The tapestry of the Skog Church in Sweden

From Pagan to Christian:

The Story in the 12th-Century Tapestry of the Skog Church, Hälsingland, Sweden

by Terje I. Leiren University of Washington, Seattle

The Skog Church Tapestry

This woolen tapestry on a white linen background dates from around the middle of the 12th Century, shortly after Sweden’s conversion to Christianity. The tapestry, originally from the Skog Church in Hälsingland, Sweden, has been in Stockholm’s Museum of National Antiquities (Statens Historiska Museum) since 1914. It is more than just a tapestry, it tells a story of a culture in transition.

The tapestry contains a stave church in the center with a congregation inside the church. On the eaves of the church roof are two dragon heads. There is a bell tower in the church and another next to the church itself. Animals, believed to be lions, are approaching the church from the left, while horses, and soldiers/knights, approach from the right. Traditionally, this has been seen as the church under attack. To the far left of the tapestry are three figures, usually thought to be Scandinavian kings/saints Olaf, Knud, and Erik. In fact, these are not only Christian saints.

The Viking Trinity

According to Adam of Bremen: “If plague and famine threatens, a libation is poured to the idol Thor; if war, to Odin; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frey.” Because Odin, the All-Father, was generally more feared than loved and subsequently kept at a distance, his son, Thor, assumed the position as favored deity. He was the protector and trusted friend. Some myths associated with Thor had him as almost human, with his foibles and gullibility. His hammer came to be used as an amulet, not only to signify the wearers allegiance to the old faith, but also as protection against the evils abounding. Odin and Thor were the most prominent members of the militaristic Æsir family. Frey, god of fertility and fecundity, led the Vanir family, the early opponents of the Æsir. However, a truce between them brought Frey to Valhalla and elevated his status to be one of the Norse trinity. With the conversion to Christianity, the Norse trinity, although driven underground by the Christian church, nevertheless, remained significantly conspicuous, albeit in changed form. Scandinavian/Viking kings could easily be depicted as representions of the earlier pagan deities without the authorities of the Roman Church being any the wiser. In the same way that an anonymous woodcarver craftsman working on the Borgund Stave Church in western Norway could put a representation of the one-eyed Odin on the top of a column in the dark upper reaches of the sanctuary, so too could an artisan represent the pagan gods as medieval kings and/or saints. Consequently, with his axe, St. Olaf came to be associated with Thor and his hammer. In the tapestry, however, there seems to be a mixing of deities, as St. Olaf with his axe represents not Thor, but the one-eyed Odin who is placed next to a representation of a tree, perhaps the Yggdrasil from which he had hung. In addition, King Knud, killed at the alter of St. Albans Priory in Odense, Denmark, is placed in the middle, holding a Thor-like hammer(the crucifix?), while King Erik ( the fertility diety, Frey) flanks him on his right holding an ear of corn. This arrangement, with Thor in the middle, is similar to Adam of Bremen’s description of the idols in the great temple at Uppsala where Thor is said to be flanked by Odin and Frey.

The Bells

It was generally believed by medieval Scandinavians that bells cleansed the air, purging it of evil spirits. According to Rimbert in his Life of St. Ansgar, church bells were considered unlawful by pagans. Perhaps they frightened the spirits. Christians, of course, had no such qualms, indeed they probably sought to intimidate those very same spirits protected and nurtered by the pagans. Bells, of course, called the Christian faithful to worship, but there was a far stronger symbolism at work. When Gustav Vasa, during the Lutheran Reformation, around 1527, began confiscating church bells for metal to help restore the state treasury, it aroused such indignation among the citizenry that his royal authority itself was threatened and pretenders to the throne began calling for his overthrow.

Dragons and Other Animals

Just as bells frightened spirits and cleansed the air around a Christian church, dragon heads were placed on the roofs of stave churches to frighten away evil spirits. Although today, animal heads on the stave churches give it a quaint appearance, their use in the architectural structure in the 12th and 13th centuries was, however, very serious business. In old Icelandic law, it was illegal to bring a ship, with its dragon-head bow, directly into land for fear of offending the spirits of the land. Christian converts did not give up their traditional beliefs in pagan spirits, but instead of protecting and placating the spirits, it was the church and the worshippers inside which now had to be protected. Dragon heads, therefore, served a useful purpose as a part of the church structure. Dragon heads on the church in the Skog Tapestry face out as a protective force for the Christian faith, the faithful and the physical structure of the church itself. The dragon is only one of a number of animals (real and mythical) in the Viking religious universe. While the dragon is attacking the roots of the Yggdrasil (the World Tree), a squirrel runs up and down carrying insults between the dragon and the eagle in the canopy of the tree. Most prominently, of course, the Fenris Wolf and the World Snake are two of the representations of evil and chaos itself in the Norse world view. All animals were not evil or threatening. In Christian Scandinavia, the lion, an animal not found in Scandinavia, represents power and royal prestige. In the pagan world, Odin is also associated with animals –his magical horse, Sleipnir, and his two ravens (Hugin and Munin) who served as his “eyes and ears to the world,” bringing him news of all developments.


