By Randi Nygaard Lium
Editor’s note: The most-woven motif at the peak of medieval Norwegian tapestry weaving was the biblical story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The two rows of virgins with a highly patterned background are emblematic of Norwegian billedvev (literally, picture-weaving) and recognized by museum-goers worldwide, like this version owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Why did this image resonate with weavers of the era? We are grateful for permission to present this translation of Art Historian Randi Nygaard Lium’s expert analysis, which appeared in her new book, Tekstilkunst i Norge (Textile Art in Norway).
The most popular Norwegian medieval tapestry motif is, as earlier mentioned, the Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins. The fundamental basis of the image is a representation of virgins who went out to meet the bridegroom. The background text is from Matthew, Chapter 25, Verses 1-13.
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 “Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. 3 “For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps. 5 “Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep. 6 “But at midnight * there was a shout, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 “Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 “The foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 “But the prudent answered, ‘No, there will not be enough for us and you too; go instead to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 “And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. 11 “Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.’ 12 “But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour. (These verses in English are from the New American Standard Bible.)
The motif was used in European visual art in the Middle Ages. When it became popular in Norway, the image spread through prints. In all the tapestries the virgins are woven in two horizontal lines, with the wise virgins uppermost and the foolish virgins below. The wise virgins proudly hold up their lamps. The foolish virgins hold handkerchiefs to dry their tears; their situations were difficult. They couldn’t have known beforehand how much time it would take for the bridegroom to arrive. This image shows the high demands made of young women. To be pure and innocent when the bridegroom arrived was not enough; they also needed to be alert and vigilant.
Along with the ten women in long dresses, men are woven in as side characters. It is interesting that the bridegroom is Jesus. In several tapestries the oil seller is placed in the lower right hand corner, and one tapestry even has the inscription “eros kiøbe” (eros purchase). This male figure has associations to something completely apart from virginity and purity. It is as if to purchase extra oil could be interpreted as having to do with prostitution. Therefore there are many layers of meaning to this theme. The tapestries were used as bedcovers, and as a beautiful covering for the marriage bed it was a reminder of moral demands.
In the oldest virgin tapestries from around the middle of the 1600s, the women are dressed in festive renaissance dresses, jackets with a high waist, and pleated collars. They often have crowns, and the long dresses are richly detailed, with a center section that resembles an apron. Behind the upper women you see architecture that looks like a city. The women are woven in two horizontal rows, one over the other, with a border between.
In the tapestries from the 1700s you see stylization and abstraction, which results in figures that are increasingly ornamental in their expression. The skirts, upper parts of their clothing, faces, and crowns create an ornamental whole. The inscriptions disappear, as well as the extra figures. The architecture behind the row of wise virgins is gone, replaced by decorative elements. The virgins’ lamps and handkerchiefs have disappeared, and with them much of the meaningful symbols of the story. Perhaps the message was forgotten over time, and when weaving a bridal coverlet the weaver perhaps followed a pattern she inherited.
Three original coverlets from 1760 from Bøverdalen have been preserved. The weaver was called the “bibelsprengte” weaver (the weaver who broke with the Bible), because she interpreted the motifs in her own style. Her unique tapestries included her rococo tapestry, Kristi forfedre (“Christ’s Ancestors”), and three identical Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins tapestries, which included a whole row of accompanying figures. The three virgin tapestries were gifts for three sisters.
Above the upper virgins is a whole new row depicting from the left: Joseph, Mary and the Christ Child, and the three Wise Men. On the right is Jesus, the heavenly bridegroom. Beside the virgins Jacob stands to the right in the upper row, and Joseph to the right in the lower row. The names of Jacob and Joseph are woven in.
