However, not only did art flourish throughout Viking societies, scholars have identified six distinctive styles, which influenced northern Europe and Slavic societies for centuries to come.
More than just raiders, traders, and settlers
History has been, let's face it, somewhat unkind to the artistic talents of Viking societies. Such was the Vikings' impact on history that a whole age (the Viking Age, approximately 792 CE to 1066 CE) is named after them. Their colonization, maritime and martial skills and talents occupy thousands of pages of books and academic papers. However, for the large part, general knowledge about Viking art is very limited.
Perhaps the most striking symbol of a Viking (no, not the horned helmets – which are likely a 19th-century opera invention) – the longboat – illustrates the little-known artistic impulses, skill, talent, and endeavor. When the Oseberg Viking Ship was dug up on a farm near Tønsberg, Norway, just over a century ago, it was not just the locals that were perplexed. This find, which has been labeled one of the most striking archaeological finds of the 20th century (move over Howard Carter and King Tut), began to change academics, archaeologists, and historians' common perceptions, theories, and ideas about the artistic nature of those in Viking societies.
The ornamental wood carving of the boat itself and the treasures, weapons, and other valuables that lay deep within the ship's hold showed skill and sophistication that was more advanced than the label of "barbarians" would suggest.
Is Viking art a misnomer?
When discussing "Viking art" (itself a bit of a misnomer), it should be worth remembering that this is art that spanned many centuries (from Late Antiquity to the Crusades) and was found in a multitude of societies (from Vinland in modern-day Canada to the Eurasian steppes, from Sicily to the Arctic Circle).
However, academics and art historians have generally agreed upon six different Viking "artistic styles" which dominated Viking societies. These styles are:
The Oseberg Style
This style was named after the famous Oseberg Viking longship found near Tønsberg at the turn of the 20th century. However, it has also been found in other Viking ships, such as the Gokstad ship found in 1879.
The style mostly consists of animals and beasts with their heads in profile. Their bodies are shown in a schematic manner with broad lines and interlacing necks, limbs, and other parts.
Dates vary, but this style appears to have been prevalent from the late 9th to early 10th centuries CE.
The Oseberg ship's burial mound. Photo: Museum of Cultural History / University of Oslo
The Borre Style
This style was named after a grave found in a burial mound in Borre, Vestfold, Norway.
This style features interlacing double ribbons with geometric knot patterns. It also involves zoomorphic animal motifs. It can also heavily feature stylized animal masks. A "gripping beast" was a common theme amongst Borre artifacts, especially amongst bronze casts for women and men's bronze brooches.
This style peaked in popularity from the mid-9th century to the mid-10th century CE.
The Jellinge Style
A town named Jelling in Denmark was believed to have been one of the main seats of Viking power and an important Danish center of trade. A grave laden with artifacts discovered there gives its name to this style.
The Jellinge Style appears to be somewhat of an improvement and progression on the earlier Borre style. There is a swirling band of square and geometric patterns than run through the body of an animal. Animals have a far more realistic look than earlier styles.
Perhaps the most famous piece of artwork with this style is the Jelling silver cup. This was believed to have belonged to a king (or queen) of Denmark or, at the very least, an extremely important and powerful Jarl (Earl).
Popular amongst artisans from the early 10th century to approximately 980 CE.
The Jelling stones are big carved runestones from the 10th century. They were discovered at Jelling, Denmark. Source: Alicudi / Creative Commons
The Mammen Style
One of the most opulent Viking graves finds was discovered in Mammen, Denmark, and gives its name to this style. Amongst the buried treasures and artifacts was a highly decorated ceremonial ax resplendent with silver ingots.
The major theme that dominates this style is decorated dots that fill shapes that are often of an animal or a bird. It also features a number of thin and thick lines, often ending with small ornamental drops. The National Museum of Denmark has a copy of the "Cammin Chest" (an ornamental cask), which is seen as another major example of this style.
This style was popular for about half a century, from 970 CE to about 1020 CE.
The Ringerike Style
Unlike the other four styles, which dealt with either metalwork or caved wood, the Ringerike Style has only been found from stone carvings. Academics believe that the Vikings borrowed stone carving techniques from the peoples of the British Isles. The distinctive flourishes, curls, and endings have been thought to have been borrowed from Anglo-Saxon art.
This style is named after the Ringerike district, just north of Oslo, Norway, which was a traditional district and birthplace of legendary Viking warrior and King Harald Fairhair.
The Ringerike Style features heavily a "fantastic animal" – which scholars have labeled "the great beast." It is massive, with four paws and often multiple tails. This style marks the beginning, in Nordic Art, of a series of crosses and "pretzel-shaped" nooses, which were to become increasingly popular thereafter.
This artistic style was widespread throughout Viking societies all over Europe. Though it takes its name from a carved rune stone in Ringerike, it has been found on artifacts and objects ranging from the island of Gotland, Sweden, to Dublin, Kyiv, and Sicily. One notable example can be found right in the heart of London at St. Paul's Cathedral. Here a tombstone is elaborately decorated with a Ringerike style. It was used for a relatively short time, from the turn of the 11th century to approximately 1070 CE.
The Urnes stave church in Sognefjord, on the west coast of Norway. Photo: Helge Leirdal / Pixabay
The Urnes Style
As this was the final style of Viking art, developed towards the end of the "Viking Age," it is, perhaps, the most well known. However, it should be noted that by the time this style was developed, the Nordic region was more and more under the influence of Christianity in everyday life.
This style contains elongated and elaborate animals that seem to swirl with movement, often snakes or dragons. These are often filled with runic inscriptions. The most famous example of this style is a carving from the Urnes Stave Church, in Norway, which depicts a four-legged animal entrapped by four snakes. Scholars have deciphered this to either be an allegory of Christianity (the lion representing Christianity and the snakes paganism) or as a depiction of Ragnarök.
This style was popular from the mid-11th to the mid-12th centuries CE. Following the Christianization of the Nordic region, "Viking societies" soon evolved into the Kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark and started to follow artistic trends flowing from the Kingdom of France, Holy Roman, and Byzantine Empires.
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