The transition from Paganism to Christianity in Scandinavia was not an easy one for Scandinavians to make. The Swedish writer, Vilhelm Moberg, called it the “300-year War.” From the time of the appearance of the first Christian missionaries in the early 9th century until the final conversions in the 11th and 12 centuries, Pagan Scandinavia was under constant pressure from the forces of the “White Christ.” When leaders converted, pressure on the people was increased, of course. Olaf Trygvasson’s forced conversions in Norway, as well as Charlemagne’s two hundred years before him in Saxony, were no less brutal than any pagan Viking raid. The transition between paganism and Christianity, however brutal and uncertain it might have been, nevertheless, saw a merging of cultures and beliefs. The art and the architecture of the time certainly demonstrate this. We see it reflected in various elements of stave church construction and also in such things as the Skog Tapestry. What, then, of the numerous gods and spirits? Many survived by going underground and are found in Scandinavian folklore and popular belief. Trolls are not unlike the giants of Jotunheimen who constantly battled the gods allied against them. In some instances, trolls are just as dim-witted as the giants themselves appear to have been. The principle deities, however, were too easily recognized by the authorities in the Church, and were, therefore, forced to take deeper cover. If you look carefully, however, you can occasionally find them in medieval iconography, often disguised as kings or saints. What better way to keep Thor and Odin alive and out of the clutches of the Christian authorities than to dress them up to look like medieval Christian saints? Terje I. Leiren Department of Scandinavian Studies University of Washington

Norwegian | English

At the World Fair in Paris in1900, two Norwegian artists were awarded gold medals for their tapestries. One was delighted, while the other was angry and disappointed. These differing responses give some insight into the manner tapestry as an art form would be regarded in the 20th century.

