Native Art of Norway
Copyright 1965, Oslo, Norway. Published in the USA in 1967 (although there are surely later editions). There is a good amount of information in this book and many photographs. The information gathered on this webpage deals almost entirely with craftwork up to the medieval/Renaissance era.
Wood Carving by Roar Hauglid
The first mention of Norway’s tradition of woodcarving is first found in the old Norse sagas. Carving and carpentry are of high repute and entrusted only to men of rank. The banqueting hall of chieftain Olav Pa in Iceland was dedicated to his daughter’s wedding, circa 960 A.D. It was decorated with carved images that depicted scenes from Norse mythology. Examples of Norse artistry are also found in their ships and carved objects.
One Viking ship in particular discovered in 1895, along with other relics at Oseberg near the Oslo Fjord, gave insight to the glory of ancient Norway. The relics belonged to one of the queens of Vestfold who was buried in her pleasure ship at Oseberg circa 850 A.D. Included in the find were a magnificently carved ceremonial coach and a number of sledges (or sleigh) with richly carved sides and animal heads. The coach was carved with pictorial scenes and lavished with ornamentations of animal figures that were elongated and truncated, writhing and twisting together. On the stem of the boat an animal frieze rears up like a coil of animal motifs. Along with the woodcarving, weaving was also considered a distinguished craft.
[A frieze is a decoration forming an ornamental band around a room]
[A motif is the main feature or a repeated figure in a design]
When Christianity was introduced to the Norway in the 11th century the desire to decorate was applied to their churches. Norway had over 900 stave-churches during the Middle Ages. The gables (a triangular feature) of these structures were decorated with fantastic dragonheads with open jaws, and on the architrave [the frame of a door or window] is the old Norse animal ornamentation mixed with the crosses of their new religion. Early medieval art in Norway conformed to two patterns, one European and the other native.
One of the first centers of stave-church building was in Sogn in the West of Norway. About the middle of the 11th century a local nobleman built a stave-church at Urnes that had decorated gables, door and pillars.
With the introduction of new cultures came alterations in the carving styles. The Norwegian dragons have wings in imitation of the European images and with Christian art came the classical tendril motif although the earlier imagery still was retained through the mid 12th century. The tendril, with its floral shapes, its leaves or flowers borrowed from the acanthus from the famous Winchester School of book illumination. The tendril would emerge from the jaws of the beast portrayed at the base of the lintel (the headpiece of a door or window), as in the classical countries where it usually springs from the old Greek leaf chalice. The Norse carvings and the English manuscript style both have roots in the old Germanic animal ornamentation.
[The acanthus is a genus of prickly plants with large leaves found in the Mediterranean region]
While most of the stave-churches are gone a considerable number of their doors remain [at least at the time of the writing of this book]. Most of the portals are from 1150 to 1250. Geographically they are from: Sogn and Valdres both with the richest of style; Telemark, the more rustic. The tendrils are no longer so elegant. They are coarsely carved and the leaves are smaller. The tendril has spread and the animals recede into the background.
These styles were inspired by German-Lombard influence, especially the capital lions featured in Telemark, where was also found scenes from the Bible on the shaft of a pillar. The Nesland door is the most European in style. Other doors have figural scenes, but the subject matter is native.
The portal of the Hylestad Stave-Church in Stetesdal, circa 1200 A.D., depicts pagan heroic epics. Inspired by older tapestries the door has scenes from the Volsung saga of Sigurd the Dragon-slayer. At the base of the right-hand lintel is Sigurd’s sword being forged by Regin the smith. It shivers to pieces on the anvil. The next sword is used to slay the dragon Favne. On the other lintel Sigurd roasts the dragon’s heart while Regin slumbers. Sigurd burns himself, gets dragon’s blood on his tongue and then understands the birds’ warning. Their song told him that Regin plans to kill Sigurd and steal the dragon’s treasure. Sigurd then kills the smith. Above this is a scene showing Gunnar in the serpent’s den.
While the stave-church style here in the aristocratic western part of Norway ended there was no traces of peasant art left. In the eastern valleys, where there were more equal social conditions, it became “common property” or popular art. The artwork on the church doors could be seen on the doors of homes and granary “lofts”. While the portals of secular art in West Norway were influenced more by the architectural form of stone building [of Norman style shorn of decoration, mention earlier in the book], and wood carving followed right up to modern times in the wake of Gothic carving, stave-church ornaments continued to find an outlet in wood-carving in the east part of Norway, principally in Setsesdal and Telemark, and to a certain extent in Numedal. And while the carvers of Setesdal were creating their monument to ancient Norse mythology, one of the Gothic masterpieces of the north, Nidaros Cathedral, was being raised in Trondheim.
