Viking Artistic Development and Stylistic Influences on Later Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, and Western European Romanesque Art and Architecture

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Viking Longship / Creative Commons


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By Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

The artistic and architectural stylistic, methodological and technological aspects of world cultures have, with rare exception, displayed bilaterally direct and indirect influence while leaving their unique historical fingerprint.  Pyramids and ziggurats still stand as testaments of Egyptian and Sumerian technology in addition to the hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts and consequential décor.  Ornate amphorae, kouros and koroi sculptures, formal canons through clearly defined periods, the idealism of the Acropolis and the realism of Hellenistic works are reminders of the age of the stunning progress of the Greeks who borrowed much from Mycenaean and Minoan societies before them and were themselves copied at length in the work of the Roman Empire.  The artistic styles and especially architectural technologies of the Romans laid the groundwork for the Romanesque and Gothic movements that would later explode across Western Europe and leave in their wake Merovingian, Carolingian, Celtic and other style incarnations.  Though Scandinavian and particularly Dutch cultures would also produce new styles and techniques, the Viking Age itself stands out in the history of culturally unique artistic advances in the sense that they generally did not create art for art’s sake.  They were known for their mastery of work with metal, wood, and horn or bone – materials that were vital to their culture.  Viking art was developed in a utilitarian material culture with décor and ornamentation primarily secondary to functionality and meaning, requiring a fine semantic line to be walked between art and craft (a line that exists precisely because of the dual nature of many of their material objects), which is attested to by their work with and mastery of these materials.  A bowl, for example, was created for its practical use as a bowl, and the symbols carved into it were not aesthetically inspired but held some significant meaning.  Viking art evolved through aesthetically dualistic stages of style, and in combination with that of especially the Anglo-Saxons,[1] left its fingerprint in morphing Celtic art motifs and early Romanesque architectural designs.

Iconography in the earliest years of the Viking Age was replete with animal motifs.  Recognized as the earliest “style” of Viking art – dated C.780-850 CE – was the Broa style, also called the Oseberg style based upon artifacts discovered in a Viking ship grave near Oseberg in Norway.  The imagery, called the “gripping beast” motif, was replete with many curves, bends and turns, the subject animal often “gripping” the borders of the piece on which it appears.  Undoubtedly the most recognized representation of this style is the post discovered on the Oseberg ship burial.  This highly energetic design would eventually come to be known as dynamic animal interlace style.[2]

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Oseberg Mound Excavation / sites.google.com

The Vikings worked heavily with metal, bone, ivory and wood, and all of their designs were incorporated onto these materials that were used for every day purposes.  The utility of the work – its function – was primary and the motif secondary to it, though certainly containing important symbology.  This would also affect the Anglo-Saxon world as similar materials have been discovered among their settlements as well containing similar motifs.

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Animal-Head Post from Oseberg Mound Excavation / Wikimedia Commons

Viking ships were commonly decorated with a posts representative of a serpent or dragon.  Great attention was paid to such details on their ships as they were a seafaring people, not only evident in their ships and sailing ability but also in their stories and mythology.  The posts were not simply added to ships for the sake of appeal, but for a people steeped in superstition and belief to ward off monsters of the sea, leading enemies and others to call them “dragonships” – “drakuschiffen.”[3]  Stores of such monsters were not merely limited to the sea in Viking life.  The lindorm was a particular land-based monster of Norse sagas, typically described as a large dragon or vicious serpent, bringing ashore the superstitions of sea travel.  In Ragnar’s Saga Lobbrokar, an old man speaks of vanquishing such a monster he referred to as “the earth fish.”[4]  Over time, with increased Viking settlement and colonization of conquered areas, the lindorm was separated from sea serpents and dragons in stories as peasants living on land came to fear the same devouring as their seafaring kinsmen, the two being described and depicted differently in art.[5]  So painstakingly constructed and effective were the Viking longships that they were the most efficient and feared vessels on the open seas in Viking Age Europe.[6]  History is full of examples of culture and ideas being exchanged between different peoples on trade routes, and the same concept would have been no different with artistic and architectural styles being transferred through other means such as conquests and raids.

