The latest addition to the Institute's tapestry collection, and one that is particularly fitting in a museum of a region predominantly Scandinavian, is a small hanging of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
woven in Norway toward the close of the eighteenth century. To those who think of tapestry in terms of finished products of the great Gothic and Renaissance looms of Europe it will appear as a humble, and even somewhat crude example, yet it fulfills as well as they the requirements of tapestry, and has the naively simple charm that marks Norwegian peasant weavings.The subject of the tapestry is one that has been a favorite in Norway for at least two hundred years. It has been repeated so many times, since the first examples appeared in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, that its presentation has become traditional, with only a variation in treatment of detail to mark one hanging from another. The Wise and Foolish Virgins
are always shown in two bands, one above the other, with an inscription usually separating them, and the whole is enclosed in a border of geometric character. The figures are stiffly drawn in close ranks, and have the flatness of cut-out paper dolls. Almost invariably the Wise Virgins are accompanied by the figure of Christ the Bridegroom, and the Foolish Virgins by one who is identified as the bride, or the donor, or possibly even the keeper of the gate who turned away the foolish ones. In this latter respect the Institute's tapestry differs from others of the same subject. The Wise Virgins, standing primly against an architectural background with their lamps held prudently aloft, are accompanied by a sixth figure, but the Foolish Virgins stand alone against a background of conventionalized trees. Their empty lamps hang dejectedly at their sides, and four of them hold handkerchiefs to their grief-stricken faces. The fifth one appears to hold some object aloft as she stands before a throne-like chair. The Wise virgins do not appear to be much happier than their short-sighted sisters, but they wear an air of rather grim smugness. Between the two appears an inscription reading “When five Virgins were wise, were five on the other hand foolish.”The patterns of the costumes, which include conventionalized plant forms, zig-zag stripes, dots, interlocked lozenges, stylized flowers, and dotted stripes, lend a lively air to the design. In the background of the upper band are scattered hook and S-forms of the type familiar on some oriental rugs. The border framing the panel is particularly interesting because of the geese, dogs, and other animals introduced into a band of conventionalized flowers and leaves. The border on the left, while in the same general style as the other three, is noticeably different in details of design and weaving, leading to the supposition that the tapestry must have been finished by another weaver than the one who started it.As in other examples of this peasant type, such as those to be seen in the large collection in Oslo and in a smaller group at the Worcester Museum in this country, the color scheme is limited, in this case to shades of red, blue, green, yellow, and brown. The weaving technique is also peculiar to Scandinavian fabrics in that it employs a method of toothing to separate color areas when the lines of the design run parallel to the warp. Instead of the slit or interlocking methods found in Gothic and Peruvian tapestries, the weft threads of different colors are passed alternately around the same warp, sometimes in groups of two or three, so that a saw-toothed line is perceptible in the design. In this tapestry, for example, it is to be found where the edge of the tunic meets the skirt.In looking at the tapestry it should be remembered that it is a provincial work woven, perhaps, in some isolated community by one whose mind has been steeped in stories of the Bible, and who adhered rigidly to the long tradition by which those stories were given actuality in tapestries of this sort. For all its primitive quality it reflects a deeper spiritual awareness than many more sophisticated works.Referenced Work of Art
- The Wise and Foolish Virgins. A Norwegian peasant tapestry of the late XVIII century. Dunwoody Fund.