Setesdal is the district that has the greatest link to the past. Up to the publishing of this book people lived in “hearth houses” with earthen floors and open central fireplaces. The old saga poems and ballads were recited and old songs and ballads were sung. The old ways of carving were still to be seen.
In Telemark the old style persisted longer in the higher western parts bordering on Setesdal. The year 1700 brought about nearly permanent change in this area. The old heroic sagas also survived through the 17th century although the characters, such as Roland and Holger the Dane, assumed other guises.
The Middle Ages survived in the remoter parts of the eastern valleys up the 18th century while The Renaissance styles had taken root in the West Country with the casket ornamentation replacing geometrical carvings. Further east the “flat carved” tendril was a renewal of medieval traditions. The running tendril flourished after fan carving and other tendril décor had been established.
The running tendril was most developed in the Telemark, decorating exteriors and interiors. The grain-store facades are richly decorated. The grain store was one of the most important buildings on the farm. Along with the grain was stored the farmer’s clothes and valuables and was also a guest room that had a huge medieval bed.
The medieval tradition is less honored in the other East Country valleys. In Hallingdal medieval motifs survived, but there and in Valdres woodcarving was not as important and in Hallingdal it was overshadowed by “rose-painting” in the 18th century.
Rose-Painting by Randi Asker
Rose-painting is a rustic art found on the walls, ceilings and furniture of the peasant’s houses. It was also a means of decorating smaller objects like ale bowls, caskets, jugs, cupboards and the large wooden clothes chests. Some parish churches were also adorned in this manner. This art was the naturalistic reproduction of roses and other flowers for ornamental purposes and also included figure motifs, geometrical patterns and an occasional landscape. The painters were untutored local craftsmen instructed by itinerant artists or older rose-painters. The breakthrough of Norwegian rose-painting and other rustic artwork occurred in the 18th century due to their prosperity. “Kroting”, or decorating with chalk, was an earlier way in which peasant women expressed themselves on the inside of the lids of clothes chests and on walls for special occasions.
The usual dwelling in much of East Norway was an “arestue” or hearth-house. This type of structure was common up to the end of the 17th century and in the remoter mountain valleys was seen up to the 19th century. It was a dark room without windows with an open fireplace in the center of the hard earth floor. The smoke from the fire would exit through an opening in the roof and the walls and the contents of the house were grimed with smoke. The only departure from this dim environment would be the woven tapestry that would be hung on festive occasions. During the 17th century the “peis”, an open hearth with a chimney, was introduced. The “peisestue” or hearth-room had a chimney in one corner of the room, wooden floors and windows and was free from soot. This was the right environment for carving the woodwork and decorating it with rose-painting.
In the districts of West Norway the smoke-filled “roykstue”, a type of “arestue” was the abode of use up to the year 1800. The fireplace in this home was to one corner of the room with no chimney, but an aperture in the roof. They used tapestries on special occasions and the women also did the art of “kroting” with chalk on the walls.
The oldest rural instance of rose-painting in Norway is dated to about the year 1700 and lasted in some districts to the middle of the 19th century. The decorating of the walls and ceilings originated in the churches and townhouses. Most of the wealthier merchants began decorating their homes During the Renaissance and Baroque. The journeymen painters then decorated the churches of the country districts and the farmers learned the art from them. Decorating the home was not unknown to country folk, however. Members of the professional classes transferred to country jobs, bringing with them ornamented chests, ale-bowls and tankards. The peasants also could acquire decorated utensils at county fairs. Many of the items date from the end of the 16th century and early 17th century, some imported from Germany and Holland and others the work of artists from the Norwegian towns. The predominating colors on the household items are red, yellow and green and the ornamentation is that of the Renaissance.
While rose-painting in the country districts began about the year 1700 rustic art is always behind the times and in this case it was often blended with the earlier medieval and Renaissance styles. After the items of the home were decorated the artists took to the walls, the acanthus tendril of blue or red on a white background while the ceiling was decorate with chalk.
[There is an example in the book of chalk work using various colors. I do not know when the use of colored chalk began and when the Norwegians has knowledge of such materials. So it could be that when they colored the walls with chalk prior to the 17th century it wasn’t just done in white, but in blue, yellow, green and red as well.]
