Part One: From Byzantium to Bergen
Today many people are attracted into the Arctic regions most often
in pursuit of important scientific or geographical information. But,
just occasionally, the Arctic becomes the arena where young people go
to race across the ice to explore the snowy wasteland, in traditional
'dare and do' style.
Yet history suggests it wasn't always so. For in the past people of
the North travelled out of the Arctic regions rather than deeper into
their homeland searching for new sea routes or to claim new lands and
make other discoveries abroad.
The sagas speak of legendary journeys made in ancient times, right
across the top of the world to Iceland and Greenland and onwards to
America. However, it is often forgotten that between the eighth and
eleventh centuries the Vikings also sailed south, not only to England
but down to the Mediterranean, trading with, or plundering in, Spain,
Sicily and Byzantium, for these Scandinavians were in turn both robber
and merchant. It is known they were in Africa and Italy around 860AD
and formed part of the Varangian Guard in Byzantium in 1000AD.
On their journeys the Vikings would have seen many wonderful buildings,
the Great Mosque of Cordoba or the most precious Chapel of the Mihrab
for example. All were richly decorated with plaster filigree and mosaics
of incomparable beauty. In addition there were the gorgeous carpets
and textiles which also featured exotic designs, including the motif
of the pomegranate and clouds of heaven.
stories tell of traders who returned to Norway from the Mediterranean
with magnificent clothes made from silks, and it is thought to be from
this time that the pomegranate/palmette pattern may first have been
seen or introduced into Norway.
In 1258 it is recorded that a marriage took place in Bergen between
Kristina, daughter of King Haakon IV, to Don Philipus of Castile, an
unusual alliance, but one nonetheless which underlines the political
and cultural links which existed between the north and south at that
early date. Certainly both the pomegranate/palmette-based designs can
be directly traced back to Spain and Moorish influence.
No doubt the introduction of rich silks and damasks into Scandinavia
would have made a dazzling impression in the more isolated Nordic communities
and quickened their desire to acquire something of the latest patterns
and styles. These would have been soon copied or adapted into their
own embroideries and woven textiles, and clearly the pomegranate or
palmette pattern was a favourite one.
Eventually, the pattern became fully integrated into the repertoire
of the Norwegian weavers, from Gubrandsdal to Lillehammer, and it was
melded by them into something quintessentially Norwegian.
the sixteenth/seventeenth century the traditional Norwegian woven and
embroidered designs had developed roughly into three main groups:Designs abstracted from nature, for example, the palmette/pomegranate
pattern, the cloud pattern and the lightning pattern.
Geometric designs, influenced by Eastern European carpets motifs and
Figurative designs which mainly feature stories from the Bible, and
in particular parables such as the Wise and Foolish Virgins.
The woven textiles featured here all belong to the first group of designs,
designs which were both abstracted out of nature and inspired by cultural
links and trade from abroad. The patterns were easy to adapt to large
or small scale, from cushion covers to complete wall hangings of considerable
The large-scale woven hanging illustrated below is from the Sandvigske
Samlinger collection in the Maihaugen
Museum, Lillehammer. It is a really beautiful example of how the
pattern finally evolved. The design has been transformed into an image
which now seems to relate directly to the Norwegian landscape, rather
than Cordoba. Many of the surviving examples have a strong overall consistency
in the use of colour. The chosen palette of light blues, dark blue and
terracotta is a reflection of the surrounding forests, fjords and skies.
It was also given a Norwegian name, skybragt monster - cloud
Equally popular at this period was the lynild monster (lightning
pattern). The inspiration for this must surely be the great winter night
skies of the North. Cushions and hangings with technicolour flickers
and shimmers so skilfully woven across the entire surface, emulate the
display of the Northern Lights, as it is so often seen in the Arctic.
The fact that several versions of this pattern have survived confirms
how very popular and much loved this design must have been, and what
a delight to have in the home, to light up the long days of darkness.
These are rare examples of woven hangings to survive from the Far North
which display old patterns and all are carefully preserved in museums
in Bergen, Trondheim, Oslo and Stockholm. It would seem that within
the traditional arts and crafts of Scandinavia there still lingers a
trace of far distant cultures and influences, and these should all be
treasured as a testimony to those awe-inspiring and epic voyages the
Vikings once made.
Wilfrid Blunt (1976) Splendours of Islam, Viking
Press, New York
Ernst Fischer (1969) Från Granätapple till Skybragdt,
Norsk Folkemuseums Årbok 1968-69
J. Graham-Campbell and D. Kydd, The Viking, British Museum Publications,
Thor B. Kielland (1955) Norsk Billedvev 1550-1800, Gyldendal
Norsk Forlag, Oslo
Rene Planchenault, l'Apocalypse d'Angers, Caisse National des
Monuments Historiques, Paris
A. Santangelo, The Development of Italian Textile Design, A.
Zwemmer Ltd, London
W.S. Sevensma, Tapestries, Merlin Press, London
Aase Bay Sjovold, Norwegian Tapestries, C. Huitfeldt Forlag A/S,
Gill Speirs and Sigrid Quemby (1985) A Treasury of Embroidery Designs,
Bell and Hyman, London
Lilli Zickerman(1937) Sveriges Folkliga Textilekonst, Rolakan
Aktiebolaget Svensk Litteratre, Stockholm
© Sigrid Quemby and Gill Speirs. Gill Speirs studied at the
Slade School of Fine Art before following a career in publishing. Sigrid
Quemby also studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and has continued
to work in the arts both as a teacher and freelance artist. Sigrid and
Gill have collaborated on many projects, including the book The
Embroiderer's Treasury published in 1985 by Bell and Hyman.
All drawings and photographs © Sigrid Quemby, with the exception
of the Sandvigske Samlinger wall hanging reproduced here with kind permission
from the Maihaugen Museum, Norway.