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Viking Art: Styles & History

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Viking Art: Styles & History


Introduction to Viking Art

The Vikings were Scandinavian sea warriors - pagan Danes, Norwegians and Swedes - who invaded and colonized vast areas of Europe during the period from 790 to 1050 A.D.

Viking or Nordic colonies were established in North America, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, England and continental Europe. In the east, the Vikings spread to the heart of Russia, where they left their name: "Rus", which means red, after the red-haired Norsemen.

Unfortunately, their raids were responsible for the decline of monastic art in Ireland, especially illuminated manuscripts.


As might be expected in a race of aggressive outdoor warriors, Viking art tends to be more functional and symbolic rather than contemplative or expressive. And because Vikings often moved from place to place, most northern art consists of wearable works of art, such as decorated drinking horns, bulletproof vests, pagan icons, paddles and a wide range of objects used in daily life.

That said, their wood carving and sculpture shows great inventiveness and talent, and Viking artists have left a rich legacy of extravagant animal ornaments. Their metalwork was also of high quality and both influenced and was influenced by Celtic Art .

What kind of art did the Vikings make?

Early Viking art focused on viking jewelry and weapons, while later artisans are known for their silverware and runic stones.

Viking art also survives in the form of small works of ivory carving as well as works of amber, jet, bone, walrus ivory and sometimes wood.


Important discoveries of Viking art have been made in: Oseberg, Borre, Jelling, Mammen (for example, the Mammen axe, currently on display at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen), Ringerike and Urnes. 

Moving away from the visual arts, the Vikings' interest in riddles and rhymes led to a rich tradition of poetry and storytelling, celebrated in the epic Old Norse sagas. But perhaps the Viking's greatest achievement was the longship, whose ingenuity and efficiency almost transformed it into an art form. Fast, light, maneuverable and flexible, the boat can be quickly beached or launched, rowed by rowers or sailed in any wind. Not really art, perhaps, but craftsmanship.


In short, the imagination and complexity of the Viking arts and traditions craft contrasts sharply with the other image of the barbarian plunderer. Northern artisans excelled in woodworking and metalworking, carving and decorating brooches, weapons, instruments and timber with a wide variety of animal forms and intricate patterns. There was little material that Viking craftsmen continued to embellish or improve. Examples of Nordic art can be seen in museums in Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm.

Viking Norse Art Styles (850-1050)


For the inhabitants of Scandinavia, the Viking Age was a period of rapid expansion, a period from the 9th to the middle of the 11th century. For piracy, trade and colonization, the Vikings traveled from Russia to Byzantium, from Iceland to Gibraltar. At the beginning of the 9th century, factors both internal and external to Scandinavia made expansion possible.

Reasons for Viking migrations abroad

Firstly, Scandinavia's population increased and, in the wild climate, it only needed a few more mouths to feed so that small farms could become overcrowded. At the same time, the ocean-going Viking ship, the Knorr , had reached a high stage of technical development that allowed humans to sail to the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic.


Second, the break-up of Charlemagne's empire and political unrest in the British Isles left a political vacuum that the Vikings quickly exploited. Although they rarely missed an opportunity to raid a monastery or city, the Vikings also had peaceful motives for travel. The Swedes had fruitful exchanges with Eastern Europe and even Asia Minor, going up and down the Volga and Dnieper rivers.

This explains the large quantities of Arab silver found in the reserves of Eastern Sweden. The Norwegians left their homes to settle in the North Atlantic, in the Scottish islands, Iceland, Greenland and even, for a short time, in North America.

They settled in Ireland, on the Isle of Man and in the northwest of England: the merging of cultures that occurred in these regions will have important artistic results. On the other hand, the conquest of Normandy by the Norwegian or Danish Rollo in 911 had practically no artistic effect on the Viking styles.

The Danes concentrated their activities in the northern part of the Holy Roman Empire and in the east of England. Here, King Alfred granted them the Danelaw in 878 and, under the reign of King Canute (reign 1017-1035), he created the joint kingdom of England and Denmark.

Impact of Religion on Viking Arts

Religion, more than political conditions or commercial activity, had the greatest effect on Viking art. In the 9th century, Scandinavia was pagan and its inhabitants worshipped pagan gods such as Odin,


Thor and Frey. They often, though not always, practiced burial, burying their dead with a wide variety of funerary objects. A ship, real or symbolic, was often associated with the grave to carry a deceased person on his or her spiritual journey. Unfortunately for archaeologists, the advent of Christianity put an end to burial with goods, but the Vikings continued to bury piles of gold and silver.

