Weaving together past and present
The Baldishol Tapestry inspires a new generation of artists at Norway House
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
The historic Baldishol Tapestry was discovered in 1879 at Baldishol in the county of Hedmark in Norway. When the old 17th century church there was scheduled to be torn down, it was found all wadded up and covered with clay. A local woman, Louise Kildal, bought it at an auction when the church was being cleared out. She took the dirty old rag home, cleaned it up, did a little mending on it, and hung in it on a wall.
But Kildal soon realized that she had come across no ordinary auction find: she could see its artistry and beauty and realized its intrinsic value. She contacted museum authorities and learned that she had indeed taken ownership of an old and valuable piece of weaving. The Baldishol Tapestry was moved to the Christiania Museum of Applied Industry to be preserved and studied.
Today, the Baldishol Tapestry lives at the National Museum in Oslo, and we know that it the oldest tapestry in Norway—virtually priceless. It has been carbon-dated to the period between 1040 and 1190.
The unique woven piece was crafted in Norwegian spælsau sheep wool and some flax, but it is difficult to say where it was made. It resembles tapestries from Continental Europe and could have possibly been woven in northern France or England. Many key details, however, support theory that it was woven in Norway.
Only about 80 inches in length and 46 inches in height, the medieval tapestry is believed to be a fragment of larger frieze that depicted the 12 calendar months. What remains are symbolic representations of the months of April and May.
A bearded man in a long robe represents April. He stands beside a tree with the birds that have arrived with the spring. A horseman in armor represents May, as he is ready to ride off to battle or adventure.
Created with plant dyes, the colors of the medieval tapestry are bold and vibrant: clear red, yellow, green, dark blue, and lighter blue. They immediately draw the eye in, and the detail of the weaving holds it captive it as it tells its story.
“The Baldishol Tapestry” at Norway House
The famous Baldishol Tapestry has been replicated many times, both in Norway and abroad. Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum & Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa, has three reproductions in its collection alone, one of which is currently on loan to Norway House in Minneapolis.
The exhibit is on display in the Gallery at Norway House, where visitors may schedule an appointment for a viewing or a private guided tour, with all necessary COVID-19 precautions in place. But for those unable to make their way there, the exhibit may also be experienced on the Norway House website, part of their extensive effort to pivot their programs online while it is necessary for many to stay home—“bli hjemme”—during the pandemic.
The Vesterheim replica tapestry is the focal point of the exhibit, not only because the beauty of the piece commands this attention but also because it serves at the point of departure for all other pieces on display.
To celebrate the Baldishol Tapestry, Norway House formed a committee to select 26 national and international artists from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to create contemporary textile pieces in the spirit of the Baldishol Tapestry. The intention was to find inspiration in the medieval masterpiece, its colors and imagery. The artists worked in various textile media—tapestry weaving, knitting, felting, digital printing, silkscreen, embroidery, rug weaving, quilting, and fabric collage—and crafted pieces in their own creativity, style, and technique. The pieces range from wall tapestries to pillows, from capes and coats to a decorative arch—each stunning in its unique way.
The exhibit was curated by Max Stevenson, director of exhibits and programming at Norway House, and Robbie LaFleur, editor of the Norwegian Textile Letter, a nationally recognized quarterly publication for fans of Norwegian and Scandinavian fiber arts. The contemporary works were submitted in a contest, judged by two local textile artists with national reputations, Carolyn Halliday and Karen Searle.
The first-place and second-place Baldishol inspiration prizes were awarded at the virtual opening. First prize went to Lindsey Marshall’s “Baldishol Banner,” and second place was awarded to Kelsey Skodje for her original embroidery rendition of the Baldishol Tapestry—but with women at the helm of a Viking vessel. Marshall’s winning entry came all the way from England, and at the virtual opening of the exhibit, Norway House Executive Director Christina Carleton was pleased to announce that the artist had donated her piece to the building expansion, with its groundbreaking scheduled for later this year.
Coordinating and opening an art exhibit in the middle of a pandemic brings a multitude of challenges, but with the Baldishol exhibit, the Norway House team has shown that they have the ingenuity to realize their vision of a forward-thinking cultural center—even under compromised circumstances. With the Baldishol project, they have successfully renewed a connection to our Norwegian heritage with a strong anchoring in the present community, as we look to the future.
For more info about the Baldishol exhibit at Norway House, visit: www.norwayhouse.org/baldishol-virtual-tour.
This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.