Let’s say you were a wealthy person in Oslo or Bergen, or in the valley of Gudbrandsdal in Norway in the 1700s, eager to display your status on the walls of your home. For just the right continental touch, many such people chose to commission a tapestry, woven by a weaver from Brussels or Flanders. Biblical themes were popular.
Many large tapestries for the wall or to adorn the bridal bed were produced in Norway in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Norwegian weavers in the rural Gudbrandsdal valley took up billedvev (picture weaving), the images changed. With little knowledge of urban settings, cityscapes and buildings fractured into shapes. The foliage became abstracted and background spaces were filled with centuries-old symbols of protection or fertility. Here’s a detail showing wonderful patterning and symbols behind a horse and rider (and also glare of the glass covering the tapestry from the Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design).
Increasing abstraction can be seen in tapestries depicting the story of the wise and foolish virgins, in which five wise virgins hold lamps filled with oil, ready the meet Christ. Five foolish virgins are depicted weeping, holding cloths to their faces.
In the background of the virgin tapestry of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the border is fairly naturalistic, and the wise virgins are standing against urban-looking buildings.
In a virgin tapestry owned by the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, the city buildings have become a bit pattern-like, but there are recognizable wise and foolish women, holding oil or weeping.
In this tapestry from the Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, the virgins have lost their definition as wise or foolish and look like they are merely greeting their viewers.
These tapestry virgins from a piece woven on the west coast of Norway, also held by the Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, have morphed to stern-looking abstract ladies.
A highlight of the 2013 Vesterheim Textile Tour was a lecture on symbols in Norwegian pictorial tapestry by Dr. Mikkel Tin. From now on I will pay special attention to the patterning in the background of Norwegian billedvev pieces. Thank you, Dr. Tinn.
One result of examining these great tapestries again, in the lecture and at the museum afterwards, was a determination to study many examples of billedvev horses and weave one myself. They are so charming. Like this one..