Christianity advanced in Scandinavia for a variety of reasons, including the missionary efforts of priests such as Ansgar and Poppo and the political ambitions of kings.

For example, King Olaf's (the saint) attempts to convert Norway were closely linked to his desire to become the country's sole ruler. Denmark was converted under King Harold Bluetooth (c. 980); Norway with the help of Anglo-Saxon missionaries in the 11th and 12th centuries; and Sweden, finally, at the end of the 12th century.

General style of Nordic arts

Viking art can be divided into several distinct styles. They often overlap chronologically and therefore cannot be used for precise dating, but they are useful for analyzing the content of a drawing. The styles take their names from the places where important objects are found. The approximate dates given to the styles below are inferred from coins or inscriptions that sometimes accompany finds.


In general, Viking art is based on the abstract animal forms that flourished in northern Europe from the migration period (about 400). The animal style consisted of tortured and contorted snakes and beasts, whose actual form is often barely recognizable.

These designs were almost entirely devoid of plant decoration and were most often applied to objects of everyday use, such as swords, bridles, and buckles. Some figurative art is found on carved stones, but probably more often on tapestries or wood carvings.


Most of the Viking buildings were made of wood and earth and thus almost disappeared. However, the excavations of the Danish military camps in Trelleborg and Fyrkat show that the Vikings could design colonies with a mathematical precision.

The houses themselves were long and low, with slightly convex walls made of posts and planks. They were supported by an additional row of sloping posts around the outside of the walls. Little is known about the architecture of Viking shrines and temples.

Viking Carvers

Several sculptors worked on the collection of objects and some were identified as artistic personalities, for example the so-called "academician" and the "baroque master" who worked in contrasting ways.

The animal head post of the former is a masterpiece of constraint, his head is covered with a flat, well-spaced mesh of intertwined birds, his neck is completely smooth with a geometric ornament at the bottom. A comparable post made by the baroque master is entirely covered with striking beasts, sculpted with a good sense of plasticity.

The bodies are arranged around a series of oval shapes that punctuate the overall design. The decoration of two bedpillars and a sledge runner is an important precedent for future Viking styles: they are carved with imposing beasts in a heraldic position, which reappear as the main motif of the Mammen style.


Metal pieces of the same stage of development as the Oseberg objects are represented by objects found in Broa, Gotland (at the State Historical Museum, Stockholm). They are mainly gilt bronze bridle mounts, a bridle bit, a sword hilt, etc. Most of the animal motifs found on them can be paralleled on the Oseberg objects.


The narrative art of this period survives on a few objects; on one of Oseberg's carts, for example, a man is seen struggling with a huge nest of snakes. Some fragments of art of the tapestry of the funeral cabin, one sees a procession of horses and characters and a scene of gallows, possibly in reference to the god Odin.


In Gotland, there is a whole series of stones in relief associated, like those of Tjangvide (national historical museum of Stockholm) and Larbro (in Bunge, Gotland). They have a curved top, an indented neck and borders decorated with interlacing.

Scenes of legends are randomly placed over most of the surface. The most commonly depicted motif is a magnificent ship closely resembling the Oseberg ship, with a spiral bow and stern, a large square sail and a company of warriors armed for battle.


What is Viking art called?

What are the six styles of Viking art?

  1. Oseberg
  2. Urnes
  3. Ringerike
  4. Mammem
  5. Jelling
  6. Borre

1. Oseberg Ship Burial Site


The oldest Viking art emerged uninterruptedly from the traditions of the migration period and is found, executed at an exceptionally high level, on objects from the Oseberg ship burial site (now at the University Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Oslo).

The tomb at Oseberg in Norway (on the west side of the Oslo fjord) was built between 800 and 850 for an important lady, possibly a queen. She was buried with a maidservant and a multitude of everyday objects, including a cart, four sledges, a loom, buckets, and quilts. She was placed in a small cabin of the magnificent Oseberg ship with funerary objects stacked around her on the deck.

The tomb was stripped of its precious jewelry early in its history, but soil conditions preserved the wooden objects until the burial mound was excavated in 1904.

The ship itself was an elegant fjord cruiser - too low in the radius for long voyages. Its stem and posts, ending in spirals, are richly carved with interlocking animals.

They have a small head, a double-contoured body, and pierced heart-shaped hips. Another part of the vessel is carved with a variant of the "gripping beast". This motif was a novelty in the 9th century, its compact shape contrasting with the ribbon animals.

