Last Updated 07 May 2018
This is part four in a series on Viking Age tapestries. Part 1 is a brief introduction, Part 2 a brief history, Part 3 an informative piece on the fabrication of tapestries and Part 5 has bonus material on modern-day tapestries.
Of the early medieval tapestries, specimens from the Viking Age survive until this day. They have overcome wear, tear, wars, fires, and neglect. The ones for our inventory are all wall hangings, all from the Viking Age, all with narrative designs that tell us something about Viking Age society. Many more (early) medieval tapestries survived of course, but they do not meet these criteria. Except for six that deserve a special mention. I have included these at the end of this part for your interest and enjoyment!
This whole series results from more than a year of online research and one thing is clear: the first Google search result won’t cover it, neither will the second. It takes many, many, many efforts to dig deeper, it takes multiple sets of keywords before you find good and relevant studies. Let alone the hidden gems. The whole process is like the proverbial peeling of the onion. And my percentage scheme in the introduction, published January last year, already needs an overhaul. All Anglo-Saxon pieces have been discarded. Most Spanish pieces, too. We’re left with Scandinavian and German pieces – which is interesting in itself, of course (and the next paragraph will explain why). Most are found in churches and abbeys (78%) or in ship burials and graves (22%). About 44% date from c. 830–1066 and 56% between 1100–1200.
Organic materials like textiles perish in the course of time. How quickly or slowly depends on how they are used, treated and preserved. Museums go to great lengths to ensure the proper climate conditions for ancient textiles. But how did they survive before they ended up in a museum? First, there are natural ways of preservation. For example, in Egypt many tapestries date back to the Roman empire. They survive because of the dry desert climate. The climate in northern Europe, however, is wet and cold. Still, tapestries from the Viking Age have survived here through due to other types of preservation. Well-known preservatives in colder climates are salt, ice, carbonation, bogs and marshes. Perhaps less known are imprints on ceramics and metal corrosion, and burials in oak coffins.
A second reason is cultural awareness, when people value and cherish an object and care for it. During the Viking Age itself, tapestries had a practical or ornamental use, or as a status symbol. Their patterns or scenes were less interesting to the people in the centuries afterwards who in worst cases neglected them, or used them as dirt rags. By the nineteenth century, there is surge in interest for the Viking Age. Napoleon’s empire has just collapsed and a wave of nationalism sweeps through Europe. This is the Age of Romanticism.
People flock to the countryside in search of historical artefacts. The ones that glorify the nation’s past. In Norway, for example, a new monarch has been instated. Historical items are found in burials, churches and elsewhere. They are all intended as a reminder that Norway’s royal lineage dates back as far as the Viking Age. Meanwhile the Swedes look for artefacts that commemorate their agricultural past to counterpart the rapid industrialisation. Both the Norwegian and Swedish examples, explain in part how quite a few Viking Age tapestries were discovered that would otherwise have been lost forever.
A Viking Age Tapestry Inventory. © The Viking Archive.
9th & 10th century
c. 834. Oseberg. In the famous ship burial in Vestfold, Norway in 1903, various textiles include silks from the Orient, and a locally woven piece. This piece is c. 100–150 x 16–23 cm. It has a woollen warp and weft with a linen yarn. This brocaded tapestry has a narrative design depicting a (possible) pagan procession.
c. 900. Rolvsøy. Only one small piece survives from a chamber grave in Haugen, Norway in 1876. Its dimensions are 16 x 12 cm, the warp is thought to be wool with a linen weft. The narrative design depicts five men and two women on a shore with a boat.
c. 1040–1100. Baldishol. The tapestry survived in two pieces found in a church in Hedmark, Norway in 1879. It measures 118 x 203 cm and has a wooden warp and linen weft. The narrative design shows the months of April and May – which suggests these are parts of a larger calendar tapestry. The design is typically Romanesque.
c. 1040–1170. Överhogdal. In total, five pieces found in Jämtland, Sweden in 1909. Four pieces have narrative designs in soumak weave and are about one metre wide. A fifth piece is a decorative strip with a double weave. The pieces have a linen and hemp warp, and a woollen weft. The narrative design shows a lineup of people and animals. Whether these are Norse or Christian figures is still debated.
