Norwegian tapestry 1550 -1800

“The Golden Age”

From the time of the Baldishol Tapestry, about 1180 to 1550 there are few significant remnants of Norwegian tapestry. There is only a written indication that tapestries were made to adorn churches and secular houses. Meanwhile in Europe, tapestry was a growth industry. With an increasing demand from church and state, professional workshops were established many places, notably France, Flanders, Germany, Spain, Italy and England. This was the era of the French ”Apocalypse Tapestry”, commissioned in 1373 and completed 1382, and the Unicorn Tapestries 1499, and many other great works. They became known as the portable frescos of Northern Europe and were great works of art, comparable to all other masterpieces. This was before tapestry became the servant of painting, which changed the form and function of the media.

The same period in Norway was particularly harsh. The country had lost its former independence to Denmark and was decimated by the Black Plague that arrived in 1349. By 1450 only a third of the population survived. Most of the educated classes, the nobility, clerics and public officials, became almost extinct. 75% of the nation’s income ceased to exist. After the plague came famine. By 1500, 7 out of 10 children died before the age of 5. Life expectancy was 27 years. In 1550 it is recorded that only 1000 people lived in Oslo. From being a salient factor in the development of European trade and culture in Viking times, Norway became a backwater.

But by 1550 trade was once again on the increase and the standard of living better. Towns such as Bergen, Skien, Oslo and Trondheim became centres of rapid economic growth, which in turn stimulated the import of ideas and artisans. It is in this climate of expectation that ”The Golden Age” of Norwegian Tapestry came to fruition as a peripheral echo of European mainstream art.

Tapestry weaving in Scandinavia was called ”Flemish”, demonstrating the influence of Flanders as an important centre for tapestry. The kings of Sweden and Denmark established Royal workshops for tapestry to furnish their needs and that of the aristocracy. In Norway, with an absent king and hardly any nobility, tapestry was left to flourish in a different manner.

The Reformation had stopped the influence of the Catholic Church, and thereby the demand for art and the dissemination of literacy. 90% of the population were poor peasants whose aim in life was survival. They had few resources and little interest in art and culture. Considering this unfortunate and illiterate background, the wealth of the tapestries created becomes even more remarkable.

From 1550 to 1800 tapestry became the main expression for visual art, rather than painting and sculpture. It is documented that the creators of the earliest ”Golden Age” tapestries came from Northern Germany and Schleswig-Holstein. These artist / weavers came from workshops that represented the Renaissance ideal and spirit. They came to a land where the mediaeval spirit still existed. This culture collision became the melting pot for the development and fruition of a special form of tapestry. The tapestries can be divided into two main groups, the earliest, made in the larger towns, and the latter, made primarily on the countryside.

In a comparison between the conditions available to European and Norwegian tapestry production, there are enormous differences. Tapestry, a complicated, refined, figurative woven picture, has always been an exclusive art form and a highly specialised craft. The great production of tapestries in Europe was only made possible by rich patrons, whose support enabled the development of professional workshops and studios. These were complex businesses that employed a huge numbers of different craftsmen with varied skills. Capital investment, artists and weavers, looms, processing of raw materials, storage, import, export, commissions, sales etc. were all aspects of these important commercial ventures. Meanwhile in Norway circumstances differed with a lack of patrons and professional acumen.

So in attempting to place Norwegian tapestry in a larger European context, there are some aspects that should be examined. In Europe from 1550 to1850 art moved from High Renaissance, through Mannerism, Baroque, Rocco, Neo-classicism, Romanticism and into the dawn of Impressionism. Europe moved from an agrarian society to an industrial one. These dramatic changes appear to have had but little effect on Norwegian culture.

Already during the Renaissance fine art was seen as architecture, painting and sculpture. Tapestry began to be regarded as an applied art, a craft. The schism of art from craft never concerned the Norwegians. Painting on a canvas or painting on a cupboard door or ceiling in a wealthy farmer’s house, employed and demanded the same skills and visual strength. Similarly, a tapestry woven for a nuptial bed, or a wall hanging, had to show equal visual conviction.