Frida Hansen (1855-1931) was elated at receiving the gold medal, which gave her international recognition. It followed that important museums and major collectors throughout Europe bought many of her tapestries. Gerhard Munthe (1849-1927) was the frustrated recipient. He considered himself a major artist, as a painter, he craved recognition for his painting and not for his”dabblings” with tapestry. GERHARD MUNTHE. Daughters of the Northern Light (also called The Suitors), 1889. Munthe was a capable if somewhat pedestrian landscape painter. Educated in Christiania (Oslo), Düsseldorf and Münich, it seems that he sensed a lacking in his naturalistic paintings. He confirms this by stating that he only found freedom to express his imaginative and exploratory skills in what he would term ”minor art forms” i.e. cartoons for tapestry, illustration, jewellery, medals and furniture. Ironically, it was for his”minor” works that he gained enormous public acclaim. These works were considered to express”the Norwegian Soul”, so greedily craved for by a nationalistic public who wanted independence from Sweden. Munthe himself was acutely aware of this and writes, ” When I first ventured into the realm of pattern and decoration, I heeded exactly the colours and forms that to me represented the very Norwegian identity”. His work struck the”spirit of the time” to establish a particular Norwegian identity. Today such a nationalist attitude and ideology would at best be found comic, at worst racist and dangerous. Munthe’s involvement with tapestry was complicated. While enjoying fame and flattery, he was doubtful, even condescending, about the practice of translating and bastardising his”real art”, into soft woolly hangings. ”Oh, these weaving ladies” sighed Munthe,”they drown my Art in wool”. The dichotomy in Munthe’s thinking epitomises the difference between Fine Art and Applied Art that has had major influence on the development of Art & Design in the 20th century. This dichotomy begs the question”Is, what shall be deemed art, predetermined and prejudged by its media and material, rather than its visual strength and content?” With a closer look at Munthe’s tapestries, they seem flat and lack rhythm in their contrived pseudo-mediaeval style. Their illustrative content represents a mixture of fairy tales, sagas, and folklore. In their time they were celebrations of a noble and heroic Norwegian past. Today they are interesting curiosities, yet uncomfortable mirrors of their time. They are monumental images that give a direct visual authenticity to the mentality and aspirations of Norway at the turn of the century. FRIDA HANSEN. The Milky Way, 1898. Unlike Munthe, Frida Hansen chose tapestry as the expressive media for her art. Her early life had been fraught by disappointment and tragedy. Hers is a story of riches to rags. She married young a wealthy businessman. They lived in grand style in a manor house. Her husband was declared bankrupt and lived abroad for some years. Being destitute and having to care for an extended family alone, Frida moved to a small house in Stavanger. Two of their three children died. In desperation, she started an embroidery shop in her own home. Occasionally old tapestries were brought for repair. These tattered old ”åkle” captured Frida’s interest in the art of tapestry. She received some basic instruction in the craft, had a loom made and began to make her own work. Within a short space of time she began to sell her tapestries, took students as assistants and had exhibitions in major cities. The years of hardship and tragedy had made her self-reliant and had given her an artistic resolve. Frida Hansen was a self-taught artist. It appears that her knowledge and ability with colour, form and composition came from her gardening experience. The formal gardens she created at their manor house, Hillevåg, were so renowned that they were open to the public at certain times of the year. By the spring of 1895 she could afford to study Mediaeval Art in Cologne, followed by life drawing classes in Paris. Both these ventures are central to her development. The contemporary art of Europe changed the content and image of her art. It moved from a traditionalist and nationalist style to the international style of Symbolism and Art Nouveau. When asked where she got her ideas from, she replied”Ideas? Strangely enough craft and design don’t give me ideas; it is Art that gives me the most impulses”. Hansen’s allegoric tapestries, elegant and rich in content and composition are ambitious in a renaissance sense. Not only does she speak in an international manner, she transgresses style and reveals personal, intimate aspects of her own life. Anniken Thue writes,” the meeting with French Art Nouveau meant that her beloved garden at Hillevåg was resurrected as pure poems in wool”. The acclaim Frida Hansen received for her tapestry abroad was never quite equalled at home in Norway. She found herself in the difficult position of being a career woman at a time when women did not even have the vote. Her art was never considered Norwegian in the same idolatry manner that Munthe’s was. Nevertheless she must be regarded as one of the first Norwegian artists to have obtained international reputation. From 1900 –1930 the art world experienced a fast moving revolution with an array of different movements, from Fauvism to Surrealism. Symbolism and Art Nouveau became passé and were frowned upon by the avant-garde and leaders of taste. At home in Norway, Frida Hansen ran a large studio and patented one of her innovations, called a ”transparente”. A woven hanging with an open warp, used as a ”portièr” or room divider, which allowed light to pass through. By 1920 her art was losing popularity and after her death in 1931 she was totally forgotten for 50 years. Had it not been for Anniken Thue’s resurrection of this artist, her art might still be erased from Norwegian Art History. HANNAH RYGGEN. Grey Figure, 1961. ©BONO After the first flourish of interest in tapestry in the early 20th century, very little seemed to happen. Both public interest and artistic impetus ground to a halt, except for one outstanding artist, Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970). She emerged as an artist in the Thirties and stamped her visions on the Norwegian conscience until her death. Born in Malmø, Sweden, she married Hans Ryggen, a painter, and they settled in Ørlandet, outside Trondheim. She started her adult life as a dissatisfied and frustrated schoolteacher. She said of herself that she was awkwardly shy and virtually mute for 20 years. A contrast to her mature years where she proved to be an eloquent and captivating speaker to large audiences, as demonstrated in a radio programme where with great delight she described the use of urine to make ”piss blue”. Hannah Ryggen had some early tuition from the Danish painter Fredrik Krebs in Lund. Tuition in tapestry was limited to using her eyes and asking questions as the course she wished to enrol in was full. Undaunted she bought a ”Flemish” loom and started to weave. What is singularly special with Hannah Ryggen is that she shows an amazing ability to draw ”in the loom”. Indeed this is precisely what she did, never having a cartoon, drawings or even sketches, and never drawing guidelines on the warp. The whole tapestry was conceived in her head. She said,” the