By Lisa-Anne Bauch
At a recent visit to the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, several items in a folk art display caught my eye. They included a birch bark basket, a red coverlet, and a woven band, all dating from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. My friend Jan Mostrom, an expert in Nordic textiles, explained that the items were intended for use in baptism. All three were decorated with protective symbols, intended to shield the vulnerable infant from evil spirits until the sacrament could be performed. (See more photos here.)
A few months later, I happened to enroll in an art history course at the University of St. Thomas. The course, taught by Dr. Michelle Nordtorp-Madson, was entitled “Medieval Sacred Space.” In this fascinating seminar we investigated the idea of sacred versus mundane space, including not just the soaring cathedrals of the Middle Ages, but also its woven tapestries and illuminated manuscripts, its popular roadside shrines and dusty pilgrimage routes, the beehive huts of Scottish monks and the ancient holy wells of Ireland.
Besides regular coursework, each student was required to undertake an independent research topic focused around the following questions: How did people in those times understand and define certain places, times, seasons, objects, and activities as sacred? How did the newer sacred times and places of Christianity overlap with older pagan practices and beliefs? And how did medieval artists express these ideas visually?
I immediately remembered the red woven christening bands I had seen, used to protect babies as they traveled from the mundane world of the home to the sacred space of a local church and its baptismal font. Could this tradition go back to the Middle Ages, with echoes from an even-older pagan age? How did the bands visually represent the beliefs of those who wove them? How are the colors and patterns significant in answering these questions? Since Dr. Nordtorp-Madson specializes in clothing and textile arts, she was as curious as I was to investigate. With her help and encouragement, I began my quest.
Below are a few of the photos I used to illustrate my presentation of the paper, leased from the Norse Folkemuseum. They illustrate bands used in christenings.