These tapestries, then and now, regardless of individual opinion and interpretation, remain a peripheral art form. As Thor B.Kielland writes:

“I once swam in the large pool of the St.Gellert baths in Budapest, where the natural hot water springs from the depths of the pool created the most beautiful patterns of eternally crossing circular movements. But along the pools edges those initial movements from the central depths met with new fresh streams of cold water that gushed from an unknown origin. The beautiful symmetrical rhythm of the central source was broken and new mysterious patterns appeared on the surface. It struck me that this was the correct picture for the relationship between mainstream art and peripheral art. Peripheral art is not merely an echo of mainstream art, it is in itself a well that springs forth with a different temperature and rhythm so that the currents mix and create a new unity. A such unity is Norwegian tapestry […]”

Moving from this poetic vision to actual dramatic facts, and while it is almost impossible to ascertain the kind of life these artist / weavers led, legal documents give us some chilling reading. No less than two women were burnt at the stake as witches in Bergen in 1590 and 1594. Both were involved with ”Flemish” weaving.

The first victim, Anne Pedersdotter Beyer, a widow, quarrelled with a carpenter she employed to make her a loom. He maintained that after the quarrel he was bewitched. The poor widow was accused, tried, found guilty and summarily burnt.

The second unfortunate woman was ”flemish weaver” Johanne Jensdatter. She owned her own house in Bergen, where she wove tapestries and gave tuition to young girls. She previously lived in Skien where she also ran a tapestry workshop, but had to leave due to accusations of witchcraft. Apparently she had crows outside her window that she called her children. She was accused of making a child ill. She could find lost property. And most serious of all, she couldn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. This ”evidence” was enough to send her to the stake. Sadly there are no existing tapestries attributed to Johanne Jensdatter, yet it can be assumed that her pupils disseminated her knowledge and experience of tapestry.

The oldest tapestries of this period are much closer to their renaissance prototypes than the later ones. This is seen in the treatment of the figures, the landscape settings, and the imitation of the wooden frames, which are much more naturalistic than the subsequent development over the next 200 years. Throughout the whole period tapestries were imported, most likely from Northern Germany and England. These early imports give a convincing insight into the production and style of workshops that were at a distance to the centres of mainline tapestry making, namely Brussels and Arras. Through the gradual introduction of small variations and simplifications, together with the use of coarser wool for both warp and weft, the Renaissance and Baroque ideal and style disappeared, replaced by images of greater stylisation and lesser special or perspective illusion. The figuration evolved into a codex akin to early Egyptian or Mayan Art.

The Abduction of Helen, perhaps of Flemish origin, about 1550. Kunstindustrimuseet, Oslo.

One of the oldest imported surviving tapestries ”The Abduction of Helen” is a good example of the translation process that occurred during the different rounds of interpretation from the original work to later versions. Here in the original, the three figures inhabit a recessive landscape where details attract attention. The border is complex with an array of figures and events that give even greater detail. A composition filled with narrative information and spatial consequence. By comparison the later version has a greater emphasis on the three figures and the earlier recessional space gives way to an almost flat background. The border is most revealing in that the narrative has been replaced by a decorative cornucopia of fruit, flowers, vines and other vegetation. It is as if, over the years, this tapestry has moved back in time. Back past the Renaissance, and the Gothic and arriving at a vision not dissimilar from the Romanesque. This depiction and style is often regarded by researchers as sure proof that these artist / weavers had a special ability to keep this Romanesque tradition alive.

King Solomon and his Bride Sulamite, about 1570, from Hjartdal in Telemark. Nordiska Museet, Stockholm.

An early tapestry from Hjartdal in Telemark showing this pseudo-Romanesque style is ”King Solomon and his Bride Sulamite”. It measures 244cm. high by 186 cm wide and has a linen warp and wool weft. The immediate impression is that of a tapestry produced with pride and pleasure. This crowded but well organised composition demonstrates the capability of the weavers to draw in the loom. The presentation of the narrative in lines, recurring rhythms and intricate detail show a profound understanding of the technical demands.

The Magi and the Adoration, 1717, from Skjåk in Gudbrandsdalen. Kunstindustrimuseet, Oslo.
Detail from The Magi and the Adoration, from Skjåk in Gudbrandsdalen. Kunstindustrimuseet, Oslo.

Organic growth and freedom to improvise become a salient part of later work. An example of this are three tapestries from Skjåk in Gudbrandsdal of ”The Magi”. With a clear and emblematic composition they all show the three exotic kings first riding towards and then presenting gifts to the Virgin & Child. While all have the same basic structure, improvisation is common. The figures each have their specific posture, the earlier works having more individual expression. The figure in the left foreground in the 1661 piece has no crown. Is this the donor or is it Joseph, or has the crown been forgotten? Each outer border of geometric stars is quite different, whilst the piece from 1717 has an extra frieze both above and below the central panel. Each corner of the central panel is filled with winged angels. The two tapestries dated about 1660 having spread wings, while the wings of the 1717 piece are closed and accompanied with stars. Around the central motif are a ring of animals, birds, bears, foxes, raven, unicorns, hares, boars, squirrels and duck. These creatures are better drawn on the earlier tapestries, which indicate the dilemma copying creates, that form and narrative become decorous and less meaningful.