            The influence of the dynamic Oseberg style was later evident in Christianized Scandinavia, in combination with what would be final Urnes style.  Setting aside for the moment that particular style’s contributions, the Oseberg influence on the Urnes Stave Church in Urnes, Norway, copies the ship’s post.  However, the Oseberg style influenced only portions of the door, the rest being influenced by the later Urnes style.

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Urnes Stave Church Portal / Wikimedia Commons

Immediately noticeable on the church portal is the serpent design of Viking mythological origin, influenced by ship prow serpents and dragons.  The design, as the animals symbolized within them, instilled in the viewer a sense of high energy and ferocity.[7]  Just as each style would independently as well as in combination influence later Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon and European Romanesque art and architecture, each influenced the one that followed in natural progression.

            The waning of the Broa/Oseberg style saw the rise, from C.840-970 CE, of the Borre Style.  The dating of each style is so specific given the rapidity with which each style arose and spread across the Norse world due to the equal speed with which different regions were able to communicate with each other.[8]  This style was also named for a ship burial not far from the Oseberg discovery, further solidifying the importance of the sea to the Viking and its status as an intrinsic part of their culture.  Had it not been for the sea, there arguably may never have been a Viking Age.  Though viewed by some scholars as less impressive than its immediate predecessor,[9] the Borre style contributed as all others to a style that evolved as needs evolved.  Taking its name from bronze harness mounts employed in Borre, Norway, this style was primarily used in pattern decoration of much smaller items.  It was typically used to embellish jewelry, trinkets and other items.  Had these items been inherently decorative, then coupled with the motif this would have been exemplary of artistic intent.  But jewelry, for example, though often elaborately decorated, served a purpose for the Vikings.  Vikings were raiders, and collection of material wealth was a driving force.  In a culture containing master metal and wood craftsmen, a raider’s gains would often be converted into jewelry and worn by family members to reduce the need for storage and prevent theft.  Jewelry was also used in trade as well as to display wealth and status and to seal friendships and alliances.[10]

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Viking ‘Borre Style’ Disc Brooch / Jonah Lobe, Pinterest

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Linde Church Portal / Thyra Blog

The primary difference between the Borre and Oseberg styles rests in the heavy us of a ribbon plait motif in Borre artifacts.  The pattern is a symmetrical interlace design that was fairly uniform across all mediums.  Instead of the ferocious serpents and dragons of Oseberg, this style featured a general animal mask at the circles where the ribbons joined.  The energy of the Vikings continued to be symbolized even with the changing iconography.  As with the Oseberg style, the Borre style also influenced early Romanesque architecture.  The Linde Church in Linde kirke, for example, contains early Viking styles such as the Borre still being added as late as mid-14th century.

Arising at approximately the same time as the Borre style and running nearly concurrent to it, from approximately 880 to 1000 CE, was the Jellinge style.  Immediately following that of the Jellinge was the Mammen style from C.950-1030 CE.  The two were separated by only minor differences and are frequently referenced together.  Again, this was discovered on relics in a royal burial mound (this on land compared to the previous styles from ship burials) in Jellinge, Denmark, hence its subsequent name.  While the sinuous and dynamic nature of the patterns continued, this motif incorporated animals absent the “gripping beast” motif evident in the earlier styles.  The animals were typically depicted in profile with the “ribbons” largely consisting of the animal bodies as opposed to seemingly abstract patterns.

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Intertwining Dragon Motif on Jellinge Cup / Wikimedia Commons

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Jellinge Style Relic / Thyra Blog

Cups, chairs, and other relics containing this style again incorporated the design as a secondary feature to the utility of the item being embellished and for the significance of the symbolism.  Even on land-based artifacts such as these, the influence of the importance of the sea in Viking culture remains.  That which gave rise to their culture was kept in visual proximity, thus always in mind.  The Jellinge style retained the influence of the preceding Borre motif in a reverse manner – whereas the Borre style largely miniaturized the Broa/Oseberg designs, the Jellinge introduction once again saw the enlargement of the designs.  The previous two styles did not simply fall by the wayside with the introduction of these successors.  Again, the utile aspect of the culture was the determining factor in which to use.  The Oseberg/Broa motif was well-suited for the early longships, the Borre for the smaller jewelry and trinkets, and the Jellinge for the more mid-sized items such as the burial mound cup.  The materials were not adjusted to suit the design, but the design adjusted to suit the item in question.

