If you are a Norwegian, or an American familiar with Norwegian billedvev (tapestry), you probably recognize the most common motif used for medieval billedvev coverlets, the biblical parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Here is a Norwegian tapestry owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), with a row of wise virgins holding lamps filled with oil, and a row of foolish virgins who have used up their oil. It all appears pretty staid.
Last month my friend Phyllis Waggoner went to the Thrivent Financial Collection of Religious Art in downtown Minneapolis. She knows of my interest in Norwegian billedvev, and she also knows about the Wise and Foolish Virgins as a popular motif. She snapped photos of two prints in a show titled What to Wear: Fashion and Dress in Religious Prints. These wise and foolish virgins have a much different appearance than the Norwegian image. Apparently if you are a foolish virgin, not saving your oil to meet the bridegroom, you are wearing a see-through blouse and frolicking with men while wine runs onto the ground. Or perhaps that is the oil.
The wise virgins with their lamps filled with oil line up to shake hands with the bridegroom.
If you want to see the end of the Dutch version of the parable, see Plate Five from the Saenredam series, owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, where the foolish virgins are barred from the feast and they beg the wise virgins for oil.
This morning I went to the Thrivent Financial Collection of Religious Art. I didn’t see the prints that Phyllis saw, because a new and wonderful show is up now, Stirring the World: Printmaking in the Age of Luther. Minneapolis friends, you should visit. The show includes many amazing Albrecht Dürer engravings. They draw you in to examine the impossibly fine details. The clothing is so clearly presented; I feel like I could sew his coat, and it looks like fur peeking out of the top of the shirt.
I also like the animals included with figures. Dogs are popular. Here’s a cat from the bottom of an engraving of Adam and Eve.
Why was the Wise and Foolish Virgins motif so popular in Norway as a tapestry image? At the end of November, 2017, an article in the new issue of the Norwegian Textile Letter will explore the question. Featured in the article will be a translation of a section of a new book by Norwegian Art Historian Randi Nygaard Lium, Tekstilkunst i Norge, in which she explores the meaning of the parable to Norwegians of the time.