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10 Years with the Tapestries of H.M. Queen Margrethe II
Text: Birgitte Eskildsen
A birthday gift of 13 million Danish crowns have been turned over by the Danish Queen to a magnificent tapestry project describing Denmark`s history from the Viking Period of time and up to modern time. The famous ”Manufacture Nationales des Gobelins” in Paris received the commision to weave the tapestries jostling with images from the artist Bjørn Nørgaard`s sketches and designs.
Queen Margrethe II
For the occasion of Queen Margrethe II`s 50th birthday on April 16 1990 a large number of private foundations and business organisations decided to mark the anniversary with a donation of 13 million Danish crowns, which the Queen decided to use for the making of eleven new tapestries for the Great Hall at Christiansborg Castle. The Queen is well known in Denmark for her artistic leanings and she has herself exhibited both woven and embroidered ecclesiastical textiles and thus there is a widespread appreciation for the Queen`s choise of project with the monetary gift.
Professor Bjørn Nørgaard
Already in 1998, two years before the Queen`s half-centenary, a committee was appointed to initiate this huge tapestry project and it was decided very surprisingly – although very astutely as it turned out – to turn to the sculptor Bjørn Nørgaard. This highly unconventional artist was indeed the right man to shoulder the commision of the new tapestries recounting Denmark`s history from the Viking Period of time up to our times an into the future. Bjørn Nørgaard has always been very interested in history and this along with direct access to the Custodian of National Monuments and an enormous ”picture-bank”, means that we have before us a unique piece of Danish history packed with events that have left their mark on the country, people who have influenced their period of time, and symbols that call for further reflection. The tapestries are exceptionally rich in content with their serial image type approach, which works since Bjørn Nørgaard understands and respects this type of handwork and techniques without deflecting from his own art. Bjørn Nørgaard received the Royal Honour of the Knight`s Cross in 1994.
Manufactures Nationales des Gobelins
Owing to tradition, one might say, it was the Manufactures Nationales des Gobelin that was to take on the commision to weave the new tapestries for Christiansborg Castle. Some 220 years ago the French workshops had woven no les than 26 tapestries depicting the history of Alexander the Great for the Danish King. The Gobelin family, who lived on a tributary to the Seine, had – since the middle of the 15th century – been dying yarn with particularly good results because of the water quality. In 1620 two Flemish weavers moved in with their workshops to Les Gobelins, and the famous woven tapestries came to birth. The ”Sun-King” Louis XIV (1638-1715) loved pump and circumstance, and when he decided to decorate his two main residences, Louvre and Versailles, his minister of finance J.B.Colbert summoned the very best artists and craftsmen at the time (1662-63) - including the Gobelin family – to form the ”Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne”. Les Gobelin today belongs to the French State since preserving old forms of handwork is seen as part of the upkeep of the national heritage. Today the French connection still exists since the Queen`s husband Prince Henrik is French.
The eleven tapestries cover a total of more than 200m2 and they are all woven to the same width, 395 cm, but all at different lengths. The tapestries are woven upright, but on two different types of looms – one with a high (vertical) warp and one with a low (horizontal) warp (haute lisse and basse lisse). The outcome is the same, but on the low warp weaving is a little faster, that is almost 2,5m2 per year! A French weaver has to be apprenticed for 5 years before he or she is fully qualified and real expertice is required to achieve the fantastic weaves to be seen at Les Gobelins, since the weaver works with the design behind the warp and with an advanced system of mirrors enabling him to weave exactly what Bjørn Nørgaard has designed (haute lisse). The weavers use only about half the number of shades shown on the drawing – approximately 65 shades – but they are also responsible that the tapestries are as close to the original design as possible. The material is wool for both warp and weft and the weft is is only ever woven horizontally, never at an angle! Several different levels may be woven at the same time, but always horizontally. The weave is so dense that it is not necessary to fasten in the ends hanging out on the back.
The stories told by the images in the tapestries describe the history of Denmark from the Viking Period of time to the present – a period of approximately 1300 years. Each tapesrty has a 45 cm wide border on every side encompassing a narrow chequered frame around the main picture. It is not possible to describe each set of motifs since the periods of history in each separate weaving are so many and so significant and exciting that no particular portion can be highlighted, but one person though might be of interest to the readers with a textile background, namely Margrethe I, who founded the Kalmar Union in 1397. She wore a unique burial-dress made of silk and gold, and this very special piece of woven textile was skillfully reconstructed at the Swedish School of Weaving in Borås in 1993. The reconstructed dress can be seen in the Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark and in the Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden. Both the 14th century Queen Margrethe and the Kalmar Union are depicted in the Queen`s Tapestries.The people portrayed on the new tapestries have all been given big hands and in contrast with earlier artists, who were often very carefully supervised during their commissions to decorate the royal chambers, it was left entirely to Bjørn Nørgaard to handle the commission of Denmark`s history.
The Knight`s Hall in Christiansborg Castle
The Knight`s Hall, to be adorned with the eleven new tapestries from Paris, is the third in a row. The first room furnished in the 18th century was destroyed when the castle burned down in 1794. The new room, rebuilt in the 19th century, burned down in 1884. The tapestries currently in the Knight`s Hall belong to Rosenborg Castle but were transferred to Christiansborg Castle since there were no funds available to decorate today`s Knight`s Hall. The tapestries did not fit the walls of the Knight`s Hall and these were therefore altered to make space for nearly all the loaned tapestries. When the new tapestries are hung in the Knight`s Hall the ”old” ones will be returned to their original place at Rosenborg Castle.
The Year 2000
Denmark`s Queen Margrethe II turns 60 on April 16th, 2000 and then the commision for the eleven tapestries will be complete, a totally unique historical account and a lifetime`s achievement for an artist who says about his work: ”A gift to the Queen is a gift to the people.