The Jellinge style would become highly popular and its influence would continue in the design of artifacts in later Normandy and England following the reign of Cnut.[11]  The patterns of animal motifs employed in Jellinge style artifacts, unlike the seemingly disorganized patterns of earlier styles, frequently incorporated symmetrical designs.  This use of symmetry was perhaps an aspect of pure aestheticism coupled with the utile nature of Viking art.[12]

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Jellinge Vertical Symmetry (left) and Jellinge Horizontal Symmetry (right) / Wikimedia Commons

The preceding styles were shown to have influenced later Romanesque architecture, but the Jellinge motif was immediately seen in much larger sculptures and monuments.

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Jelling Monument, Crucifixion / Arild Hauges Runer

Christianizing influences saw the rise of monuments containing familiar Viking designs then attached to the symbology of the Church.  After Harald’s conversion to Christianity in the 960s, he had a monument erected in Jellinge itself depicting the crucifixion of Christ, and the Jellinge pattern and design was incorporated onto that monument.  Earlier styles were used to depict Pagan beliefs and mythology, and the Jellinge arose as the first to incorporate Christian iconography.[13]  The Mammen style, surviving the Jellinge for thirty years, brought these various motifs to much larger monuments, and this trend would literally explode under the final styles.

The Ringerike motif, dated between 980 and 1070 CE, followed the Jellinge and Mammen styles.  The Ringerike style was an extension of Mammen iconography and greatly expanded its use.  Vikings survived off the land in a largely pastoral lifestyle given the limited agrarian opportunities provided by the land.  But as the Egyptians had long before them used the papyrus plant for scrolls with many stylistic designs, so too did the Vikings incorporate into their items of everyday and cultural use those aspects of the land closest to them.  Ringerike was simply a Norwegian district containing the most typical examples of the type of flora and fauna native to Norway.[14]  The Vikings had a history of runic monuments commemorating lives and events, and the Ringerike style would be used at length for this purpose, being coupled with what had historically been monuments in which runic symbols were carved but that contained no decorative embellishment.  The influence would spread to England as had other styles.  London finally succumbed to Viking raids in 1016, being ruled after that point by King Cnut and his sons Harald and Harthacnut through 1042.[15]

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Ringerike-Style Grave Slab, St. Paul’s Cathedral Churchyard / Wikimedia Commons

Ringerike iconography changed somewhat from previous styles in two primary ways.  First, the dynamic animal interlace design was much less pronounced and seemed to be used to compliment the imagery rather than as a direct part of it.  Second, a new animal was introduced in the imagery along with the serpent, that being the lion.  Syncretic cultural combinations inevitably required that this long-seafaring people incorporate imagery in conquested areas with which local people could connect more easily.  The lion, as had the dragon at sea, represented a great deal of strength and was a common symbolic image in the British Isles prior to Viking incursions.  A grave slab in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral bore testament to the combination of the two cultures.  Wooden panels in Iceland have been compared to Byzantine influence as well, indicating that influence from far eastern Europe found its way to the Scandinavian world as well.[16]  There is even conjecture that the runic script used on numerous Viking monuments was itself developed in Romanized provincial regions of Northern France and subsequently adopted by the Norse people as they adapted it with their own script for their own use.[17]  Regardless of the influence for the Viking creation of runic inscriptions and later design adaptations within their own culture, it was evident that the style was subsequently adopted by regions falling under Viking control.

The final recognized Viking art style was the Urnes style, developed between 1040 and 1150.  Whereas the Oseberg/Broa, Borre, Jellinge, Mammen, and Ringerike motifs took their names (respectively) from ship and mound burials, jewelry and small trinkets, larger monuments, and runic stones, the Urnes design was named after the final leap of Viking artistic style in architectural design.  It specifically references the motif of the carved wooden doors of the Urnes Stave Church, built around 1130, in Urnes, Norway.  Portions of the portal contain influence of the first Oseberg/Broa style in the Pagan beliefs continuing in the culture even in the face of and actually along with Christianization, but the serpents and other animals begin to “bite” themselves in this design and the curves are not as asymmetrically convoluted as in Oseberg.