”The Magi” tapestries are only one among many that were produced in Gudbrandsdal. Its geographic location is a meeting point for all points north, south and west. From early Christian times the valley had been a major pilgrim’s way to the cathedral in Trondheim. After the Reformation, pilgrimage ceased but the valley remained one of the major highways of trade and foreign influence. It is not surprising that it became an important centre for tapestry production.

Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins, about 1750, from Gudbrandsdalen. Kunstindustrimuseet, Oslo.

The most numerous group of tapestries with the same theme is the parable from Matthew’s Gospel about the ”Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins”, an allegory that speaks of preparing oneself on Earth for a life in Paradise. The tapestry’s form was in continual change due to its popularity. The earliest examples tell a clear and legible narrative. The composition has a central panel divided horizontally into two sections by the written title of the work. Above the title Christ is pictured with five wise virgins, and below the text the five foolish ones are shown with the oil vendor. This panel is surrounded by a chevron border. With time and repetition the story becomes illegible and often bizarre. The original figure of Christ and the oil vendor became extra virgins. The number of virgins increases. The Wise and the Foolish Virgins become indistinguishable, sometimes all are wearing bridal crowns, or sometimes a black bonnet that signified already married women. The title lettering becomes meaningless, the narrative and moral is gradually lost and the virgins become a patterned border. Many tapestries are initialled. No one is sure who or what the initials represent. They might be of the artist, the donor, the recipient or even a copy of the initials in the tapestry that was being copied. As mentioned, through copying, letters became malformed, then meaningless, and finally decorative features.

Standing Maids in a Row, about 1800, from the West Coast of Norway. Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo.

In the latter versions of this allegory, produced on the west coast of Norway, the figures are woven standing in the weft, contrary to the usual form where the figures are constructed lying in the weft. The image of the virgins is transformed into a long row of upright women, hands firmly placed on hips, neither good nor bad, totally surrendered to an image of aggressive zigzag in a hard geometric pattern. The whole image is angular, unmoving and uncomfortable. This tapestry style has become stiff and contorted and is an interesting example of how figuration, through repetition, is reduced to geometric form.

Traditional Coverlet, about 1850, from the West Coast of Norway.

Throughout history the west coast has few examples of figurative tapestries. The geometrical patterned ”åkle” has always been preferred. Similar in appearance to a Turkish kelim, in Norway it is referred to as a more folk art tapestry, believed to be ancient in its origin.

By 1800, both in Norway and the rest of Europe, all types of large tapestry were no longer in fashionable demand. Tapestry weaving was relegated to images for cushions and other household items.

Gradually the differences that created the merits and peculiarities of Norwegian tapestry in this period must be assessed in relation to Europe. In contrast to the powerful guild system in Europe that largely excluded women, Norway had few guilds and these had little influence. It was a long-standing custom that women attended to the production of textiles. They were freelancers who either worked at home or travelled to where the need arose. Tapestry looms were portable, easy to erect or dismantle. Raw materials such as wool, linen, and vegetable dyes were plentiful. This was a time of strict division of labour in Norwegian society. It was frowned upon for a boy to be found playing with a spinning wheel or any tools connected to the textile trade. A fear, no doubt based on superstition, it nevertheless created a remarkable situation where for 250 years women stood for the main visual, figurative expression in Norwegian culture.

That women made these tapestries is supported by the choice of motifs used. In the grand workshops of Europe men in the guise of gods, heroes, and warriors were central to most tapestries. In Norway it was quite the reverse. The motifs chosen had women in focus. Heroines, biblical and religious examples, such as ”Lot and his daughters”, ”Salome”,” Wise and Foolish Virgins”, ”Virgin and Child”, ”King Solomon & the Queen of Sheba” are typical. For these female artists/ weavers, originality in design was not a foremost consideration. Their strength lay in their ability to improvise, rather in the manner a jazz musician might do. Their visual and art historical knowledge was limited. They found their subjects in illustrations in bibles, on church walls and in cheap prints. It is not supposed that they made large cartoons that were attached to the weft. They relied greatly on their visual memory. The notion that these tapestries were made by women was passed over in a sentence fifty years ago. Today, due to the enquiry into ”the other sex”, the feminine part of global culture, this female contribution to Norwegian art has become a significant new perspective.


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