A Synopsis of the History of Norwegian Tapestry – and Some Thoughts about Tapestry Today

Editor’s note:  The text of this article, by noted artist Unn Sønju, first appeared in a special issue of the Norwegian magazine, Lokalhistorisk magasin (Local History Magazine).  The special double issue, 1-2, 2016, was devoted to articles on the theme of “Kunst og Husflid” (“Art and Handcraft”).

By Unn Sønju

Any weave is the interaction between the masculine warp and the feminine weft that create a cross, an ancient symbol for creation. Tapestry is one of the oldest art forms know to man. Unlike other two-dimensional art forms it has the unique property of having the image on both sides of the material. Only the simplest tools are required to weave on short or long lengths of warp.

 The Oseberg tapestry fragments

Norway is fortunate in having tapestries from different periods in its history. Through these we can learn a great deal of social and art history, and last but not least, women’s history. The oldest pictorial weaves were found in the Oseberg Viking ship, buried around 850 and excavated in 1904, near Tønsberg in Vestfold. About this find, Bjørn Hougen wrote in 1940, “Tapestry and woodcarving, in these two words lies the starting point for an entirely new perspective that the Oseberg ship has given to the art history of the Viking Age.”

Oseberg fragment, Universitets Oldsaksamling, Oslo

Oseberg fragment, Universitets Oldsaksamling, Oslo

From the first, the woodcarvings were treated with great respect, while the tapestry fragments received shamefully poor treatment. The tapestry fragments were in poor condition, appearing almost black and encased in clay and feathers, pressed together into lumps. During restoration it appeared that they were between 16 and 32 centimetres in height and thought to have been hung as long strips.

As early as 1916 four volumes of all the Oseberg finds were planned. Three volumes of all the finds, excluding the textiles, came in quick succession; the fourth on textiles took nearly 100 years before it was published in 2006. However in 1992, The Oseberg Queen’s Grave: Our national Treasure in a New Light (Osebergdronningens grav-vår nasjonal skatt i nytt lys) was published. Anne Stina Ingstad wrote that the textiles found in the burial chamber of the Oseberg ship are “without comparison in Nordic pre-history.” She points out that the tapestry fragments are by far the most important examples of the collection. With such a history isn’t it strange that these tapestries have been so overlooked and exhibited so infrequently?

Baldisol Tapestry

Baldishol

Baldishol Tapestry. Image from Wikipedia: https://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldisholteppet

The next outstanding work is the Baldisol tapestry from circa 1200. After the demolition of the Baldisol church in 1887 an auction of the contents of the old church was held. An observant woman bought a dirty roll of textiles that she soon found were something extraordinarily special. With utmost care she washed the textiles, revealing images of two calendar months: May representing a man in a long smock sowing seed, and April as a young warrior in full armour riding a virile stallion. Both are depicted in an archway with a decorative background of birds and spots. The tapestry is torn at either end, indicating it could be part of a larger work, perhaps the whole calendar year. In all likelihood it was a long frieze, a beautiful tapestry in the Romanesque style. What is it that is so amazingly enchanting about the Baldisol tapestry? Its strength and clarity of colour and the total wholeness of its drawing and composition gives us a compelling image. With some knowledge of Romanesque art we can imagine how the other months might have been depicted. If we imagine a tapestry of twelve months length it may have been woven for Hamar Cathedral that was completed around 1200.

The Middle Ages

Adoration of the Magi, signed M.I.D & A.H.D, Gudbrandsdal

“Adoration of the Magi,” signed M.I.D & A.H.D, Gudbrandsdal

Between the Baldisol tapestry and 1550 there exists no evidence of Norwegian tapestries. This was a period of great hardship with 60% of the population dying of the plague, resulting in the collapse of society.

It was in the Middle Ages that many of Europe’s finest tapestries were created. Only long after this great interest for tapestry had reached is zenith there, did it eventually come to Norway, where the golden age of tapestry occurred between 1550 and 1850.