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Urnes Stave Church Wooden Portal (left) and Pickmoss Medieval Timber House (right) / Wikimedia Commons

As medieval architectural styles continued to evolve in the British Isles and elsewhere, the influence of the Urnes style is evident in combination with regional motifs that began to take on more formal representations, completely Christianized but with the same dynamic interlace.  Structures such as the Pickmoss Medieval Timber House in Oxford depict this combined influence.  The Urnes style was the culmination of Viking artistic design, each style developing not in and of itself as an aesthetic creation but instead full of iconography and symbolism that served a spiritual purpose in combination with the practical purpose of the item upon which the style appeared.

The Urnes style grew through four different stages, and examination of those stages provides an overview of the final influence of Viking designs on Romanesque architecture in Northern Europe.  The early Urnes style, dated from C.1050 to the early part of the twelfth century, presented the overall combat motif of the style in image and text, commemorating the conquest of other lands by noted Viking leaders.

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Runestone U-343, 18th century drawing (left) and Runestone U-344, Orkestra, Sweden (right) / Wikimedia Commons

The style was named after two rune stone monuments, referenced as U343 and U344, discovered in a churchyard in Yttergärde, Sweden, both attributed to the runemaster Åsmund Kåresson of Uppland.  The stones were later moved to the church of Orkestra, Sweden.  The stones celebrate the capture of three danegelds in England by Ulf of Borresta, hence establishing the style as one commemorating such events.  Again, the design was not chosen for its aesthetic appearance but instead how it contributed to the object and the message.  This motif would continue through the mid-Urnes style, which was uniquely applied to coinage.  As the style approached its latter stages in the early part of the twelfth century, the animal designs underwent a fundamental change under the hand of runemaster Öpir of Uppland, Sweden.  The animals he depicted were very thin in patterns much more circular than earlier motifs, clearly depicted on the Jarlabanke Runestones.[18]

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Runestone U-216, Church of Vallentuna / Wikimedia Commons

These runestones, a group of twenty in Uppland containing the Younger Futhark rune script, were believed to have been commissioned by Jarlabanke, a chieftain of what was called a “hundred” (“hundreds” being subdivided regions to disperse rule in a democratic manner), hence their name.  The circular pattern with thin animals could be seen in the U-216 runestone discovered at the Church of Vallentuna, one of the Jarlabanke stones.

The Urnes designs on the stones stopped with them, but their influence continued into what became the Urnes-Romanesque architectural style.  This final phase of Viking artistic style saw the ultimate fusion of Viking iconography and design and the local Northern European Romanesque styles that were beginning to rise, the syncretism that resulted as the Viking people continued to migrate and eventually became a “new” people in Normandy, their days of seafaring, raiding, and pillaging at an end.  Traditionally dated to between 1100 and 1175, this Urnes-Romanesque style was a testament to their enduring influence on European artistic culture, and the European influences continued to infiltrate Scandinavia as well with ongoing Christianization.  This influence in which local Scandinavian traditions were permanently influence was evident in the Lisbjerg altar frontal in a church near Aarhus.

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Lisbjerg Altar Frontal, Denmark / Wikimedia Commons

The altar’s design is busy and energetic, as was the dynamic animal design of the styles that built up to it, but it became much more organized and settled into a more formal iconography.  The Viking styles found their influence in such doors, portals, altarpieces, and various smaller portions of the larger Romanesque structures that would rise in cities across Europe.  A church entire of itself could not be seen from a distance and immediately identified as one influenced by Viking iconography.  But closer inspection of these areas of the structures would have held familiar motifs and patterns to especially Viking immigrants and their descendants, and the designs would continue to influence and meld with other cultures – especially that of the Anglo-Saxons, who themselves had their own unique dynamic animal interlace style that had earlier influenced the beginning style stages of Viking art, an influence that was then returned to it for continued growth and development.  The use of the Scandinavian motifs in Northern European Romanesque and Celtic design was seen in structures such as Cormac’s Chapel in Dublin after the Viking age had passed.  The larger structure adhered to the typical Romanesque canons of the day, but Viking iconographic and design influence was evident in certain details and even in a carved sarcophagus.