heart, the eye and the hands are the way of tapestry”. Inevitably she used the process of weaving, the structure of the material, and the function of the loom as governors of proportion and composition. Often her compositions are presented in geometric settings. Even more striking is the rhythmic repeat which measures exactly the length that is visible of the tapestry before it is wound down on to the roller. She obviously possessed an exceptional visual memory, coupled with an imaginative and intuitive use of the Golden Section. Her attitude towards tapestry was essentially traditional both technically and formally. She spun and dyed her own wool, using vegetable dyes. Much of her weaving technique and vision echo tapestries from the ”Golden Age” of Norwegian tapestry, 1550-1800. The strength in her tapestries is its content rather than its technique. Her work was concerned with her close private life as well as great international political issues, and the fusion of the two themes. Intimate and public concerns conveyed with earnest directness. She says of herself ”I am not really a tapestry weaver, it just suited my temperament to express myself in the loom, I found my instrument”. Her ”instrument” played so loud and clear that it heralded many other artists who found tapestry to be their ”tune” In 1964 Hannah Ryggen was the first tapestry artist to be invited to show her work at the important annual exhibition of Norwegian contemporary art, the ”Statens Høstutstilling”. Yet, in the same year she represented Norway at the rather more prestigious Venice Bienniale. SYNNØVE ANKER AURDAL. Portrait Bleu, 1986. ©BONO It would take18 years before another tapestry artist would show at the Venice Biennale, Synnøve Anker Aurdal (1908 –1999). In her youth she learnt tapestry weaving in her hometown of Lillehammer, making copies of traditional Norwegian tapestries. She came from a cultured background and wished to be an artist. She applied to the Art & Craft School in Oslo but was refused. An event she remembered with disappointment as she often felt that she lacked the basic fundamentals of art that this school could have taught her. She became a student at the ”Kvinnelige Industriskole” and learnt drawing and flat-loom weaving. After this she started her own school and workshop with her friend Randi Holte. In the 1940’s, during the German occupation, due to the shortage of weaving materials she made appliqués reminiscent of traditional Norwegian tapestries in their composition. It is with this collage method that we see the emergence of her style and authority. With a collage technique she found a compositional freedom. The elements in her cartoons had the possibility to be interpreted in an open manner in the loom. Synnøve Anker Aurdal is renowned for the experimentation she brought to tapestry. From early in her career she operated freely with the format, shape and proportion of her work in both 2 and 3 dimensions. She introduced untraditional materials, such as, beads, plastic, metal, and mirror, and experimented with surface and colour. In Synnøve Anker Aurdal one sees a thoroughly professional artist who pursued her art and career with discipline and energy. She is a good example of a modernist, her tapestries mirroring this in form and mood. Her work is not involved with narrative. Neither political statement nor feminine issues are subjects in her work. She deals in abstraction and aesthetics. From her first exhibitions her work was well received. Her intimate acquaintance with the leading modernists of the time taught her much and amazingly didn’t hinder her career. It must be remembered that Modernism, or Abstract Art, was frowned upon in Norway until well into the late 50’s. Anything non-figurative, from Malevitch to Jackson Pollock, was regarded as without content and therefore a threat to Art itself. Synnøve Anker Aurdal’s work escaped this weird polemic only because it was tapestry. Tapestry was somehow outside the debate of real art. The 20th century is often referred to as the Century of the Woman. Synnøve Anker Aurdal is the outstanding example in Norway of a woman who became a successful modernist with the peripheral media that tapestry is. Hannah Ryggen and Synnøve Anker Aurdal are two tapestry makers who are involved with art and ideas primarily, and see technique, tradition and craft as a means to an end. Tapestry is often applauded more for its craft than for its visual idea. It is applauded because it is a slow craft that demands patience. Its technical skills can achieve the most virtuoso results. It is a craft that can interpret artists’ cartoons. It is a craftsman’s art, as well as an artist’s craft. Else Halling (1899 – 1984), in contrast to Ryggen and Anker Aurdal, was primarily concerned with tapestry as a craft. In her view no tapestry could surpass the Norwegian traditional tapestries (1550-1800) in composition, technique or materials. She wished to conserve this traditional heritage. This led her to a thorough investigation into the spinning, dyeing, weaving techniques of these traditional tapestries in an effort to clarify how and why they look as they do. Her greatest discovery was that the old weavers used the hair and not the wool from a primitive breed of sheep called ”spælsau”. This hair was spun hard and gave a particular sheen to the surface. This material was easy to weave, took dye well, and was exceptionally strong and durable. She also found that these old tapestries were constructed using mostly dovetailing and interlocking threads, and believed, wrongly, that these techniques were uniquely Norwegian. Else Halling ran a professional tapestry workshop, Norsk Billedvev A/S, from 1951 to 1968, where she produced, from artists’ cartoons, commissioned tapestries. These tapestries are to be found in many public buildings. She was also the head teacher in tapestry at the Kvinnelige Industriskole from 1941 to 1964, were she communicated with enthusiasm her knowledge and opinions. She was quite clear in her vision that one person created the cartoon and another with interpretative skills wove it. She didn’t think there was a schism between these two aspects. She didn’t see the point of her students and assistants making their own ideas. They were there to execute other artists’ visions, as indeed other professional workshops do the world over. She believed that she could not teach anyone to be an artist, but could teach technical skills. If these technical skills were not excellent then the tapestry was inferior. Else Halling had a passionate belief that the early Norwegian tapestries were the ultimate form for tapestry. However, younger artists had other opinions, aims and ideals. JAN GROTH. Sign, 1994. ©BONO Jan Groth (1938 – ) was one such young artist. While Hannah Ryggen, Synnøve Anker Aurdal or Else Hallings workshop never achieved a true international reputation and recognition, Jan Groth has. Known for his elegant non-figurative white motifs on black grounds, his work gives breadth to the nature of tapestry by incorporating vibrant contemporary western ideas with an understanding of eastern calm. His visual language finds expression in many media, drawing, fine prints, sculpture and tapestry. His ex-wife, Benedikte, in Copenhagen, weaves his tapestries while he has lived most of the time in New York and Oslo. In New York he taught, not tapestry, but the development of students ideas in many differing media. He works in a post-modern global situation, and this is reflected in his work. While some term him a minimalist, he says he is not, though his work is refined and sparse. 