A Brief Introduction to the six styles of Viking Art
The Norse of the Viking Age (circa 793-1066) were very artistic people. Unlike Classical artists who sculpted or painted as an end unto itself, though, the Vikings used art to beautify everyday things. They would chisel the prows of their ships into dragon heads, and carve spiraling designs on the gunwales. They would engrave bone combs and drinking horns, or carve walrus tusks into ivory game pieces. They used sophisticated metallurgic techniques to decorate weapons and make cunningly-designed jewelry. Sometimes their art would serve as an eternal memorial to the deeds of mighty ancestors, such as the many rune stones that dot the Scandinavian countryside. Other times, it would grace the smallest broach or belt buckle.
The Vikings even used their fantastic, distinctive art to decorate themselves. As the tenth century Arab traveler to the North, Ahmad ibn-Fadlan, wrote, “From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs.”
The Vikings had a small amount of representational art – that is, pictures of gods or heroes. But most of the Vikings’ art was in the form of patterns and highly-stylized beasts with entwining features. It is widely believed that these dynamic, knot-like patterns represent the flow of Fate that was all-important to the Viking world view.
Viking art is different from Celtic knotwork (also called Icovellavna), though the two art forms most likely influenced each other. Celtic patterns tend to follow strict mathematical layout, while Norse patterns make wide use of animal motifs and typically favors flow over symmetry. In modern recreations, Celtic and Norse elements have often been fused together. Since plenty of Celtic art objects have been found in Norse graves, it is safe to say that the Vikings would have no problem with this trend.
Of course, Viking Age Norse art is also the direct descendant of Vendel Period (550-790) and other early Nordic and Germanic art, and some of our most quintessential “Viking” images are from these somewhat earlier periods – times the Vikings themselves considered to be the age of heroes.
The Vikings were active for almost three centuries, and they spanned more than a dozen countries. Norse communities took on new members and new influences in each of these places. Not surprisingly, their art varied with time and place.
Experts have identified six major styles of Viking art. While these styles generally evolved sequentially, this did not happen all at once, and there was some overlap. Each style is named after the major archaeological finds that epitomize them.
The Oseberg style takes its name from artifacts recovered at the fantastic Oseberg ship burial. This style is famous for its “gripping beast” motifs of sinewy figures that intertwine in repeating patterns.
Oseberg is also sometimes called the Oseberg/Broa style, though some authorities consider the Broa to be a style in its own right. This style (or styles) were popular from around 780 to 850. Seen here: Detail from Oseberg Ship. Photo by Karamell, 2005.
The Borre style was in wide use for about 130 years (circa 840 to 970). This style was named for some round bronze bridle mounts discovered in Borre, near Vestfold, Norway. It built on the Oseberg’s “gripping beast” motifs but made the head of the creatures more prominent. Though Borre can often be compact and almost circular, sometimes this feature is used to create interlacing chains, such as in Gaut’s Cross from the Isle of Man.
Borre is considered to be one of the most insular and original of the Norse styles and the least influenced by other peoples. But Borre artifacts have been found from England to Russia, showing the reach of the Vikings’ culture. Seen here: Gaut’s Cross, Isle of Man.
Excavation of a burial mound thought to belong to none other than King Gorm the Old of Denmark yielded a trove of fantastically-engraved silver cups and other treasures. This Jelling style was popular in the 10th century and remains one of the more recognizable Norse art styles.
It is characterized by flowing “ribbon-like” S-shaped dragons and beasts. Its fine lines and dynamic movement seem at odds with the Borre style, though the two styles were occasionally blended. Seen here: The Cup of King Grom with Jelling-style engraving, now in the National Museum of Denmark.
The Mammen style is also named for finds from 10th century Denmark and it can sometimes be difficult to tell it apart from the Jelling style. The bodies of the animals in Mammen are somewhat heftier than the Jelling.
The Mammen also adds tendrils, dots, spirals, and other features to enhance the overall visual punch of the piece. Seen here: The famous Mammen Axe, now at the National Museum of Denmark.
The Ringerike style rose in popularity in the first half of the 11th century. While there are still plenty of snakes and dragons, Ringerike uses a lot of lions, peacocks, and other animals the original Vikings were probably not very familiar with. Ringerike also uses plant motifs – common in the continent but previously unusual for Vikings. Thus, the Ringerike may be another sign of the increasing exchange of ideas between the Norse and the wider world.
The style is still distinctly Norse, though, with the manes, tails, and plumage of the creatures providing the telltale sweeping lines and tangles. Ringerike derives its name from a group of rune stones in Norway. Seen here: Saint Paul Stone, photo by David Beard (2004).
The last art style of the Viking Age may also be the most sophisticated. The Urnes style flourished in the late 11th to mid-12th centuries. It features slender, graceful creatures entwined in figure eights and patterns of greater complexity.
The Urnes style is named after the spectacular carved wooden doors of the Urnes Stave Church in Norway. Seen here: The Urnes Stave Church, Norway
Norse art is mesmerizing to look at and still inspires artists today. So much of the Viking personality and ethos is instilled in these pieces that have traveled from the hordes of sea kings to the display cases of museums. Yet, so much Viking art was not the opulent wealth of the super-rich, but rather the everyday treasures of common men and women – the reflection of life carved in wood and bone or wrought in metal. When we look at Viking art, we can glimpse their view of the world, a place of surreal and sometimes terrifying beauty chasing the sweeping lines and spirals of fate
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Short, W. Styles of Art in the Viking Age. Hurstwic. 2020. http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/manufacturing/text/norse_art.htm
Viking Art. Viking Archaeology. 2020.
Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North. (Translated by Lunde, P. & Stone, C.). Penguin. London. 2012.
Uppland, Sweden Runestone (Urnes style art)
Oseberg Ship Detail by Karamell (2005).
Ringerike Saint Paul Stone