It can be recognized by its round head, its exorbitant eyes, its snub nose, its exaggerated biceps and thighs and its omnipresent gripping legs. It usually looks like a feline creature, but on this occasion looks like a group of old men clutching their long beards.

2. Viking art style urns

The last artistic invention of the Viking world was the Urnes style. It can be seen evolving from the Ringerike on a series of runic stones in Sweden. The series begins in Boge, Gotland, with a thick beast extruding tendrils like those in Kallunge's palette. Little by little, the beast becomes more attenuated and elegant, as seen in Strangnas, Sodermanland, and Ardre III, Gotland.

The style takes its name from the wood carvings of the church of Urnes, Norway. Here, two techniques were used: one, a high, round relief with 12 cm deep threads but as thin as a sharp edge; the other was a calmer echo of the same motifs in a flat bas relief.

The motifs are a slender quadruped, a lizard-like animal with a single front and back leg, and a thin thread sometimes ending in an animal's head. The shapes are very sinuous and graceful, winding in wide loops, and each animal is easily distinguished from its opponent in battle as they all have varying thicknesses.

In Urnes, these carvings found on the doorway, the gable, two planks, and a corner post were incorporated into a later church dating to about 1160.

There are several examples of this high quality style in England and Ireland, where it remained popular long after Romanesque art became more or less dominant in Scandinavia.

The Pitney brooch, found in Somerset although possibly made in Scandinavia (British Museum, London), is decorated with the two-legged lizard struggling through the threads. The Crozier of Bishop Rannulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham (Bishop 1099-1128), is decorated with Urn animals (Monks 'Dormitory Museum, Durham).

Stone sculptures in the Urnes style can be found in the cathedral capital of Norwich (circa 1140) and in Jevington in the south of England. In Ireland, the style has been slightly modified so that the animals are arranged in a more compact and symmetrical way, as on the Cross of Cong (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin) and on the Cashel sarcophagus.

The arrival of Romanesque art in the north considerably reduced the indigenous artistic conception. Christianity demanded Christian architecture, and for this the Scandinavians depended on foreign examples: the countries are covered with hundreds of small stone churches - and a few large ones - inspired by examples from the Rhineland, England and Lombardy. Nevertheless, indigenous forms continued to be used for woodcarving in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, while the remarkable sculpture and architecture of Norwegian stilted churches testify to the persistence of fighting dragon motifs into Christian times.

3. Ringerike style of Viking art


The Ringerike style (ca. 980-1090) further developed an element of the Mammen style: the growing tendrils threaten to dominate the animals they usually surround. The shredded tendrils ultimately come from the acanthus decoration of Ottonian and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, especially those of the Winchester school.

The so-called great Jelling stone beast, fighting with a snake, is often depicted in the style of Ringerike, whose name comes from a group of cut stones from the Ringerike district in Norway.

A vigorous example of its use is on the stone of Vang, from Vang in the Norwegian region of Valdres, while a more refined version of the style, in metal, is shown on the weather vane of Kallunge (Stockholm Historical Museum). On one side, the great beast and the snake, on the other, two fighting snakes intertwined with tendrils growing from all parts of their bodies.


The Ringerike style flourished particularly well in England during the reign of King Canute (1016-1035) because there were many Viking patrons in England and because the style was easily assimilated by artists familiar with the contemporary Winchester style.

In the manuscripts, the subtle change from Winchester acanthus to Ringerike can be observed by comparing the pseudonym Harley (British Library, London; MS Harley 2904) with a manuscript from the University Library, Cambridge (Ff I 23).


In the former case, the acanthus ornament is lush but controlled; in the latter, it is thinner and pushing, always surpassing its limits. A sketch at the back of Caedmon's manuscript (Bodleian Library, Oxford; MS. Jun. Rr) shows a perfect combination of Winchester rosettes in a Ringerike border.

A tombstone from the cemetery of St. Paul's Church in London is one of the best stone renderings, depicting the beast and snake in struggle, carved in bas-relief (Museum of London). The background was painted blue and black and the beast was covered with white dots.

The style is admirably represented in English metalwork by the weather vane found in Winchester (Winchester Cathedral Library) and by the silver disc-shaped brooch from Sutton, Isle of Ely (British Museum, London).

The Ringerike style was very influential in Ireland and can be seen on objects such as the crozier of the abbots of Clonmacnoise (c.1120) and on the book sanctuaries of Cathach and Misach (both c.1090; all in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin). In England, the style lost popularity in the 1050s, shortly before the Norman conquest, but it continued in Ireland until the 1120s.

