”Weaving; the most magnificent of arts, which distinguishes mankind from the animal.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The Kunstindustri Museum in Oslo has in its collection an extremely rare and exceptional tapestry, the Baldishol Tapestry. It is obviously a fragment of a much larger piece, as both vertical sides have been torn. It is thought to depict the months of April and May, and measures 118 x 203 cm. Historians place it stylistically as late Romanesque.The Baldishol is unique in Norwegian history as the only remaining tapestry from this period. In European history it is also very rare being among only a handful of Romanesque tapestries still existing.
The museum acquired the work through a series of fortunate circumstances. In 1876, the old church at Baldishol, Nes, Hedmark, was pulled down and all its contents sold at auction. Louise Kildal, who had already bought various items, asked if there were any old textiles. The church warden presented her with a dirty bundle he had used as a footrest and draught excluder. Louise Kildal having a discerning eye, was immediately interested in the bundle and bought it. Once home she gave the bundle a thorough wash and some necessary mending. Upon seeing her purchase in its true light she contacted the museum authorities who immediately saw its historic value.
In the latter part of the 19th century strong national fervour spread throughout Europe, creating a sense of nationalism that became a radical revolutionary movement. Norway was struggling to become an independent nation and free from Swedish domination. Independence was realised in 1905. This nationalism was a search for a Norwegian identity and a specific Norwegian culture. Collectors scoured the country for music, literature and art capable of manifesting this identity. Folk museums, art and craft museums were established. It was in this climate that the Baldishol Tapestry found its unique position in history.
Ever since it was first displayed, speculation and theory as to its authenticity have been many. Questions about its origin, age, style as well as the interpretation of its pictorial content are continually raised. This is inevitable with textile art of this period as so little still exists or is referred to in written documents. Estimates of the age of Baldishol tapestry have, during the last fifty years, wavered back and forth with up to a hundred years difference. With tapestry weaving being a traditional and conservative art, the form, style, content and technique often make dating a baffling task.
It can only be an assumption that the tapestry is Norwegian. Some have claimed it to be German, English, French or even Spanish. It could have been a commissioned work, or a foreign artist could have woven it in Norway, or it could have been brought to Norway by the Church or other donors. With Norway being a seafaring nation involved in trading, all these notions are distinct possibilities. If it is correct that the tapestry was made in the latter half of the 12th century, Norway was by then a Christian country and it is surmised that it has been woven in a convent. It has also been suggested that the whole tapestry was woven for Hamar Cathedral and begun about 1150.
All other surviving Romanesque tapestries are to be found in Germany, around Cologne and Hanover. In the cathedral at Halberstadt there are three long friezes, dating from 1170 to 1200. They are all considered to have been made in professional workshops, whereas the Baldishol is thought to have a more provincial look. The German tapestries are regarded as being more structural and true to the Romanesque cartoons they were woven from, whereas the Baldishol has a more free and decorative interpretation.
An English / Irish connection is possible in relating the style of the Baldishol to Celtic carvings that have much in common with Viking carvings. The tree in the Baldishol has a remarkable similarity to the door carving in the Hyllestad stave-church, which in turn is akin to some earlier English carvings.
An English / French connection can be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, perhaps made in Normandy, yet most likely in Canterbury, Kent in 1070-80. This vast embroidery gives detailed information as to the dress, armour and artefacts of this period. The Baldishol soldier’s helmet, shield, armour, boot and stirrup are almost identical with that armour found in the Bayeux, together with the clothing and demeanour of the standing figure.
Another French link, though perhaps tenuous, is the alternate backgrounds of red and blue in the Baldishol, that relate to the late gothic tapestry at Angers, the Apocalypse Tapestry, commissioned in 1375.
Barcelona’s Romanesque Museum houses many murals from Catalonian churches. Here it is striking to see how close the style, the motifs, and indeed the general structure are reminiscent of the Baldishol.
The architectural setting within the Baldishol with the column and arcades is often said to be the same as the portals one finds inside Norwegian stave churches. However, the same compositional device is found in Coptic tapestries.
The tapestry fragment, as it is today, depicts a bearded youth with his hand lifted in greeting or involved in a more complex act. Can he be sowing seed? Above the hand is a red diamond shape with small spots. Can this be the seed? Are the birds there because he is sowing seed? The spatial deployment of the ”sowing” figure gives a geometric, diagonal pattern on the left that creates a shallower space than on the right, where a tree and three horizontally ”climbing” birds are disposed on a more open background.
The space the rider exists in is more open. He moves from left to right, the rear of the horse apparently behind or on the same level as the pillar, while the horse’s head is in front of the next pillar. Both heads and feet break loose from their red or blue background and appear in front of the arcades and hover over the decorative border that comprises the foreground of the frieze. The pillars demonstrate an interesting attempt to give an indication of roundness with differing attempts to indicate a kind of foreshortening. Both pillars and arches are different in treatment.
The arches contain lettering that perhaps alludes to the month of April on the left, spell out PRIILIS, while the following month May is curiously spelt. Indeed it appears to spell out HINIS. Note the spatial sophistication of the heads of the figures which obliterates part of the letters, together with the less sophisticated reverse S’s, a common occurrence in mirror image transference.
In each scene there are 2 devices that resemble a crude ”fleur de lis”lying vertical to the picture plane. Are they an indication that one reads the tapestry from left to right? These appear to have little other pictorial function and are mainly decorative, together with other geometric, yet symbol-like forms that occur within these patterned backgrounds. The uppermost border is an example of ”running dog”, a decorative border that stems from ancient Greece. The lower border is ”acanthus”, which stems from the Hellenistic period of Greek art.
The Baldishol Tapestry has remarkable high colour intensity. Made with vegetable dyes, it is outstanding that the colour has maintained so much of its original quality. The blue and red colours are believed to be almost the original intensity, whereas the green and yellow have mellowed with time. The white colour is bleached linen and maintains it’s near pristine crispness.
The tapestry technique employed is ”stepping” and ”dovetailing” throughout. This is a quintessential mediaeval method that became the cornerstone of the Norwegian tapestry tradition. The Baldishol warp is made of two ply, coarse wool, with approximately 3.5 threads per centimeter. The weft is thin wool and linen. This makes a ridged surface that brings out the drawing and emphasizes the technique.
While the Baldishol is upheld as being significant to Norwegian art history and tapestry particularly, its glory and importance is not diminished by the array of speculation. It ought to be seen as an important work in a larger context, that of the extent and achievement of Romanesque Art.
Engelstad, H. (1952) Refil, Bunad, Tjeld. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag.
Sjøvold, A.B. (1976) Norsk billedvev. Oslo: C. Huitfeldt Forlag.