knots. It is unclear whether there are not any knots visible or they are really missing. The knots forming the lines squeeze the cloth quite a bit.  This is especially true below the waist, where the garment gets a fluffy look near the lower rim. It is therefore most likely, that the knots disappear in the folds of the cloth. Around the lower edge of the cloth, the cloth has a greyish colour. Probably two fingers wide. I do not have a good explanation for this. Another detail is surprising: If you look at the left leg, you can see, that the linnen armour looks quite thin on the leg. The fluffy cloth is also pressed by the belt of the sword. Also surprisingly, the belt itself does not stand up on the cloth. It looks very flat indeed. 


The visible structures emphasized without the painting (scheme by Christian Folini)

The arms of the padded armour are either attached via straps, or their upper shoulder part is sewn to the torso. This is not quite clear. It is clear however, that the armpit is open and that the clothing arms do not connect with the torso around the armpit. Again, the torso's seam around the armpit is enforced by an additional piece of cloth. The arms themselves are also covered with the knots we saw on the torso. On the left arm, a pair of so-called jack chains is visible. It covers much of the knot structure. On the right arm, we hardly see the chains, but the inner part of the arm is well visible instead. It seems that the vertical lines on the outer side of the arm (visible on the left arm) are a bit tighter than the inner vertical lines visible on the right arm. Maybe it is something like eight or even nine vertical lines of knots running around the arm. Five or six of them facing outside. There are ten horizontal folds running around the arm. Five of them around the upper arm, five around the lower arm. Two lines mark the elbow, one running above, one running below the elbow. The topmost line of knots is sitting right on the upper rim of the arm or very close to the edge, as visible on the left shoulder.  The shoulder itself is quite round. The inner edge of the cloth forming the arm lies close to the torso, thus giving optimal freedom of move for the shoulder joint. In fact, this is very close to the cut of a period doublet.


The visible parts of the linnen armour emphasized (scheme by Christian Folini)

The right elbow also has a round, almost ball-shaped form. On the inner side of the elbow, we can see that there is  a gap or hole in the inner side of the elbow. There is a enforced piece of cloth running around this hole. Another thing strikes the eye: Inside the hole we do not see the chainmail, we might expect as there is a chainmail running lower than the cloth armour on the hips and supposedly the same piece of mail being visible around the neck. Here, inside the right elbow, we do not see a piece of mail. I see three possible explanations:

  • There is no chainmail and the cloth we can see inside the hole is a shirt.
  • The hole is in fact not really a hole but simply a part of the clothing with fewer layers and a brim. The chainmail is thus covered by some layers of cloth, but probably less layers than the rest.
  • There is supposed to be a chainmail, but the painter forgot it.

The lower arm might give us a hint: Around the ankle, the cloth armour is very tight. So tight in fact, that it looks very unlikely that there would be room for a chain mail. Still, which explanation holds true, I can not tell.

That much on what we can see. This blog post is meant to be a start of a series about this interesting piece of clothing. I am planning to recreate it step by step and let you know about the progres in a series of blog posts. Feedback is very welcome of course. Please write to the Company contact email address.

By Christian Folini, Veteran Company member.