4. Mammen Style of Viking Art

The Mammen style (ca. 960-1020) overlaps both time and appearance with the Jellinge, but shows a more emphatic form on the same theme. The animals have larger bodies than ribbons, spirals at the hips and often covered with logs: the new line consists of plant-like tendrils, ultimately derived from the Carolingian acanthus.


The style takes its name from an axe-head found at Mammen in Jutland, which has an inlaid wire drawing of a shoveled beast with spiral hips tangled in tendrils (National Museum of Copenhagen). A stone erected by Thorleif at Kirk Braddan, Isle of Man, is one of the earliest examples.


He uses a combination of the Jellinge ribbon animal and the more complete and shoveled Mammen beast. Two famous caskets were made in the Mammen style, called Bamberg and Cammin caskets.

The Bamberg casket is in the Bayerisches National Museum in Munich; the Cammin Casket was destroyed during the Second World War, but photos survive. Both are stocky caskets with sloping roof-like lids made of thin panels of ivory and horn connected by bronze bands.

The panels are completely filled with pelleted animals and tendrils, while the metal bands are more simply decorated with raised animal heads.


The large stone raised by Harold Bluetooth in memory of his parents (at the Jelling Cemetery in Jutland) is historically the most important example of the Mammen style. It can be dated by an inscription to 983-5.

On one of the faces is a bas-relief sculpture of the crucified Christ, surrounded by interlocking loops and circles: the first dated Christian monument in Scandinavia.

On the other face is a large "heraldic" beast entangled in a snake. Jelling stone was probably responsible for the construction of cut stone memorials in Scandinavia, which became more common in the 11th century.

5. Viking Art Jellinge Style

The Jellinge style (c.870-1000) is often associated with the Borre style. For example, a brooch from Odeshog, Ostergötland, has Borre intertwined in its center and typical Jellinge animals on its sides (Stockholm State Historical Museum).

The name of the style is derived from a silver bowl from Jelling, Jutland (National Museum of Copenhagen). Each animal has a ribbon-shaped body, delimited by a double contour. Its head with a long pig tail is in profile and the upper jaw extends into a lip: the creature is derived from the elongated and striking beast found at Borre.


An example of this style is illustrated on a horse collar from Sollestad, Denmark (National Museum, Copenhagen). In England, the Jellinge style is found in a strangely modified form on a series of Yorkshire crosses, for example those of Middleton and Collingham. On these, the delicate ribbon interlacing is rendered in a thick paste-like form, probably by an Anglo-Saxon who did not fully understand the style.


The cross of Gosforth shows an interesting fusion of cultures, the result of close relations between the Vikings of Cumbria and their confederates in Ireland. Its decoration includes elements of the Borre and Jellinge styles, as well as figurative scenes derived from the high cross of Ireland .

The scenes are chosen from biblical and Scandinavian legends. On the Isle of Man, at Kirk Michael's home, you will find perfect examples of Jellinge animals with falling mats, found on stone crosses.


Here too, the Scandinavian tradition of cut stone is fully represented by stories about Gunnar, Sigurd and Loki. Although the details of the costume, for example the dragging skirts and the styles of knotted hair, show their Scandinavian derivation, the slabs are designed differently from those of Gotland because the narrative scenes are placed on either side of the crossbeam.

6. Viking Art Borre Style

The Borre style flourished from about 840 to 980 and takes its name from the Borre bridle mounts in Norway (University Museum of Nordic Antiquities, Oslo).

The style has three main elements, the most obvious being the chain pattern: a two-strand braid whose intersections are connected by a ring. Secondly, there is a type of gripping beast with a ribbon body whose claws enclose the frame in which it is placed, and finally a quadruped back with spirals on the hips and a pig's tail.

Borre Style

The Borre style is found in jewelry in Scandinavia and even as far away as Russia. In Great Britain, stone crosses can be seen, for example the Bjornsson Gaut stone in Kirk Michael, Isle of Man.

The Gaut ring chain, an island variant of the Borre type, is also found on a wooden game board in Ballinderry, Ireland (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin). The Borre style can be roughly dated from the treasure coins which include Borre type jewel treasures buried around 860.

Did Vikings have paintings?

During the Viking era, the Norse apparently did not create art for the sake of beauty. There are few examples of Viking painting having no other purpose than to show their Rank, wealth or the god to whom it prays. Rather, Scandinavian art is characterized by the extraordinary ornamentation of everyday objects.


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