Norwegian Art Weaving by Helen Engelstad
Weaving is a part of Norway’s national heritage, the work of women over several thousand years, going back to the Stone Age. There are specimens of coarse wool weaving during the Bronze Age and exquisite patterned materials and tablet weavings of the Iron Age. During the Viking Age the tools required for clipping, carding, spinning and weaving were of good enough quality that they remained unaltered for centuries. Some of these tools were still in use when this book was published. A primitive upright loom was one of these objects. Although the spinning wheel, 17th century, reduced the time needed for spinning the wool, the distaff was still in use. The flat loom of Medieval times saw improvements over the centuries along with tools used for winding, peeling and warping (arranging yarn for the weaving). The new methods of dying wool and yarn that were also developed did not eradicate the old fashioned techniques.
At the time of the printing of this book research on weaving and its relative arts and crafts was ongoing. Examples are found in museums, and tapestries, “aklaer” or pile-rugs are found in farmhouses or in private collections.
Tapestries were used for home decorating on walls, behind the high table and as bedspreads. There were also bridal tapestries, tapestries for the church and at funerals the aklaer covered the bier.
Wool was used for wefting, linen and hemp for warping. Cattle hair is found in the coarser types of weaving. The wool came from the old Norwegian sheep known as “stuttrova” or “spellsau”.
Vegetable dyes were used for coloring. The dyes came from local foodstuffs. Cork moss for a bright reddish violet color that fades to pink was used with natural sheep colors of brown, white and yellow, and dyed with bog myrtle or birch leaves is the style of west country weaving. Vied (a plant that produces the color blue) had been in use since the Viking age and its weeds were found on the Oseberg ship. Yellowish and reddish brown hues are obtained from moss or lichen. There was also a bright red color with a strain of yellow that was produced with either the imported madder or from the root of the galium boreale.
Dividing Norway’s weaving techniques geographically is seen this way: Rano-weaving in the north as well as by the Lapps; pile-woven rugs along the coasts of Helgeland and More; chequer-board aklaer in the west country; picture weaving in Gudbrandsdalen; double weaving in Gudbrandsdalen, Osterdalen and Trondelag. Frieze-like tapestries were found in the Oseberg ship that depicted such things as richly laden carriages, warriors on horseback and women in long riding habits. Some knights were holding lances and there are also magic symbols such as the swastika.
The Baldishol tapestry, late 12th century, was discovered during the 1870’s Baldishol Stave Church, beneath the floorboards when the building was demolished. This tapestry is of two of the twelve lunar pictures that were usually seen in the Middle Ages in illuminated prayer books and calendars. The months are April, a young squire, and May, a warrior going forth to battle.
The weavings of the 16th and 17th century are of biblical nature. Some are direct copies of illustrations found in the first printed bibles while others are inspired by decorative church paintings of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.
During the 17th century churches and homes were built with bigger windows and were filled with new items like four-poster beds, dressers and corner cupboards. This divided the walls into various sized sections and meant that the frieze paintings and weavings were no longer suitable. It had to be replaced by a vertical weaving or decoration. The frieze was dissected and the narrow sections were placed above one another several “storeys” high and framed with a trimming of flowers, fruit or eight-leaved roses. This effect of vertical tapestry can also be achieved by employing four rectangular fields with a picture or motif in each section.
The growth of weaving in the 16th and 17th centuries was due to the blend of native medieval tradition and new ideas from northern Germany or the Low Countries. While artists and weavers throughout Europe were perfecting their crafts by creating an illusion of space and depth with perspective foreshortening, delicate light and shade effects, oblique lines and by placing the horizon low in the picture, the Norwegian peasant weavers were still operating in the flat style of the Middle Ages. Their horizon is at the top of the picture; the figures are arranged in rows, the background figures are one row above the foreground figures and on the same scale, implying a different form of perspective. Only two or three shades of color are used and instead of light and shading the picture is filled with geometrical patterns. A dark contour line enables the figure to stand out from the background. The Norwegian worked in the medieval haching technique. All the lines parallel to the warp are made dentated – that is they are practically zigzag in shape and thereby affecting the appearance of the picture. Norway’s primitive approach to weaving, due to its isolation from the more cultured Europe, gave the Norwegian craftwork its own peculiar appeal.
From the Middle Ages to the 17th century the terms “Finnish” and “Russian” weaving both in Norway and Sweden applied to double weave. In choice of motif, color and technique there is a close relationship between the Norwegian material and the double weaves found in Finland, the Baltic Provinces, East Prussia and Poland. These techniques may have found their way across the old Viking trade route to the Near East, Byzantium and Russia, which ran along the Russian rivers.