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Cormac’s Cathedral (left) and Sarcophagus in Cormac’s Chapel (right) / Wikimedia Commons

A combination of practically each style of Viking artistic history plays a role in the design of the sarcophagus, and its use and placement in a Romanesque church spoke to the syncretic relationship between European architecture and Viking art.

The Viking Age was equivalent to the blink of an eye in historical terms, and historians have often dismissed its influence upon the ongoing and developing artistic and architectural traditions of continental Europe as well as the British Isles.  Their cultural contributions have frequently been overlooked in discussion, which has all too often focused too heavily on the raiding and trading Viking tradition.  To be sure, that was certainly an integral part of what it meant to be a Viking and how they rose to create a brief empire of sorts in their part of the world.  But to ignore or minimize the importance of their artistic iconography would be a disservice to their history.  Art for art’s sake was not a part of the Viking tradition.  Symbols were incorporated into everyday objects, gravestones, runestones, ships and other necessities of life to gain protection, commemorate a person or event, or to tell a story in imagery as the skaldic poets did in performance.  Because of that practical use of each style and motif, outside influence is practically non-existent in Viking art in terms of design.  However, that external influence that does exist was heavily related to the Christianization of Scandinavia – the purpose of the symbols did not change, but the symbols themselves did, such as the crucifixion scene displayed on the Jellinge monument.  As Vikings diffused onto the European continent into Normandy and from there to the British Isles, their styles adapted to a changing culture and the combination of the two is evident in portions of Romanesque churches that literally exploded across Europe in construction prior to the Gothic era.  Many of those churches still stand and hold within them evidence of a people who left a permanent fingerprint on the world.  Regardless of what they eventually came to be called, what they left would see to it that their Viking heritage would not be forgotten.

[1] Gary Waidson, “The Real Celtic Art,” < http://www.lore-and-saga.co.uk/html/celtic_art.html>, June 10, 2008.  “When Saxon and Viking art met, the result was a striking combination of the best of both worlds.”

[2] Ervan G. Garrison, History of Engineering and Technology:  Artful Methods (Danvers, MA:  CRC Press, 1998), 111.

[3] Garrison, History of Engineering and Technology, 112.

[4] A, Ragnar’s Saga, Chris Van Dyke, trans. (Denver: University of Denver Cascadian Publishing, 2003), 13.

[5] Richard Svensson, “Viking Serpents:  The Mystery Dragons of Sweden – from Norse Sagas to Modern Sightings,” Fortean Times, July 2010, <http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/3880/viking_serpents.html>.

[6] Peter Sawyer, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997), 182.

[7] George Zarnecki, “Germanic Animal Motifs in Romanesque Sculpture,” Artibus et Historiae (11:22), 189.

[8] William R. Short, Icelanders in the Viking Age:  The People of the Sagas (London:  McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010), 175.

[9] David M. Wilson and Ole Klindt-Jensen, Viking Art (New York:  Cornell University Press, 1966), 87.

[10] Bonnie Smith, et al.  Crossroads and Cultures, Volume I:  To 1450, A History of the World’s Peoples (New York:  Bedford St. Martin’s, 2012), 300.

[11] S.H. Fuglesang, “Swedish Runestones of the Eleventh Century:  Ornament and Dating,” In Runic Inscriptions as Sources of Interdisciplinary Research, K. Düwel, ed. (Sweden:  Göttingen, 1998), 207.

[12] Deborah Kahn, “Norman World Art,” History Today 36:3 (March 1986), 2.

[13] A.G. Smith, Viking Designs (Mineola, NY:  Dover Publications, 1999), 52.

[14] Winroth, “Viking Sources in Translation.”

[15] T.D. Kendrick, Late Saxon and Viking Art (London:  Methuen & Co., 1949), 98.

[16] Gabor Thomas, “Vikings in the City:  A Ringerike-Style Buckle and Other Artefacts from London,” London Archaeologist 9:8 (2001), 228.

[17] Selma Jónsdóttir, An 11th Century Byzantine Last Judgment in Iceland (Reykjavik:  Almenna Bókafélagid, 1959), 92.

[18] Tineke Looijenga, Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions (Boston:  Brill, 2003), 100-101.

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