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 is has bonus material on modern-day tapestries.This is the fifth and bonus part of this series!
By sheer chance, several medieval tapestries have survived generations of wear, tear, storage, wars, fires, and neglect. A few are now our inventory of Viking Age tapestries that has nine specimens in total. These are all wall hangings, all from the Viking Age, all with narrative designs that tell us something about Viking Age society. Of course, there are much more tapestries, but most do not fall within 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 is the result of 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 start finding good and appropriate research. 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, 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.
Before we continue to the inventory, a brief word about textile preservation. Certain conditions make textiles perish quicker or survive the ravages of time. Many Roman tapestries in Egypt still exist, because the dry desert climate is the perfect textile preservative. This makes it even more amazing that the (north) European tapestries are still around despite the cold and wet local climate.1 Yet, even in the northern European climate, there are ways for textiles to survive. For example, preservation through salt, ice, carbonation, imprints on ceramics, metal corrosion, anaerobic conditions in bogs and marshlands, and burials with oak coffins.2,3
Cultural awareness is another way that textiles may survive when people value and cherish their heritage enough to take care of the material. For centuries, the Viking Age tapestries were either unseen in (ship) burials, or neglected to the point of becoming dirty rags. This changes by the nineteenth century when a wave of nationalism sweeps through Europe after the end of the Napoleonic wars. It is the time of Romanticism, of glorifying the (national) past. Norway becomes an independent nation in 1905 and To strengthen its independent status it establishes a royal house and Norwegians go looking for cultural artefacts that glorify Norwegian history. Meanwhile, Sweden quickly industrialises and the Swedes search the countryside to find cultural and historical objects to commemorate the agricultural past.4–6 In effect, both countries find and preserve several valuable tapestry pieces are left to us today to admire and analyse.
c. 834. Oseberg. In the famous ship burial in Vestfold, Norway in 1903, various textiles have been found, silks from the Orient, but also a locally woven piece. This piece is about 100-150 x 16-23 cm. The warp is made of wool and weft of wool and linen yarn. This is a brocaded tapestry with a narrative design of a (seemingly) pagan procession.7–9
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 believed to be wool with a linen weft. The narrative design depicts five men and two women on a shore with a boat.10
c. 1040-1100. Baldishol. These two pieces of tapestry have been 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 also typically Romanesque.14–17
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 meter wide. The fifth piece is a decorative strip with a double weave. The warp of the textiles are linen and hemp and the weft is made of wool. The narrative design shows a line up of people and animals. It is still debated how many are Norse figures or rather Christian figures.6
c. 1150. Halberstadt – Abraham. Along with the other Halberstadt tapestries of Christ and Charlemagne, these hangings were found in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany. They were cut up in 1875 by Franz Bock and sold to four different European museums. This particular piece is 1000 x 120 cm, with a warp and weft of wool and linen. It is made with a knotted-pile technique normally used for floor tapestries. Yet, the Halberstadt specimens really seem to be meant and used as wall hangings. The narrative depicts of this piece the biblical scene of Abraham, Isaac and the angel.16,23,24
c. 1170. Halberstadt – Christ. See the information about Halberstadt-Abraham for general details. This particular piece is 927 x 180 cm, with a warp and weft of wool and linen. Like the Abraham piece, it has a knotted-pile technique normally used for floor tapestries. The narrative depicts Christ’s and his Apostles.16,23,24
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.25
c. 1203. Quedlinburg. The 6 fragments left from this tapestry were found in 1832 in Quedlinburg, Germany. It is most likely from the local nunnery at the time of abbess Agnes of Meissen (c. 1139–1203). The six pieces together 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. The warp is made of hemp and the weft of wool. This is also a knotted-pile tapestry with a classical, narrative design depicting the marriage of Mercury and Philology.23,24,26
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.16,23,24
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.13
c. 991. Ely. Technically not a tapestry but an embroidery, the Ely hanging stems from Cambridgeshire, England. It has never been found and the only clue to its existence is a recording in the Book of Ely from the twelfth century. Its dimensions, warp and weft are not known, but its narrative design is believed 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.11,12
Early 11th century. Cloth of St Gereon. This is a tapestry weave, but not with a 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 as well as 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 1066.10,18,19
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.20 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, as well as serpents and confronting peacocks. 21
Early 12th century. Høylandet. This is another embroidery found 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 woolen weft. The design shows the biblical story of the three kings bringing presents to the baby Jesus.22