This is an innovation of the virgin motif. The three tapestries from Bøverdalen aren’t rigid in the same manner as the other 1700s coverlets. Now the figures are freer and more lively, and they are clothed in elegant rococo clothing. “Christ’s Ancestors” is quite special, with many elegant men placed in diagonal rows up the tapestry. They wear a rococo costume with a long, narrow jacket in brocade, knee pants, and knitted stockings. The women have beautiful dresses—narrow in the middle, with a skirt bustling over a form. The weaver was well-acquainted with fashion of the day. In “Christ’s Ancestors” we find a rhythm and liveliness that is new in tapestries from Gudbrandsdal. Rococo playfulness and feminine elegance have made their marks?
Tapestries with the virgin motif were woven in the western part of the country, too, but were not as common as in the valleys of eastern Norway. The western virgin tapestries also had a unique expression, and were seldom the main motif of the tapestry. Virgins were often placed in the center of the tapestry, surrounded by borders and ornamental designs. The virgin motif was persistent in the area, and was woven all the way to the beginning of the 1800s.
Virgin tapestries from Valdres and Trøndelag have been preserved, too. They echo the Gudbrandsdal tapestries, which shows that work from that area was an inspiration for weavers in both Valdres and Trøndelag. Many fine tapestry pillows from the 1700s are also found in Oppdal (in Sør-Trøndelag).
The virgin tapestries were used as wedding coverlets, and their symbolism signals moral expectations of the bride. That was indisputable and universally known. But it is less known that during that time marriage between a man and a woman was also a symbol of a woman’s bridal relationship to Christ, a marriage with spiritual meaning.
A young, god-fearing woman could enter into a spiritual marriage with Christ, dedicate her life to religion. In this way the purpose of marriage was both earthly and spiritual. Therefore Jesus was the heavenly bridegroom—and woven into the coverlets. The coverlets were religious beyond having just a moral point: they symbolized Christian purity and faith.
Marriage was holy and formed the basis of the church’s moral requirements. Among other things, there were rules about when a couple could make love. The rules were strict and difficult to abide by, resulting in guilt. The couple were not supposed to have sex on weekends or during holidays, or during pregnancy. The function of sexuality was procreation and furthering your family, not unfettered intimate relations; that was sinful.
At that time there was often a close relationship between individuals and the parish minister. The worship service was a time away from work and an occasion that helped support people in holding themselves faithful to God. The minister had a double function. From the pulpit on Sundays he was an authority who admonished those who listened about a Christian life without sin, and at the same time he was a spiritual provider from whom people sought guidance in difficult times. Perhaps it was also the minister a woman might visit to seek consolation when relations with her husband had been too lively or moving toward the forbidden. The guilt was difficult to bear alone, and her husband may not have been the easiest one to confide in under those circumstances.
Young women also had the opportunity to write a letter to the minister, called a “virgin letter.” However it wasn’t only unmarried women who confided in a minister; in Iceland a written confession is preserved from a young married woman who felt guilty because, according to church rules, she had an overly active sex life with her husband. The minister learned the most intimate details of the couple’s relationship in this confession.
Through his presence a minister was a sort of psychologist of that time. He gave penance and forgiveness for sins, and that helped women with issues they struggled with alone.
When we examine the many preserved coverlets with the virgin motif, we come to understand their meaning is about more than just the requirement to be a virgin when entering marriage. It encompasses also a holy marriage that required one to lead a religious life.
Randi Nygaard Lium is a textile artist, author, and curator. Educated in Denmark, she has a degree in Art History from Aarhus University and studied weaving at Det Jyske Kunstakademi (Jutland Art Academy). She is the Senior Researcher at the Museum for Decorative Arts (Kunstindustrimuseet) in Trondheim, Norway. She was the Director of the Trondheim Art Museum (Kunstmuseum) from 1998-2011, and the Head Curator at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Trondheim, 1986-88. She has written several books on textile art, including Tekstilkunst i Norge (2016 and Ny Norsk Billedvev – Et Gjennombrud (1992). Her work has been shown in many exhibits in Norway and other countries, including a solo exhibition at the Design Museum Denmark in Copenhagen (2006). Her work is represented in several museums and in commissioned work in public buildings.
Book excerpt translated by Robbie LaFleur, who constantly runs into more depictions of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.