The Överhogdal Tapestries
The Överhogdal Tapestries
These textiles are the crown jewels of Jamtli’s collections. They are a fascinating series of woven tapestries from the Viking Age. Each of the weaves is covered by figures of people, horses and wild animals, as well as legendary creatures. They hurry from right to left in rows, passing houses, churches and ships on their way.
The motives and symbols have been interpreted in many different ways over the years.
Some people believe that the tapestries show the story of the missionary Staffan bringing Christianity to Härjedalen. Others see scenes from the Völsunga saga. The latest theory is that the images are about the end of the world – known as Ragnarök in Norse mythology, the Apocalypse in Christianity.
It is undoubted that the tapestries show motives connected with both old Norse and Christian beliefs. They were woven in a period of transition between the two faiths, a fact that makes them even more exciting to our imagination.
They were found in a shed by the church in Överhogdal in Härjedalen in 1910. First believed to date from the middle ages, C14 test conducted in 1991 proved the different parts of the tapestries to date from between 800 and 1100 AD. This means that they were made during the Viking era. In 2005 a new analysis was made at the same laboratory. The technology had developed in the 15 years since the previous analysis, which encouraged hopes of a less divergent result. The new analysis found that all the tapestries had been created som time between 1040–1170, that is, the very period when the Viking Age turned into the Middle Ages, and the old pagan religion gave way to Christianity in the North.
Today, these unique items are exhibited at Jamtli, were a special room has been designed to make sure that they are preserved in optimal conditions.
In 1910, the artist Paul Jonze toured Jämtland and Härjedalen on his bicycle, commissioned to make an inventory of items of rural culture by the Association for Jämtlands Handicrafts, the precursor of the County Museum. As he arrived in Överhogdal, he wanted to take a look in the three sheds by the church. The church had recently been restored, and one of the sheds was used to store old planks and all kinds of rubbish from the old church interior. Right inside the door laid a bundle of textiles, which Paul now took outside to have a closer look. As he saw the old-fashioned images, he decided to bring it back to Östersund.
It was handed over to the County Governor’s wife Ellen Widen, at the time a prominent figure within the regional cultural heritage movement. She promptly gave it a wash in the bath tub in the basement. The next year, an exhibition on church history was held in Östersund, and the Överhogdal tapestries were presented to the public for the first time. A lively debate on what the images actually meant soon commenced. To make discussions easier, the four snare-weaves were named 1a, 1b, II and III, and the ornamental double weave was called IV.
As some of the tears in the tapestries looked fairly new,
the textile teacher Helena Öberg was sent to look for missing pieces. Well in Överhogdal, a man told her that he could help. She followed him to his home, and found that his five year old daughter used a large piece of the tapestry as cover for her doll. The next day, Helena went to the church and found that two craftsmen doing repair there had tried to use a piece of one of the tapestries to polish the glass of a lamp, but found the material too stiff. Another piece was found under the pulpit stairs. These parts were taken to Östersund and joined to the rest.
In 1929, the different lengths of the tapestry were separated from each other and framed. They were exhibited in the new County Museum of Jämtland, which opened in 1930, and stayed there until they were moved to the new museum building in 1995.
Over the years, the tapestries’ images have been interpreted in different ways. Most of the theories are results of years of studies. Several people have really made an effort to get as many as possible of the different figures to fit into the same comprehensive story. Nevertheless, it has proven difficult to find explanations that encompass all the motives and figures, and the interpretations differ considerably.
The latest theory is presented by Sture Wikman in his book “Fenrisulven ränner”. He argues that Ragnarök, the end of the world in Norse mythology, is depicted. Ragnarök is described in Voluspà, the prophesy of the Völva. Wikman has found many points of reference between the Voluspà and the tapestries’ images:
Tapestry Ia centres on the Yggdrasil, the ash of life. Two red birds, one in the top and one by the roots of the tree, warn that Ragnarök is coming.
A bit to the side of the tree, three riders with their hands in the air can be seen. Wikman believes them to be Odin, Thor and Freyr. In Raganrök, each of them meets an opponent. Odin meets the enormous wolf Fenrir, Thor meets the world serpent Midgardsormr and Freyr meets Surt, the fire demon leading the troops of Ragnarök. To Freyr’s right, heaven falls down in a mystical V-shape.