1968 saw the student uprisings in Paris and elsewhere. A call for change, political, cultural, social and educational was heralded. 1970 saw this revolution take place amongst Norwegians artists. Their Union campaigned, demonstrated and won the right to negotiate directly with the government and not through middlemen. This was an incredible achievement, which gave political and social benefits to Norwegian artists, and foreign artists living in Norway that was unheard of elsewhere in the world, with the exception of Holland who achieved similar rights with their government. The benefits that befell the artists included a guideline for qualification to the professional artists union, more grants and stipends, a guaranteed minimum wage for qualified artists over 40, and that 2% of the building cost of all state buildings would be allocated to the commissioning of art. These measures created a vast expansion of artistic activity, particularly in the field of public art where tapestry was very popular with architects. Art and artists were to be incorporated into the fabric of society. The term “artist” referred to all individuals involved in the Arts, writers, actors, musicians, etc. Norway had a long tradition of being a social democrat state, and with this background it is easy to understand how artists became political animals once the starting pistol had been fired in Paris. The impetus and energy of this movement enabled the creation of more chapters within the various Artist Unions. The Norwegian Textile Artists Association was founded, having a predominance of artists who worked with tapestry. The majority of people involved with flat weaving, fabric printing, embroidery, knitting etc. were organised in the Crafts Union. Generally tapestry is regarded as a craft, an applied art, and not a fine art. With these political and social changes for artists something quite unique had been accepted. Tapestry was accepted as a fine art, which gave the status of artist and not craftsman to tapestry weavers. This meant that they could compete with other artists for stipends, exhibitions etc. They gained their own jury in the annual state exhibition (Statens Høstutstilling), which brought public interest and critical acclaim. Through this political activity the work of many talented artists was given prominence in the 70’s and 80’s. As stated, tapestry became a significant partner with architecture in many state, county and private institutions. Tapestries for the first time were purchased by the National Museum for Contemporary Art. Many of the artists responsible for this breakthrough are still active today and their names and work, together with younger artists, can be found on Today tapestry no longer fights for its right to be an art medium. It is just one of the many vehicles available to artists for the expression of their ideas. Yet, in contrast to the electronic media that is fast, cool and fashionable, tapestry is an anachronism. It’s slow, tactile and sensual and appeals to different judgements and sensations. The contemporary attitude that it’s the idea that is paramount and the medium is of secondary importance is also applicable to tapestry, as can be seen in the work of many young artists. Contemporary Norwegian tapestry is well represented in international exhibitions and certainly echo’s the sentiments of the jury for the Artapestry exhibition of 2005 who wrote: ”Today we actively seek a new form, directions, purpose, even justification for woven tapestry”, which highlights the search for a new dynamic for tapestry in the 21st century. During the 20th century the terms art and craft, fine art and applied art and the status of art have had differing interpretations. Likewise artists’ attitudes, ideals and practise have also changed. The public, critics and historians have also found differing criteria for what is acceptable as art and art practise. Art itself is an organic organism that is constantly changing form, direction, content and meaning. Its nature and function are increasingly difficult to understand. Art is an on-going debate and knowledge of its past gives creative fuel for argument. Of the artists discussed here there are differing aspects worthy of examination. Hannah Ryggen was the most traditionally based artist in terms of her practise. She did all the work herself and could not have assistants as she wove directly from her ”heart”. Many lay people would call her a true artist because everything was hand-made by her own hands. However, Munthe, Hansen, Anker Aurdal, and Groth could never have achieved what they have produced without assistance. Does this make them lesser artists? Is their technique better because they didn’t weave the tapestries themselves? What is most important, who had the idea or who wove the piece? But it is quite clear it is the artist who gets the status and renown, not the craftsperson. It is quite curious that while it was, and is acceptable that Gerhard Munthe had ”ladies” to make his tapestries, it would never have been acceptable that others made his paintings. Why was this the case when it is recorded that Titian, Rubens etc. all had assistants who did the donkey work. Where did Andy Warhol get his idea for ”the Factory”? It is Andy Warhol’s signature that creates his work, not the physical labour, as it was Frida Hansen’s style that gave her work its particular personality. But did Frida Hansen regard herself as an artist or a craftsman, or both. Were her ideas art, but her tapestries craft? Did the artists who produced cartoons for Else Halling consider the tapestries she made to be art, or just an applied art? Would Jan Groth’s art be better if he concentrated on weaving his tapestries himself? At different times during the last century these questions would solicit very different answers and opinions. Today the answers might be more similar. In the post-modern era new media has created new art forms. What was once seen as not art is art today. Photography is very much art today, yet fine prints are not acceptable if they are mechanically produced. They still must show the direct touch of the hand of the artist / craftsman. Ordinary mass produced objects become art by a change of context. Electronic media and performance has opened up new horizons. Artists are their own art as with Gilbert & George. Art can and is made of anything. Nothing is sacred. Plagiarism has become appropriation. Salvador Dali’s last great anarchistic gesture was to sign and sell blank sheets of paper for others to fill with the kind of (Dali-esque or not) art they liked. Theories abound and none are correct. Questions are more correct than answers. Is art a part of the entertainment business? Are artists’ personalities more important than their art? Where would art be without its ability to shock, it’s craving for publicity, and the financial investment that is placed in it? In a fragmented society with a rich heritage the artists’ stands free to select whatever ideas, media, methods and content they wish. Within this vast horizon of possibilities tapestry still has a role to play if the artist creates it.

