Modern representations of the Vikings can be fun, but are often limited to sensationalized depictions of violent, raiding warriors. In reality, Vikings were a small group of a larger community of people called the Norse (or Norsemen). Few of these Norsemen raided, and many more were merchants, farmers, and craftsmen. Political and mercenary work were among their enterprises, but exploration, colonization, and mercantilism also fueled their expeditions.
What initiated the Viking Age? Scholars typically identify the Viking raid of the wealthy monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in 793 (off the coast of England) as its starting point. During the Viking Age, which lasted from the late 8th century through the 11th century, people from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden employed their maritime skills to journey around the globe. In addition to western Europe, they traveled to Byzantium, West Asia, China, Russia, Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, Greenland, and even North America. Interacting with many cultures and settling in many geographic regions, the Norse were more cosmopolitan than they receive credit for.
The Norse Visual World
The visual world was of great importance to the Norse. Significant resources were devoted to the creation of astonishing objects and the acquisition of foreign goods (through plunder and trade alike), and because of their highly mobile endeavors, Norse-made and Norse-influenced objects have been found across a wide geographic expanse.
An array of sophisticated, meticulously crafted objects survive. Fine imported materials were used, but local materials were also expertly handled by highly skilled craftspeople. Woodworking, for example, was an essential skill, and detailed wood carvings have been uncovered and restored. This material is susceptible to rot and fire, and so we can conclude that what survives today is a small fraction of the woodwork that once existed.
Objects made from more tenacious materials—like metal and stone—comprise the majority of what art historians have left to examine. Metal jewelry, storage vessels, and other utilitarian objects have been uncovered from burials and hoards. Ivory and bone carvings have also been found, as have a limited number of precious textiles and stone carvings.
The Styles of Viking Art
Many objects served practical and symbolic purposes and their complex decorative patterns can be a challenge to untangle. Highly-stylized motifs weave around and flow into one another, so that following a single form from one end to the other can be difficult—if there are end points at all. Imagery was created to communicate ideas about social relations, religious beliefs, and to recall a mythic past. Although many objects served pagan intentions, Christian themes began to intermingle with them as new ideas filtered into the region. Viking art is visually distinct from contemporaneous cultures (as traded objects and integrated customs demonstrate), and represents a unique way of thinking about the world.
The animal motifs that frequently embellished objects are actually a continuation of artistic traditions from previous periods. Two were particularly widespread: the “ribbon-animal” and the “gripping beast.” We see both of these on the stern of the Oseberg longship.
The Viking Art styles are:
The ribbon-animal was typically pictured as a highly abstracted creature with an elongated body and simplified features, appearing individually and in pairs. In contrast, the gripping beast—a fantastical creature with clearly defined limbs—was anchored to the borders of designs and surrounding creatures. Other animal motifs developed throughout the period, and human figures were also present. These elements, which are thought to have had particular assigned meanings, are central to the categorization of Viking Age art styles.
The Oseberg style was popular throughout mainland Scandinavia. Some of the most remarkable wood carving from the Viking Age was created in this style. A spectacular oak longship—found within the burial mound from which the style’s name was derived—is one of the most studied works of the period. Featuring carvings of the ribbon-animal and gripping-beast motifs in fluid combinations on its prow, it served as an elite funerary vessel for two women.
The Oseberg style shows a strong interplay between zoomorphic and geometric patterns that continues artistic traditions predating the Viking Age.
In Oseberg art, animal motifs—which included birds, human faces sometimes thought to be masks (such as we see on the Oseberg burial cart), and the gripping beast—appear short and stocky, nearly equal in size, have rounded eyes, and tendril-like limbs. These schematic figures are situated within fields that divide surfaces into clear segments and emphasize the balance and organization of images. With mixtures of high- and low-relief carvings flooding their surfaces in tightly interlacing ornament, very little background is visible.
The Oseberg ship burial included carved wooden posts, decorated sleds, and an oak wagon that may have been made by master craftsmen from a nearby workshop. For example, the “Academician’s” animal head post is one of five wooden animal-headed posts found in the Oseberg ship burial. Although the purpose of these objects remain unclear, their detailed carvings demonstrate advanced woodworking skills.
Also included was a set of tapestries that, despite their poor condition, are believed to depict battle scenes and a religious procession. They illustrate many objects found in the grave, indicating that material goods were important for performing customs in life and in death.
Overlapping with the Oseberg style is the Borre style, which was also popular on the mainland. However, unlike the Oseberg style, Borre artistic conventions spread to the British Isles and the Baltic region as the Norsemen traveled both East and West. Exchanges between local and foreign artistic customs can be seen on objects found in these areas (with less overt characteristics appearing in the British Isles and more emphatic characteristics appearing to the east of the Baltic Sea).
Borre objects swarm the viewer with décor. Forms are arranged in closed compositions with tight, knot-like interlacing that almost fully obscures the background. Animal motifs appear comparatively more naturalistic, with squat, relaxed bodies. Spirals are introduced to represent hip joints, and figures may be reduced to decorative heads or appear as fully in-the-round forms.