c. 1150. Halberstadt – Abraham. Along with the other Halberstadt tapestries of Christ and Charlemagne, these hangings were found in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany. In 1875, Franz Bock cut the tapestries up and sold them to four different European museums. This piece is 1000 x 120 cm, with a warp and weft of wool and linen. A knotted-pile technique has been used that is normally only seen in floor tapestries. This is interesting as the rest of the Halberstadt tapestries clearly show they were intended as wall hangings. The narrative depicts the biblical scene of Abraham, Isaac and the angel.
c. 1170. Halberstadt – Christ. See the information about Halberstadt-Abraham for general details. This piece is 927 x 180 cm, with a warp and weft of wool and linen. As with the Abraham piece, it has a knotted-pile technique normally used for floor tapestries. The narrative depicts Christ’s and his Apostles.
Late 12th century. Skog. This tapestry is from Hälsingland, Sweden and discovered there in 1912. Its dimensions are 174 x 38 cm with a linen warp and a wool and linen weft. This piece is a soumak weave. The narrative depicts a trinity of men, but it is still debated whether they are the Norse Gods or three real kings. The figures in the scene approach a church from two sides.
c. 1203. Quedlinburg. The six fragments of this tapestry were discovered in 1832 in Quedlinburg, Germany. It is most likely from the local nunnery at the time of abbess Agnes of Meissen (c. 1139–1203). Together, the pieces form either one or two tapestries. The various dimensions are: 135 x 172, 130 x 255, 93 x 355, 120 x 234, 170 x 183, 26–28 x 40–41 cm. It has a hemp warp and a woollen weft. This is also a knotted-pile tapestry with a classical, narrative design depicting the marriage of Mercury and Philology.
Early 13th century. Halberstadt – Charlemagne. Its history is directly connected to the other two Halberstadt tapestries mentioned above. This piece is 158 x 165 cm. Its warp and weft are wool and linen. It is another knotted-pile tapestry with a historical design, showing Charlemagne on his throne.
Noteworthy, But Didn’t Make the Inventory
Second half 10th century. Pyrenees Peacock. A silk tapestry weave from Al-Andalus (most likely used for beautifying clothes, not as a tapestry) with gold and silver threads. Purchased in 1926 from a church in the Pyrenees. Its dimensions are 19 x 23 cm. There is no narrative design, there are medallions with peacocks.
c. 991. Ely. Technically, this is an embroidery and not a tapestry. Though never found, the clue to its existence is found in the Book of Ely (twelfth century). Its dimensions, warp and weft are unknown, but its narrative design is thought to depict the life of Byhrtnoth, an Anglo-Saxon nobleman who died at the battle of Maldon. His wife gave the hanging to the abbot of Ely shortly after Byhrtnoth’s death.
Early 11th century. Cloth of St Gereon. This tapestry weave has no clear narrative design. It was found in the nineteenth century in Cologne, Germany. It has a linen warp and a linen and wool weft. Its design is Oriental with repetitive circles with fighting bulls and griffins. The design hints on a Byzantine maker, the weave to an Oriental maker, but the border shows a distinctly European influence.
c. 1070. Bayeux. This famous oblong embroidery was ‘found’ in 1476 in the inventory of Bayeux Cathedral in France. Its origins are still debated as it shows English and French influences. The piece is over 70 metres (!) long and 50 cm high. It has a linen warp and a woollen weft and is technically an embroidery. Its narrative design shows the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, in 1066.
11th century. The Witches Pallium. A famous silk weave from Al-Andalus. Most secondary sources date it to the 11th century (one to the first half of the 12th c.) found in a monastery near Girona. This is a silk weave, compound twill and measures 108 x 238 cm. The design is not narrative, and shows fantastic beasts that are traditionally called ‘witches’. A half-sphinx, half-harpy, and combinations of lions and eagles, and serpents and confronting peacocks.
Early 12th century. Høylandet. This embroidery was discovered in 1859 in Norway. Its origins are still unclear, however, if they are foreign, or from Nidaros in Norway. It measure 211 x 44 cm, has a wooden warp and linen and woollen weft. The design shows the biblical story of the three kings bringing presents to the baby Jesus.