The use and function of tapestries


Although it is not known exactly when the first tapestry was produced in Europe, by the early Middle Ages workshops throughout the continent were producing textile hangings, which were among the most prestigious objects owned by the well-to-do. When some unknown artist or weaver, probably in northwestern Europe in the middle of the 14th century, conceived the idea of representing stories in these weavings—as opposed to merely decorative patterns—tapestry embarked on its own glorious career in the figurative arts.

Tapestry bears a close relation to painting; it is a pictorial art and often done on a large scale. Moreover, some of the best tapestries were designed by artists who were renowned painters. Unfortunately, this connection has all too often cast a shadow on the medium in immeasurable ways. Some have viewed tapestries as mere copies of paintings or as little more than interior furnishings, leading viewers and art historians to neglect them or at best consider them of lesser significance.

Because tapestries are made of pliable fiber, they can be rolled up and are thus far more easily transportable than framed paintings. This flexibility permitted royalty, nobility, church dignitaries, and other wealthy tapestry owners to bring pieces with them on their travels. Tapestries carried in this manner included relatively small hangings with biblical images that were used as votive images for daily prayer and moments of personal reflection. In contrast, larger tapestries were hung in castles, abbeys, and mansions for decoration and to line drafty halls and rooms in an era before central heating. For major state and religious ceremonies, tapestries were also hung on the outside of buildings, suspended from balconies or attached directly to exterior walls, lining the streets (see illustration to the right).

Tapestries were often produced in suites (also called chambers) of multiple pieces that together tell a story. When hung together in a large space such as a gallery in a royal residence, a cathedral, or church, or even in a sizeable room, such a set could both command and unify the space. The pieces would frequently abut one another, creating a massive, continuous visual field akin to a mural, and that, like a mural, could be “read.”

Tapestries to take your breath away.

Dec 012013


San Francisco International Airport
Terminal 2
Waiting Area

Mark Adams Garden Ouside Gate

This is a series by Mark Adams.  They include Garden Outside Gate, Garden in Golden Gate Park, and Garden in San Andreas Valley.  They have been in storage for over 20 years at the SFAC.  They were brought out and installed as part of the complete remodel of Terminal 2 at SFO.  They are absolutely stunning, and thank goodness they have been brought out for all to enjoy.