The patterns of double weave depict events like birth, marriage and death, accompanied by magic signs, Christian symbols, biblical language and hymns. In bridal tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries the medieval chain-dance and the entire bridal procession, headed by the groom and the crowned bride, are reproduced. Along with the figures are fertility symbols and the buck and doe, which are the symbols for Man and Woman.
Woven rugs were commonly used as covers for coffins at funerals. The oldest examples are replete with the Celtic knot motif, replaced over time with long texts and verses from the hymns. The colors are traditional. During the Middle Ages it was white linen with red and blue wool, followed in time by the combinations of the following colors: sheep brown, yellow, red and blue, while the tapestries are made entirely of wool with a striped or checkered background.
Folk Costume by Gunvor Ingstad Traetteberg
The peasants of the past had their own particular costumes that distinguished them from the townsmen and the professional classes. Each parish had their own type. Today mostly women do the folk-costume wearing. There are over 150 different types that are still used on festive occasions.
The complete costume consists of clothing, shoes, headdress, coiffure, and trinkets, all adapted and varied according to the occasion. The occasions include seasons, holidays, births, baptisms, marriage, burial and ecclesiastical customs and events.
Peasant costumes have features from various eras ranging from pre-historic times to the Viking era. Most are from fashions of the late medieval era up to the late 19th century. When styles changed the peasant would keep the old costume as an undergarment or for use in inclement weather. It was also difficult to part with pre-Christian articles of religious significance, and modern church apparel still can be seen with features like mourning garments and ritual cloths for the covering of the hands.
Norse costumes originally were common to whole areas, and from there the different parishes had their own style. This was usually decided by geological boundaries. In ancient times sea travel was the means for the advancement and exchange of ideas. People on either side of a fjord would have the same dress, while a less accessible adjoining district would be wearing a different style. Even more important was whether the inhabitants worshipped at the same church.
The garb of one’s occupation, such as fishers and seafarers, would be nearly identical regardless of the district the seamen resided in. While their working clothes would be similar their formal dress would not.
The colors of modern Norwegian costumes are medieval in appearance. Black, white and red are the main colors, and gold and blue are used as contrasting shades. Less frequently used are yellow, orange and a deep red violet. And even less than that are brown and broken colors. After the Reformation the costumes of the West Country have black and white as their predominant colors, for an austere and solemn appearance.
Setesdal was an isolated and practically unexplored country into the 20th century, enabling its own peculiar culture to remain as medieval as possible, and even hints of pagan characteristics could be seen in their architecture, utensils, ballads, songs, ornaments and attire.
The women’s church attire: Knee-length black pleated skirts with bright red and green edges that billows and reveals the everyday skirt beneath that is white with black edges; red-patterned belt with loose ends hanging from either side. Some wear dark jerkins with wide green edges and delicate embroidery, with rows of silver chains across the chest to hold the jerkin together and silver ornaments on the neck and sleeves. Women wear their “shirt sleeves” with the “tjeld” a shawl with dazzling red stripes or stained a peculiar purple color that comes from lichen. On their heads are long black woolen kerchiefs with red roses. Large filigree (delicate lacelike ornamental work) brooches and heavy button shaped like fir cones. These silver Setesdal ornaments are massive and the shapes are of ancient origin, many dating to the 13th century and beyond. The peasants of South Holland have similar buttons of gold. Setesdal men wear clothing with the vivid colors of the medieval times though the clothing is dated to the mid 19th century. The women’s everyday wear is more recent than their church attire although some features, like the black braces, date to the age of the Vikings.
The attire for West Telemark women includes a simple dress of black or blue and bodice, skirt and apron trimmed with red or green and decorated with embroidery. There are also belts, brooches, kerchiefs and outer jackets. East Telemark women have the same but with flower and tendril embroidery on the apron, skirt, bodice and blouse. Even the frieze stockings were covered with flower tendrils far up the leg until the mid 19th century. They wear red jackets with a yellow-fringed edge below, buttoned diagonally with a gilded heart-shaped buckle to fasten it. The costume is richly decorated with silver ornaments. East Telemark girls have multi-colored ribbons plaited in their hair, which is piled on the head in two coils. The ribbon is tied at the nape in a large bow. In the 1860’s the “bracer skirt” was still in use and with it was a tablet-woven belt more than eight inches wide. The belt was often five or six yards long and wound tightly around the waist. The tablet-weave goes as far back as the 7th century.
