A Dossal (or dossel, dorsel, dosel), from French dos (back), is one of a number of terms for something rising from the back of a church altar. In modern usage it is generally restricted to, firstly, a cloth hanging or, secondly, a board, often carved or containing a painting, rising vertically from the back of the altar, to which it is attached. Retable and reredos are alternative terms for solid structures, as is altarpiece, all of them rather more commonly used today.
Dossal remains the usual term for an ornamental cloth suspended behind an altar, probably attached to the wall behind. This is often called a dossal curtain, and altar screen is also sometimes used as a synonym for a cloth dossal, as well as, more dubiously, for wood or stone screens in various locations in the sanctuary. Curtains at the side of an altar may be called riddels; these may be suspended between riddel posts at the corners of the altar. More rarely, a cloth dossal may continue as a horizontal "tester" hanging immediately over the altar, giving the cloth of honour configuration typical for enthroned monarchs and others in the Middle Ages, and often seen in medieval and Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary in particular. "Dossal" may also be used for a secular vertical cloth of honour, or the vertical part of one.
A refinement of the definition of a painted dossal is that it could be easily detached and fitted between poles (or some similar arrangement), and was carried in processions on particular feast-days. This definition is especially found relating to medieval Italy, and the Franciscans, who are thought to have begun this practice, commissioning Berlinghiero Berlinghieri soon after St Francis' canonization in 1228. The Bardi Dossal illustrated is such a piece, typical in that it shows a saint, here Saint Francis of Assissi, as the main image, surrounded by scenes from his life. In a larger altarpiece these would be predella scenes running below the main painting. However, dossal is used of some large polytychs which could not be taken on procession in this way. In academic art history, "dossal" is today only likely to be used for such paintings, or the textiles.
Cloth dossals rarely achieve much individual notability, but the "Lanercost Dossal" at Lanercost Priory, Cumbria, was specially designed by William Morris and embroidered by local ladies. It is 24 feet wide, in "worsted wools on a felted ground". It was removed for restoration in 2012, which was completed by 2014.
- "Dossal" in National Gallery Glossary
- Guild; Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 438. .
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. .
- Szakolczai, Arpad, Sociology, Religion and Grace, pp. 94-95, 2007, ISBN 1134194501, 9781134194506, google books; Franco, Bradley R., "The Functions of Early Franciscan Art", in The World of St. Francis of Assisi: Essays in Honor of William R. Cook, eds. Bradley Franco, Beth Mulvaney, 2015, BRILL, ISBN 9004290281, 9789004290280, google books
- "William Morris and his 'Cumbrian ladies' will be strumming their harps as their masterpiece is restored", Alan Sykes, The Guardian, 14 June 2012
- The William Morris Lanercost Priory Dossal - History and Conservation Archived 2016-04-17 at the Wayback Machine by Christine Boyce (27 pages).
- "Guild" = "Dossals, and Riddles and Testers", The Altar Guild Resource for the Diocese of Rhode Island