I love the charm of faces in medieval Norwegian tapestry. It’s so interesting how a squiggly line for eyebrows and a line forming a nose can create expression. Look at the subtle face variations in this detail from a wonderful tapestry, “The Feast of Herod,” owned by the National Museum in Oslo. (I also like the costumes and the food on the table.) Within the world of tapestry, there is an ongoing fascination with Norwegian medieval tapestries, largely because of the folk art-like, abstracted quality of the images. These tapestries with flat planes of images are different from the finely woven Continental tapestries that mimicked the detail of a painting, but they are compelling, colorful and charming.
Here is a small billedvev head homage I wove last summer. (More on that here.)
While teaching at Vesterheim last fall, we had several tapestries from the storage area on view for the students. We admired the beautiful weaving in a frieze of virgins that was most likely woven in the early 20th century, during a time of revived interest in the billedvev of centuries past. (I REALLY apologize for the bad photo of the tapestry on a table.)
During the class I thought it would be fun to make a sheet with many billedvev faces, as a take-away inspiration for students to tackle their own interpretations, so I took close-ups of each face on the tapestry. When I put them together in collage software, I was sure I had made a mistake and put in duplicate photos–but I didn’t, because I only took one shot of each face. They are so identical, and all of a sudden, a bit boring.
On the backs of traditional billedvev pieces, the ends were woven in so that the backs were as beautiful as the front sides. I know how difficult it is to weave in ends and make each side look the same. With faces it’s especially difficult, so I admire the weaving competence of these medieval reproductions. In contrast, here is the back and front of a face I wove, a sample for a larger planned weaving of a traditional billedvev horse and rider–but the rider is going to be my daughter holding a cell phone and wearing a scarf. (It was good to sample this; my attempt at curly hair turned out more like horns.)
I’ve seen many examples of billedvev pieces woven during the early 20th century, reproductions of earlier tapestries. The weaving is amazingly competent. The front and the back of a wise virgins piece that my friend Jane Connett bought on eBay for $25 (!!) are nearly indistinguishable. But again, the faces are all exactly the same. Personally, I feel like the more modern, perfectly woven reproductions lose some of the vitality of the old tapestries. And now when I look at images of old pieces, or the newer ones, the first thing I examine are the faces. Are they all the same? But then I move on to appreciating the patterning in all the clothing–weaving inspiration for years to come!
Many of my friends have woven their own virgins. They definitely have personality and charm. I think this should be inspiring for everyone who wants to weave in the billedvev style. Don’t worry about perfection or an exact copy of anything. Instead, aim for your own personal style or mash-up, your own take on the charm and vitality of the marvelous medieval pieces.