The author of this chapter mentions the attire of other districts then makes the following comment about the women of Halling, how their skirt goes right up beneath the armpits and hangs loosely around the body. It is fastened to the bodice, which consists of merely of a stout pair of braces – an ancient, prehistoric feature. Hallingdal women have a headdress described as having a large curved cardboard (or wooden) brim (called a frisette) with the kerchief over it, surrounding the head like a halo, and at the back the neck-tassel shines with all the colors of the rainbow, a combination of 16th and 17th century shapes.
Some spinsters still wear a “pannelin” with a tassel, and plaits in a semi-circle at the back of the head, with the hair hanging loose and a large tassel behind.
The “biggin” and “wimple” are also mentioned. The biggin is a bonnet or head covering and the wimple covered the head, chin and neck.
The west country local costumes have retained garments from the Middle Ages and earlier. The long open “vamp” is a direct descendant of the button-less smock. Some of the jewelry worn can be dated to the 13th century. Some of the kerchiefs worn in Hordaland are similar to the kerchiefs worn in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. The caps there are round and from the 17th century, while the pointed caps in Sogn and Fjordane are from the 16th century.
The nomadic Lapps, who have herds of reindeer and live in tents, also have their own peculiar fashion. In the summer the Lapp wears a smock of russet or broadcloth that has no buttons and must be pulled over the head. Male and female costumes are similar. The length, color and heraldic system of variously hued ribbons indicate what part of Norway the Lapp belongs to. A special feature is the number of panels inset in the back of the dress, which provides material for pleats and flares. The tucker at the throat is red or blue, often patterned with delicate pewter wire embroideries. The jacket is worn with or without a belt, some woven in bright colors. From the belt hangs a brooch to which a knife, a housewife [a small sewing kit], a pair of scissors and thread are fastened – an arrangement which has been in use in this part of the world since the year 800. With the belt tightened the jacket billows out above the waist and can be used for storing items such as, according to the author of this chapter, cloudberries and as much as 60 pounds of herring or trout. [fairauthor does not recommend stuffing your clothing with fish, especially 60 pounds of it.]
The Lapps also wear trousers of cloth or tanned leather reaching to the ankle. With cloth trousers they wear leather leggings reaching to the crutch called “bellings” and tanned for summer wear. In some districts a shorter pair of trousers is worn instead. For footwear the “komager”, soft heelless booties similar to moccasins are worn without stockings. The Lapps wind strands of long grass (sennegress) around their bare legs.
The Lapp relies on fur for winter warmth. A reindeer smock with the fur outwards and beneath it a close-fitting jerkin with the fur inwards. If necessary the Lapp can remove his arms from the sleeves and crouch down and sleep outdoors. He also wears fur leggings and reindeer-skin boots.
The Finmark Lapp wears a star-shaped cap with four points that are stuffed with eiderdown in the winter. The women wear a small red cloth bonnet decorated with ribbons. In wet and rainy weather they wear blue or white cloth hoods that reach down to their shoulders.
Voss brides wear ornaments that are styled after those worn in the 12th century. There is also a silver belt, a “stolebelte”, that consists of discs of silver gilt with a chased pattern of lilies and other ornaments, a continental fashion from the 12th and 13th centuries.
There is a belt made of thick leather adorned with cast pewter ornaments that can be traced to medieval styles. It has a brass buckle with engraved and punched ornaments. Men and women wore these belts. A clasp suspended from this belt held keys, knives and a needle case for women and for the men the items carried would be a knife, tinder and flint.
Brides from Hardanger wore a large silver gilt crown over long unbraided hair, a medieval fashion. Long silk ribbons of many colors, with a woven rose pattern, hang down from the back of the crown. During the marriage ceremony her hands are covered with a black-and-white hand cloth, a custom dating to the early Christian church.
There is also mourning attire. Long black dresses covered by a large white cloth that covered the head and most of the body. The hands were concealed in a muff covered by a white cloth.
A silver gilt “letter chain” made of upper a lower case letters was in fashion dated to at least the 15th century. The letters were the “a” and the “m” for Ave Maria. These letters had crowns adjoining them as part of the chain’s decoration. Parts of these chains (possibly remnants of the original chain) were sewn into the collars of bridal attire. These chains were also sewn onto red cloth and used as bracelets by brides.
Here are some links that have to do with some of the things mentioned on this webpage. Some websites have information and others are websites of people selling items, but have many pictures of their craftwork.
Viking ship at Oseberg; queen of Vestfold:
Hylestad Stave-Church in Stetesdal:
rose-painting (a.k.a. rosemailing):
kroting (a.k.a. chalk painting):
the medieval haching technique; or hatching: