Red River Horse: Märta Måås-Fjetterström

When we think superheros, do we think only of green and purple over-muscled figures?
If we say the word “mythology”, for many of us it is Greek and Roman gods who spring to mind. But of course all cultures have their own mythological figures. In Sweden, they are mostly red, and mostly beastly.

The southernmost Swedish province of Skane had a tradition of rich and colorful 17th- and 18th- century Flemish weaving.  Skanian tapestries and flat woven pieces traditionally employed several different animal figures—almost all of them, a vivid red. Tapestries or flat woven pieces from the 18th century,  made throughout this region, drew upon a store of standard images, including flowers, flower vases, houses, couples, and quite a few mythological animals— a cavorting red bull or occasional lion, often surrounded with flowers, a red deer with spiky horns, or a red horse.

1.Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 4.10.20 PM
Carriage cushion (åkdyna or agedyna) of red lion, probably from the Oxie district of Malmö, Sweden. Flemish tapestry weave, 17th-century, 97 x 57 cm, sold Bukowskis 3/12/2015.

The most frequently-used mythological animal in Swedish tapestry seems to be the Red River Horse, called in Swedish, the Bäckahäst. The red horse figure persists in weavings well into the 20st century, and even pops up today in contemporary work. Although this horse may be a cousin of the red wooden Dala horse known to many non-Swedes, the woven version is not the same horse. A supernatural figure, this red horse is shown with breath issuing fiercely from the nostrils, yet it is also surrounded with birds. The horse in these tapestries is wild rather than benign, a beast whom the stories say, would tempt women and children to ride on its back, and then plunge them into the water. As an image, the horse is frequently surrounded by a zigzag border, the traditional Skanian lightening motif. The horse is also marked by the whipping zig-zag tail, which itself evokes the lightening border.

Below are several woven images of traditional Skanian red (deer and?) horses. These were frequently woven as carriage cushions (called åkdyna or agedyna) and most have that narrow rectangular dimension, about 4 feet long and 18″ deep. I think that those figures which carry a unicorn-like horn with branches are meant to be deer rather than the red horse, but are worth looking at for comparison, and more information about the general format. Note that the deer seem to have scrawnier tails, but otherwise an identical posture of pawing at the air.

2.MM 044671 112x47.5cm akdyna,rolakän cc-ok
Flat weave carriage cushion (åkdyna) Skane, 18th c ,112 x 47.5 cm Photo by Vladimira Tabkova/Malmo Museet via Object number NM 044671.
3.MM 049256 from 1777 HND
Carriage cushion (åkdyna) in flat weave rölakan from Malmöhus län, Skane dated 1777,signed HND, 118 x 49cm, described as “two red horses”(“tva röda hjorter”) via, on Object number MM 049256
4.MM 024495 åkdyna from carlotta via europeana
Carriage cushion (åkdyna), flat-weave, ca 1830s Skåne 56×112 cm, via from and Object number MM 024495.
5.Bukow 1919 3 horse
Carriage cushion åkdyna, 1919, 140 x 52 cm, sold Bukowskis 2/21/2015.
6.Bakahasten,birds, octagon frame akdynaskane 44x112S'sAuk.2:17:17
Carriage cushion (åkdyna) early 20th c. 44 x 112cm, Stockholms Auktionsverket 2/17/17.

In the following image of an 18th century red horse weaving, there is an additional element: the letters IHS. IHS, is a Latin liturgical phrase, “in hoc signo,” meaning, “in this sign” (ie the sign of the cross), or –since I and J are essentially the same letter in Latin– “Iesus hominum salvator,” meaning, “Jesus the savior of men.” Perhaps the invocation of the church phrase was meant to neutralize superstition around the image of this mythological animal— essentially, to tame it?

7a.TvaBakahasten 1794 AHD_IHS_1794 113x51 cmWillborg 1_30_17 copy
JPWillborg, Carriage cushion, (åkdyna) dated AD1794, and inscribe IHS between the two octagons framing the horses, 113×51 cm. Image downloaded 1/30/17.

I have not found similar images except a beautiful tapestry of three horses, with its weaver’s initials in the center, date of weaving on the left and the IHS woven on the right in Viveka Hansen’s magisterial book on Skanian marriage textiles. I can’t reproduce this, but this splendid example suggests that the combination of the red horse and the IHS invocation was not a rarity, but possibly was used more in finer  or more complex examples of weaving.

Not surprisingly, Märta Måås-Fjetterström, who was born at the end of the 19th century, and who began her career working with traditional Scanian textiles, made a number of her own versions of the Red River Horse. In 1918, before she started her own workshop, and while still working with in Viitsjö with Lilli Zickerman, the tireless and renowned recorder of traditional textile patterns, she designed a rug based on these earlier carriage cushions. Any religious reference is gone, but Måås-Fjetterström found her own ways of domesticating the wild red horse. She first tamed his redness, coloring him green and blue, and setting him on lavender, blue and green fields with a broad red outer border.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 11.38.00 PM
Märta Måås-Fjetterström, Flat-weave (rolakan) rug, designed 1918, made before 1941 but probably in the 1930s (the auction house notes that it was purchased by the previous owners parents as a new rug), 309 x 196.5 cm. Bukowskis December& Asian Sale 597, December 2016, Object #115.

Next, Måås-Fjetterström took the two-horse panel format of the carriage cushion and enlarged that, stacking stacking octagonal panels on top of octagonal panels. By so doing, she could also reference traditional Turkoman rugs with their repetitive octagonal “gul” elements (see image below).

8.Turkoman rug oxford
Ersari Turkmen main carpet, Middle Amu Darya region, 18th century or earlier, 254 x 192 cm. Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, Simon Crosby Gift, 2014.4 Image from Hali Magazine, 4/23/2013

Måås-Fjetterström gave her Bäkahästen rug other elements borrowed from Middle-eastern traditions: the repeated backward-S form, the multiple layers of borders, and she neatly kept the busy zigzag stripes for top, bottom, and corners of each horse panel. But she retained much of the traditional imagery: her horses are still pawing the ground on stick-like legs, still flicking their tails and still breathing fierce breaths, and each is ringed with a hexagonal frame decorated with birds.

9 Bakahastan Bukowskis detail
Märta Måås-Fjetterström, Detail, flat-weave (rolakan) rug, designed 1918, 309 x 196.5 cm, Bukowskis December& Asian Sale 597, December 2016, Object #115.

In 1930, Måås-Fjetterström enlarged this pattern in a rug designed  for an Alice Jonsson, giving it a width of three-, rather than two-horse- panels.

10. 0268802_1
Märta Määs-Fjetterström, Flat weave rug, rölakan, 1930, dimensions unknown, Nordiska Museet collection via, Object # NM.0268802.

This rug is in the collection of the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm. The images available from the museum do not show the signatures completely, but they appear to be unusual. Instead of the familiar MMF signature in the lower left corner where the designer habitually placed her initials, there are the initials AJO, which is likely to be Alice Jonsson, a date inscription of 1930 in the center, and an M visible in the right corner, likely part of a MMF signature. In any case, the rug is also unusual for being a such large application of of the red horse motif— it looks to be at least double the size shown in the photograph, though no dimensions are given.
In 1930, Måås-Fjetterström returned to the image of the Skanian red horse. This time she designed a series of three different small tapestry panels, now often made into cushion covers. These show the red horse in quieter poses: lying in a field, trotting gently in a flower field, and —in a suprising transformation from fierce to maternal— with a foal. The horse is still red, but vibrant rather than wild. It stands -or prances- on legs with hooves, not the birdlike legs and claw-like feet of the original folk-art form. There is no alarming breath from its nostrils. Its mane and tail and the small banner-like flashes of colorful zigzag, and the corner details evoke the traditional lightening patterns, but they also have an stylized Art-Deco quality as well. Compared to the original Bäkahäst models from the 18th century, the overall design of these small panels is cleaner and more contemporary, with the purple blue octagon crisply balanced against the plain red surround.

11. MMF 4 Röd Häst Gobelängteknik 39.5x39, 1930, voven after 1941, ABMMFBuk #905
MMF Tapestry weave (gobelangteknik) squares, each 39.5x 39 cam. These four examples (three different patterns) were woven after 1941, each signed AB MMF, sold Bukowskis in past few years at unknown date, Object #905.

Märta Måås-Fjetterström had an extraordinary grasp both of Skanian textile traditions and of middle-eastern carpet designs. From these emerged her own transformed versions of the traditional Bäkahäst motif in several new red river horse tropes. When mythological figures can be given such vigorous reinterpretation, is it any surprise that they continue to fascinate us?

Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm

JP Willborg, Stockholm

Hansen, Viveka, Swedish Textile Art: Traditional Marriage Weavings from Scania (The Nasser D Khalili Collection of Swedish Textile Art), Khalili Collections, 1996.

Stockholms Auktionsverk, Stockholm


Please reference as follows:

Whidden, Anne, “Red River Horse: Märta Måås-Fjetterström” theswedishrugblog (3/30/17);; accessed (day/month/year)





5 thoughts

  1. An especially interesting entry. However the figures in the image of “Carriage cushion (åkdyna or agedyna) of red bull” look to me more like lions than anything else…note what appear to be curly manes, claws on the feet and the tuft at the end of the long tails.




    1. You’re right, and I agree! All of you who “follow” the blog unfortunately also get the draft with any mistakes in it. Like my deranged spelling of Märta Måås-Fjetterström’s name. Woops!
      All I can say, is it was too late at night. You’ll see, Sue, that the text reads “lion”, but I looked at the image quickly
      at small scale and wrote “ox,” now corrected as the post is now up on the website. Thanks for your attentive reading!


  2. Dear Anne,
    Thank you for giving me your card on the flight from JFK to Stockholm today. After having checked out your blog I must say that I’m impressed by your dedication to the subject, and how good your research and posts are. Although I’m not all that interested in the actual rugs or designs, I do find the history and mythology behind the artists and their art very interesting. I especially liked the post “An Emigre Designer: Mai Wellner”, where I got to learn about Swedish speaking Estonians, and this post about the Red River Horses.
    I hope you have a nice stay in Sweden. Am looking forward to reading more posts in the future and keeping my fingers crossed (or “holding my thumbs” as we say in Sweden) it will become a book one day.
    Best regards / Linda


    1. Dear Linda,
      Thanks so much for writing. I’m glad you enjoyed some of these stories! It seems like there are stories behind many of these rugs, if they can be found. It was nice meeting you, and if you want to write me an email on my account, I’d be glad to suggest some other English language books for your students. Children’s literature or young-adult (YA) literature is another of my long-standing pleasures.
      Best, Anne


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