Woven in the traditional Aubusson style, these flax woven wool tapestries represent various gardens that the artist remembers from his years living in San Francisco. Irises, hydrangeas, chrysanthemums and wild dahlias are featured in rich, deep shades.

His 2006 obituary Reads:

Mr. Adams was known for the grace and delicacy of his spare, single-object still life pictures, and for the big stained-glass windows and tapestries he was commissioned to create for churches, synagogues, libraries and office buildings around the Bay Area. He made stained-glass windows for Temple Emanu-El and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and the Lafayette-Orinda United Presbyterian Church, among others, and did tapestries for such diverse places as the San Francisco International Airport, the Marina branch of the San Francisco Public Library and the Dallas Fairmont Hotel.

Mark Adams Flax Tapestry SFO

Mr. Adams’ more intimate work was shown in group and solo exhibitions at museums and galleries around the Bay Area and the country and found its way into many private collections.

“He was a lovely man, a real gentleman with a great soul,” said San Francisco art dealer John Berggruen, who showed Mr. Adams’ work for 25 years. “He did these beautifully poetic watercolors that had a real presence about them. His floral images, and his depiction of common everyday objects, were very compelling. We would exhibit his watercolors every two or three years, and they’d all sell. People would be lined up at the gallery at 9:30 in the morning to buy them. He had a wonderful run.”

Berggruen recalled the warm feeling of the old Mission District firehouse where Mr. Adams and his wife, artist Beth Van Hoesen, lived, worked and entertained friends for more than 50 years.

Mr. Adams was born in Fort Plain, N.Y., and studied at the University of Syracuse’s School of Fine Arts. He moved to New York City in 1945 and studied at painter Hans Hoffman’s School of Fine Arts and at Atelier 17. The next year, he hitchhiked to San Francisco and worked on the restoration of Carmel’s Mission San Carlos Borromeo under the leadership of Harry Downie, digging ditches and painting the Stations of the Cross in a Spanish Colonial style in the mission chapel.

Mark Adams Tapestry

After further study at Columbia University, Mr. Adams returned to San Francisco and got a job making window displays at Gump’s. Inspired by the tapestries he had seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, he began creating his own tapestries in 1952. His first piece was included in a show of religious art that year at the de Young Museum. Three years later, he apprenticed with French tapestry designer Jean Lurçat and traveled with his wife through Europe and North Africa.

Returning to San Francisco, Mr. Adams began doing commissioned tapestries for public and private buildings, and in 1960 got the first of many stained-glass commissions, for San Francisco’s Clarendon School. He was painter in residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1963 and over the years taught at various colleges in the Bay Area and beyond

Architecture and tapestry

Woven space: Architecture and tapestry

<i>Homage to CPE Bach</i>, 2003, designed by Jørn Utzon, woven by Cheryl Thornton, Pamela Joyce, Milena Paplinska, Chris Cochius, 2.67 x 14.02m, wool, cotton, Sydney Opera House

Homage to CPE Bach, 2003, designed by Jørn Utzon, woven by Cheryl Thornton, Pamela Joyce, Milena Paplinska, Chris Cochius, 2.67 x 14.02m, wool, cotton, Sydney Opera House Image: John Gollings

An upcoming design competition promises to reinvigorate the connection between architecture and textile art, and hence human experience and the built environment.

There is a long-standing historical connection between architectural space and textile art, and in particular, tapestry. Rare tapestry remnants have been found in Greece dating from the 3rd century BC and the tapestry-laden walls of European museums and palaces are very familiar to us. The longevity of this art form over the centuries makes my 15-year connection with it via the Australian Tapestry Workshop (ATW) pale into insignificance. Time is not the relevant metric, however, when measuring the alchemy that occurs in the creation of tapestry—this is timeless.

Significant wall hangings have been created around the world and used in a myriad of configurations for functional, decorative, celebratory and didactic purposes, with a clear knowing of their ‘other’ underlying capacity to modify thermal and acoustic conditions within interior built space. Tapestries have ranged from monumental formats in great public and private buildings down to small-scale intimate works for personal enjoyment. Often underpinned by great wealth, they have been traded and presented as gifts to leaders for hundreds of years across countries and societies. They show enormous scope, having been used for traditional designs employing historical and mythical themes, to being utilised as a preferred medium by avant-garde architects and artists at the beginnings of the modern movement in Europe.