On a silver disc-brooch from Gotland, a series of animal and human figures protrude outward into space. In a motif rarely seen outside of this style, the animals’ heads are oriented backward, their tongues licking their backs. Alternating between them are four human figures who face the object’s center, gripping as of yet unidentified protrusions from their necks.
The “ring chain” pattern, which combines ribbon shapes to create a continuous band, is another Borre style trend. It is seen on small metal objects, such as the gold spur from Verne Kloster, and seems to have influenced stone carving traditions on the Isle of Man and in northwest England. This gold spur allowed a rider to control the movements of a horse. Featuring granulation and filigree details, along with the “ring chain” pattern, it is far more complicated than what is normally found in the Borre style.
Sitting chronologically between the Borre style and the soon-to-be-discussed Mammen style, the Jellinge style is a malleable one. It appears on a diverse body of objects and can share features with the previous and subsequent styles, leaving it difficult to define as a separate movement. It was named for a cast silver cup that was found in a royal burial mound in Jelling, Jutland, Denmark (an “e” was accidentally added to the style’s name in the nineteenth century). Despite this mishap, this unique spelling helps art historians differentiate the style from the place.
We can see this style’s main motif around its belly: a set of interlacing creatures that form a row of fluid, S-shaped forms. Within their bodies are single rows of beading (dot-like metal forms) and their feet resemble mitts. Lappets, the protrusions that look like ponytails, extend from their heads, distinguishing them from creatures of the Borre style.
Compositions in this style open up and expand, with the backgrounds becoming more visible. The anatomy of animal and human figures is simpler, with bodies portrayed as solid masses defined by individual or double contour lines. Hip joints are represented by spirals, while ankles and wrists are defined by small, geometric segments like those seen on the Jellinge cup. Heads have round or almond-shaped eyes and lips are apt to curl, while ribbon-animals are more prominent and the gripping beast fades.
The Jellinge style expanded as far as the Volga Bulgars and the Lower Volga River, along the Caspian Sea. It influenced art in western Europe, where stone sculptures from York show its considerable influence. A 10-century grave slab from the cemetery beneath York Minster, for instance, integrates the Jellinge style ornament with the Anglican tradition of marking burials with recumbent monuments. Although they have previously been referred to as “Anglo-Saxons,” the people of early England were not of a singular cultural identity. The period and place were quite diverse. People may have sometimes referred to themselves as Anglicans (or Anglecynns) or Englisc, but Anglo-Saxon is an invented identity with more recent ties to racist and nationalist ideologies.
Named for a ceremonial axe head found near the Danish village of Mammen, this innovative style was popularized as the “court” style of King Harald Bluetooth (King of Denmark and Norway who ruled from c. 958–986). Its compositions span elongated waves and terminate in loose tendrils. We also see foliate motifs that were borrowed from other European traditions. A few of the qualities associated with the Jellinge style are exaggerated in it, like geometric shapes that segment the wrists, ankles, and other body parts of animals.
This can be seen at the base of the bird’s neck on the Mammen axe, along with ornamental beading throughout its body. Its limbs and wings are represented as expanding coils. Some background is visible, with glimpses of the underlying surface peeking out from beneath lively, energetic designs.
Each side of the Mammen axe head is inlaid with silver: on one side, a set of winding tendrils; and, on the other, a fabulous bird loops through even more tendrils and has a prominent spiral hip joint. Axes were very important to the Norsemen, who used them for domestic purposes and in battle, but the inlays of the Mammen axe indicate that it was a ceremonial object.
Often discussed are the runestones at Jelling (in Denmark), which feature traits of the Mammen style. It is in this style that a magnificent motif emerges: the Great Beast. We can see it on one side of the Jelling Stone, standing above a runic inscription that references his conquest of Norway and the religious conversion of Denmark.
The Great Beast is an amalgamation of several animals; it has features that appear similar to horns or antlers protruding from its head, and what appears to be a mane falling from its long neck. Its feet are segmented with claws, and in some representations—like the greater Jelling stone—serpents may wind around its body to create a dynamic interplay between the two motifs. The creature has been interpreted as a symbol of power.
Carved with runic inscriptions, these monumental stones were raised by King Bluetooth in memory of his deceased parents. As a Christian convert, Bluetooth was responsible for Denmark’s increasing acceptance and adoption of the religion. He had one side of the larger stone depict Christ bound in tendrils that end in pronounced foliates (leaf forms). With an inscription surrounded by serpentine ornament on its third side (not illustrated), this object is exceptionally detailed for a runestone.
Three particularly fine examples of the Mammen style survived into the modern era: the Cammin casket found in Kamen Pomorski, Poland, the Bamberg casket of southern Germany (now located in Munich), and the León reliquary of Spain, which is the only known Viking object to be found on the Iberian Peninsula.
These three examples demonstrate how Mammen-style objects have been found in many regions, attesting yet again to the far reach of Norse visual culture.