Norway had neither a tradition nor interest for painting and sculpture as in other countries in Europe, but tapestry flowered! Interest and knowledge of tapestry came first to the coastal towns and gradually spread to the rest of the country. In the eastern districts around Kristiania (now Oslo) figurative motifs were common, many from bible stories. On the west coast of Norway tapestry developed abstract and geometric imagery, while north from Trondheim ‘rya’, a tufted weave, was common that was well suited for bedspreads at home and on their fishing vessels. The Sami people had their own ‘grenvev’, literally ‘branch weave’ or weaving over a tree branch, making dynamic striped black and white tapestries.

Because Norway was a poor land that had neither a royal court nor aristocracy, women were given the opportunity to weave in small workshops. In the great tapestry workshops in Europe women were not invited to weave but could spin, tie loose threads and sweep the floors. In Norway it was an opposite situation. It was women who were the weavers, which led to a charming difference as their tapestries became more and more removed from their original prototypes. These female weavers created tapestries where women were the central motif, often derived from biblical sources.

An abstracted version of the Wise and Foolish Virgins woven by an unknown woman in Western Norway between 1750 and 1800. http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/no/object/OK-17392

An abstracted version of the Wise and Foolish Virgins woven by an unknown woman in Western Norway between 1750 and 1800. http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/no/object/OK-17392

New Flowering for Norwegian Tapestry

After 1850 tapestries were seen as being old fashioned and uninteresting as painting and sculpture became the leading art forms. At the end of the century there was a growing interest in Norwegian nationalism and folk culture renewing interest in the old tapestries. These tapestries were exhibited in museums and galleries at home and abroad and this encouraged a new interest in weaving and tapestry. Weavers who previously were anonymous were now known by their own name and were recognised in society as artists. Frida Hansen was the first who received international recognition, followed by Hannah Ryggen, Synnøve Anker Aurdal, Jan Groth and an increasing number of tapestry artists since the 1970s.

Hannah Ryggen. "Vi Lever på en Stjerne." ("We Live on a Star")

Hannah Ryggen. “Vi Lever på en Stjerne.” (“We Live on a Star”)

Today there are a large number of artists who have chosen tapestry as their prime form of expression. Tapestry is a natural part of the Norwegian and international art scene that becomes continually broader in its scope of media and expression due to education and advances in technology. Today a tapestry can be totally realised from idea to finished product by the use of data programming. A fine example of this is the theatre curtain designed by Pae White in the Opera House in Oslo. Today tapestries are to be found in many public buildings the world over, as indeed are books, showing the work of outstanding tapestry artists. Large group and travelling exhibitions bring to the public the latest ideas and developments in tapestry art. In Norway in the 1960-70s tapestry was much sought after and now, in the past few years, there is renewed and exciting interest.

To renew an old craft is both a challenge and a responsibility. If tapestry no longer mirrors and reflects its contemporary society it soon loses any interest and quickly becomes neglected and indifferent. Tapestry, like all visual art, can be divided into three stages: idea, craft and form/presentation that must work together for a convincing totality. The idea is the springboard and energy, through craft and technique the idea becomes an object, and the form is the final presentation.

Thread on thread, patience and concentration, such is the artist’s wonder and experience in the creation of a tapestry.

Translation of the original article from Lokalhistorisk magasin was provided by the author, Unn Sønju.
Unn Sønju was born in 1938 in Oslo, Norway; she currently lives and works in Oslo and Flesberg, Norway. She was educated at Leeds College of Art, England (1957-59) and the Women’s Industrial School, Norway (1960-62). She was a lecturer in Experimental Textiles in the Department of Fine Art in Leeds from 1965-77, and Tapestry Professor at Oslo University College from 1999-2005. She has been featured in 32 solo exhibitions in Scandinavian and Great Britain, and participated in over 100 group exhibitions worldwide. 39 of her tapestries appear in public spaces.
Learn more about the author’s work in tapestry in another article in this issue:, “Influences in my Art: Reflections,” and at her website, unnsonju.com.

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