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Jamtli Museum, ‘The Överhogdal Tapestries’. Last Accessed 23 Marcy 2017. https://www.jamtli.com/en/exhibitions/overhogdalsbonaderna/. ↩
- Anne Stine Ingstad, ‘The Textiles of the Oseberg Ship’. In: Oseberg Dronningens Grav – Vår Arkeologiske Nasjonalskatt i Nytt Lys. Edited by A.E. Christensen, A. Ingstad and B. Myhre. (Oslo: Schibstedt, 2017), pp. 176–208.
W. Vogelsang, ‘Oseberg Ship Burial (Norway)’. TRC Leiden. Last Accessed 26 March 2017.
Museum of Cultural History, ‘The textiles among the Oseberg finds’ University of Oslo | Museum of Cultural History. Last Accessed 26 March 2017. https://www.khm.uio.no/english/visit-us/viking-ship-museum/exhibitions/oseberg/5-textiles.html. ↩
- Lucien Musset, The Bayeux Tapestry. (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005), pp. 21. ↩
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Anton Zeven, ‘Het wandtapijt van Baldishol. Een heraldische lelie en waarom een draak?’ Heraldisch Tijdschrift Volume 20 (2014), pp. 93–94. ↩
- Jamtli Museum, ‘The Överhogdal Tapestries’. Last Accessed 23 Marcy 2017. https://www.jamtli.com/en/exhibitions/overhogdalsbonaderna/. ↩
- Madeleine Jarry, ‘Tapestry’. Encyclopedia Britannica. Last Accessed 22 March 2017. https://www.britannica.com/art/tapestry.
Gordon Campbell, The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 462–463.Adolph S. Cavallo, Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993), pp.73–74. ↩
- See fn. 8. ↩
- Uppsala Cathedral, ‘The Skog wall hanging.’ Last Accessed 26 March 2017. http://www.himlenarhar.se/foremal/the-skog-wall-hanging/?lang=en. ↩
- Janet Tibbetts Schulenburg, ‘Holy Women and the Needle Arts: Piety, Devotion, and Stitching the Sacred c. 500–1150’. In: Negotiating Community and Difference in Medieval Europe: Gender, Power, Patronage and the Authority of Religion in Latin Christendom. Edited by Karen Allen Smith and Scott Wells. Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 142. (Leiden, Boston: BRILL, 2009), pp. 95 [pp. 83–110].
Adolph S. Cavallo, Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993), pp.73.
Gordon Campbell, The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 246. ↩
- See fn. 8. ↩
- Qantara, ‘Pyrenees Peacock tapestry’. Last Accessed 1 April 2017. http://www.qantara-med.org/qantara4/public/show_document.php?do_id=1248&lang=en. ↩
- Janet Fairweather, Liber Eliensis. (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005), pp. 163.
Janet Tibbetts Schulenburg, ‘Holy Women and the Needle Arts: Piety, Devotion, and Stitching the Sacred c. 500–1150’. In: Negotiating Community and Difference in Medieval Europe: Gender, Power, Patronage and the Authority of Religion in Latin Christendom. Edited by Karen Allen Smith and Scott Wells. Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 142. (Leiden, Boston: BRILL, 2009), pp. 96 [pp. 83–110]. ↩
- Madeleine Jarry, ‘Tapestry’. Encyclopedia Britannica. Last Accessed 22 March 2017. https://www.britannica.com/art/tapestry. ↩
- Richard Koch, ‘Sacred Threads: The Bayeux Tapestry as a Religious Object’. In: Peregrinations: International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Art. Volume 2.4 (2009), pp. 134–165.
R. Howard Bloch, A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry. (New York: Random House, 2009).
Lucien Musset, The Bayeux Tapestry. (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005). ↩
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- Lasse Hodne, ‘From Centre to Periphery. The Propagation of the Virgo virga motif and the Case of the 12th Century Høylandet Tapestry’. In: IL CAPITALE CULTURALE Studies on the Value of Cultural Heritage Volume 10 (2014), pp. 23–41. ↩