Other motives that Wikman brings forward to support his view is a chained Loki with serpent’s poison dripping into his eyes, the Gods’ home Asgard with a roof covered with spears and the rainbow bridge and its’ guard Heimdal. On tapestry II Wikman sees some of Ragnaröks survivors: Odin’s sons Vale and Ve, Thor’s sons Mode and Magne and the blond and good-hearted Balder.
In her PhD thesis “Bonaderna från Överhogdal”, Ruth Horneij offers another interpretation. She has studied illuminated manuscript of the Apocalypse, mainly from the 9th and 10th centuries. The imagery of the Apocalypse is full of symbols and legendary creatures that Horneij finds paralleled in the tapestries.
She also argues that scenes from Ragnarök are present, and that doomsday visions of Paganism and Christianity thus have blended. On quite a few points, though, her theory differs from Wikman’s: Where Wikman sees Surt and Heimdal on the rainbow bridge, Horneij sees Christ on his throne and the archangel Michael. What Wikman interprets as Freyr and the shape of heaven falling, Horneij sees as Christ with the book of life open before him.
Textile historians Agnes Branting and Andreas Lindholm have put forward that scenes from the Völsunge saga can be found in the tapestries. The story of the saga is about a treasure of gold which has been cursed. Everybody coming near the treasure is cursed with bad luck. Some of the persons in the saga are the hero Sigurd Fafnersbana, the two sisters Gudrun and Gunnar and the evil Atle. Branting and Lindblom interpret Wikamn’s chained Loke as Sigurd, thrown into a pit of vipers by Atle. Wikman’s Valhall with the roof of spears is interpreted as Atle’s banqueting hall, where Gudrun manges to lock up Atle and burn down the house. According to Horneij’s theory, Wikman’s “spears” are in fact flickering flames rising above the roof.
It has also been suggested that the tapestries show the Christianization of Härjedalen. This theory was first put forward in 1920 by Georg Karlin, Director of the Museum of Cultural History in Lund. He interpreted the depicted men to be the missionary Staffan, sent from the diocese of Hamburg-Bremen in the middle of the 11th century. Travelling through the wilderness, Staffan meets reindeer (the horned animals on weave II) rides up a mountain, tears down a Sámi seite (the rainbow-like shape with a rider) and builds the first churches.
We will never know which of the above mentioned theories that is the correct. Perhaps it’s this lack of a correct key to the tapestries’ riddle that continues to fascinate us? Through a highly unlikely strike of luck, a glimpse of the Viking’s world has been preserved for our eyes to see. We may study it closely, count the threads and be surprised by its’ lustre and quality, but we will never know what it wants to tell us.
Materials and technique
The base cloth is made of linen, and the pattern threads are of wool. It has been stated that the wool comes from a rustic breed of sheep that was common in the Nordic countries during this era. The clear and bright colours are from vegetable dyes: Blue from woad, red from madder root and yellow from weld.
The tapestries have been woven on an upright, warp-weighed loom of a type common in Scandinavia during the Iron Age. Thus, the weaver has worked crossways, and from the right to the left. The weft was pressed upwards with a batten or by hand.
At first, the figures were believed to be embroidered. Later it was discovered that the woollen thread never splits a fibre in the base cloth (this easily happens in embroidery). Now we know that the Överhogdal tapestries are woven in a technique known as “snare-weave.”
The technique consists of laying the pattern thread over 9 or 6 warp threads and then snaring them back around two or three threads before continuing to the end of the figure. When the whole cloth width has been woven with the pattern thread, a pick of linen thread follows to fix them in place.
To prevent distortion of the finished fabric the figures have to be evenly distributed. The first part of tapestry II shows that the weaver doesn’t quite command the technique, but after a few decimetres, the work becomes more even. Has the weaver learned the trick, or has another person taken over the job?
To get better insight in how the tapestries were made, a copy has been weaved by Ellinor Sydberg. For many years, she experimented with dyeing, spinning, tools and techniques. The pattern was obtained through meticulous counting of the original’s warp threads, back and forth, again and again. The copy is now on display in the “Forngård” in Överhogdal.