The Mammen style was short-lived, but the subsequent style—called Ringerike—was energized by its ingenuity. Continuing to use the double contour lines and spiral hip joints seen previously, Ringerike ornament is tightly composed. Bird motifs become more common and the Great Beast appears in full force, but neither feature the beaded ornamentation of Jellinge and Mammen creatures.
The adoption of European influences into Norse artistic conventions are visible in the Ringerike style. Diverse uses of foliates and tendrils, for example, are features that were taken from Frankish and British influences and modified to suit Norse sensibilities. Appearing in clusters of varying thicknesses, tendrils grow outward from animal bodies. This can be seen on several weathervanes (such as the Heggen weathervane), which were customarily gilded, fixed to the prows of ships, and later, repositioned on the roofs of churches. Their borders feature friezes of vegetal motifs, and on their plates are beasts—including birds and the Great Beast—tangled within foliates.
New variations on the Great Beast appear in the Ringerike style. The Great Beast may be shown with other Great Beasts, with multiple snakes, or with monsters we cannot always identify. A carved stone slab that was found at St. Paul’s churchyard in London, for instance, shows the Great Beast with long tendrils that curl at the far end (a variation of the lappets seen in the earlier Jellinge style) forming tendril-like horns and tongue. It also has spiral hip joints. Its body is entwined with a serpent and another, smaller creature wraps around its forelimb. The carved stone slab comes from the end of a box-tomb. The runic inscription carved into its side suggests that the carver was Swedish.
Due to the growing popularity of Christianity, funerary customs shift and there are fewer grave goods in the Ringerike style. Architecture, weapons, and ivory carvings become the more prevalent remains, and runestones—although less detailed than the greater stone raised at Jelling—become more common.
In the last phase of Viking Age art, the Urnes style, there is a turn to elegant, schematic forms. Animals are portrayed with tapered anatomical features and in regal stances.
The Urnes style has three primary motifs: a standing, four-legged animal resembling the Great Beast; a snake-like creature but with a single foreleg and/or hind leg; and a thin ribbon. Perhaps associated with the growth of Christianity, there was an increased esteem for this style across mainland Scandinavia. Surviving examples of it can be seen on architecture and runestones, each of which could use pagan and Christian iconography simultaneously.
Although its origins are likely Swedish, this style is associated with a stave church in the Norwegian village of Urnes. Its relief carvings, which fully embody the style’s characteristics, have been the subject of art-historical interpretation for some time. Their rhythmic compositions have elegant swooping, symmetrical, and interlace designs, and the background is more clearly visible.
Although the use of spiral hip joints persist, the proportions of creatures’ bodies curve and swell in a fashion that differentiates them from previous styles. Eyes are enlarged, nearly filling the heads, and lower jaws are given hook-like extensions. The feet of the Great Beast standing next to the door gracefully end in wisps that rest between delicate vegetal motifs. Although the structure is Christian in function, these decorative forms remain indebted to pre-Christian styles.
As the Norsemen traveled, traded, and settled across new regions, this style’s influences were carried with them. Urnes-styled objects appear in the Baltic, and examples such as the Pitney Brooch demonstrate a localized adaptation of it in England. In Ireland, the Norse re-occupation of Dublin fueled artistic interest in the Urnes style, with metal and stone objects exhibiting its features. When looking at gold filigree ornamenting the bell shrine of St. Patrick, for example, precisely-crafted patterns demonstrate interest in geometry and rhythmic compositions. The style’s acceptance there, however, came just as it was dying in Scandinavia.
The Viking Age Comes to an End
Prior to the 10th century, Scandinavian regions were considered peripheral to western Europe. It was from the 10th through the 13th centuries that the introduction of Christianity and the introduction of European-style monarchy eventually brought the Viking Age to a close. The Ringerike and Urnes styles described above flourished through this time, until the European Romanesque style was popularized, displacing pagan traditions.
There is much more to Norse art than style. While objects were made by skilled workers, they were also situated within a complex society whose endeavors affected a vast geographic expanse. Those discussed here provide only a small window into the Viking Age.
- Susan Braovac, “The Long Soak.” The Museum of Cultural History, The University of Oslo. November 3rd (2018).
- Signe Horn Fuglesang, Some Aspects of the Ringerike Style: A Phase of 11th-Century Scandinavian Art (Odense: Odense University Press, 1980).
- James Graham-Campbell, Viking Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013).
- Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Oxford: Oxbow, 2019).
- Paul D. Sturtevant, “Schrödinger’s Medievalisms.” The Public Medievalist (blog). December 28 (2017).
- Sverre Bagge, Cross and Scepter: The Rise of the Scandinavian Kingdoms from the Vikings to the Reformation (Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014).
- Nancy L. Wicker, “The Scandinavian Container at San Isidoro, León, in the Context of Viking Art and Society.” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies vol. 11, no. 2 (2019), pp. 135–156.
- David M. Wilson and Ole Klindt-Jensen, Viking Art (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1966).
- Anders Winroth, The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
Originally published by Smarthistory, 10.01.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.