From their earliest history to the full integration of textiles into the comprehensive design program of the Bauhaus in Germany under Walter Gropius (1919-28) and later under Mies van der Rohe (1930-33), tapestries have been linked intimately with built space and its creation. One only has to think of the great architect Le Corbusier and his integration of textiles with architecture, including his own masterfully self-designed epic tapestries, to understand the significance of placement in architectural space.

William Morris in the 19th century and the contemporary French artist Jean Lurcat paved a way for others to follow, including internationally influential artists such as Picasso, Calder, Leger and Miro, who used the mediums of tapestry and textile as key platforms for their work.

Homage to CPE Bach, 2003, designed by Jørn Utzon, woven by Cheryl Thornton, Pamela Joyce, Milena Paplinska, Chris Cochius, 2.67 x 14.02m, wool, cotton, Sydney Opera House Image:  John Gollings

A point to note is that the realisation of the two great tapestries for new Parliament House and the Sydney Opera House came via collaboration with the ATW. In fact, most of the ATW tapestries are designed with a specific location in mind, and architectural considerations often have a great effect on the designing artists and the weavers when they create a commissioned work. In our Australian context, the architect and enthusiastic champion of integrated art, Aldo Giurgola of Mitchell Giurgola Thorpe, included the monumental Arthur Boyd tapestry Untitled (Shoalhaven Landscape) in the new Parliament House in Canberra. Harry Seidler, European émigré and pioneer Australian modernist architect, included great tapestry works in his local buildings. Jørn Utzon, responsible for the world-acclaimed Sydney Opera House, designed his tapestry Homage to CPE Bach for the Utzon Room in that same building.

Ainsley Murray in her marvelous review of an installation by Sandra Selig at the MCA in 2004 (Artlink magazine vol. 25, #1) wrote perceptively and provocatively about architecture and intervention:

“Architecture has long since surrendered the tactile in favour of grander visions. Processes of digitisation, prefabrication and mechanisation have lead to the widespread abandonment of the human hand in architectural practice, and private eccentricities are now buried, smoothed over with flatter, more uniform design solutions. Recalcitrant fingerprints and other imperfections have dissolved from all but the vernacular and indigenous architecture of Australasia. The question is, how might we reconsider our relationship with built matter to restore a direct connection with human experience? I suspect the clues lie not in architecture, but in contemporary installation.”

An upcoming design competition promoted by the ATW will reinvigorate this connection between architectural built-form and textile art. It will help to build an awareness of tapestry as a relevant medium that sits comfortably within the materiality of contemporary architectural thinking, providing another tool that architects can draw on in response to this increasingly complex and challenging world.

As Ainsley Murray concluded in her article: “Perhaps the handmade in architecture is nothing to do with the physical character of buildings, but entirely to do with how we engage with them in our enlivened and repetitious gestures. Not only is architecture rethought, but the relationship between being and building reconsidered.”


The introduction to Dirk Holger’s book “To Weave Or Not To Weave”.

       “Isn’t it curious that in our fast paced time where everything has to be done right away and as quickly as possible, there are artists and craftsmen who live by another rhythm, almost outside of time, as they produce  art works which consume so much time that little else is left for the rest of their life? Who are these creatures living without the rush, the usual stress, the “get out of my way, I have to hurry!”-attitude? They are the wea- vers of hand made tapestries and their hearts beat not faster or slower than ours and their sense of time is that of infinite patience and with this precious virtue they make use of time.  Why?  There is another element in their life that slows them down and that is called passion.  It is the combination of patience and passion which all tapestry artists have in their genes which makes them so oblivious to the passing of time.  Instead, they live and work deliberately as slowly as their will commands.  The skillfulness and,yes,the speed of their hands in weaving the weft into the warp is all that counts and that is not rushed by the ticking of a clock or the ringing of a phone or the rising or setting of the sun. It is just the use of concentration in executing their work with attention to minute detail and color choice and love for the very slow progress in the unfolding of their desired design in a woven panel, called a ‘tapestry’. And there is something else feeding their choice to slow down and to literally ignore the outside world: this mysterious element is the rare virtue of perseverance. I know of no other art field in which the will to endure is as strong and a basic necessity than in making tapestry. This publication will provide some insight into the concept, the idea, the production and the ‘un-modern’ ap- proach in creating woven works of fine art in our time when every other works we produce are being rushed, sped up and calculated in hours, minutes and seconds for their ‘production time': TAPESTRY in this regard does remain a total outsider when days, weeks, months, years, go by with another sense of passing time, with the glorious sense of…timelessness. Tapestry as woven time?  You bet!…Witness this and…enjoy!”  DH