23 May 2015

What is the meaning of Viking art?

Two authors are listed here. I attribute both because I cannot determine which is the primary author, but I suspect it is Bridge, because she is the only one noted on the essay; however, Velarian is noted also, but not in the title line, so I leave it up to you, the reader.

Viking period carved or incised artwork is amazing in its detail and execution in a variety of mediums. Several links are provided for the reader to view representations of the various artforms.

The author has undertaken quite a task in defining what is known about Viking art. She does a very credible job, too. Today, we interpret the art of the medieval Norse from a contemporary perspective. To define their reasons for executing certain pieces that have come down to us, seems risky at best. But, who can refute her opinions on the subject, they make as much sense than anything else I've read of late. (Ed.)


What is the meaning of Viking art?

Rebecca Bridge
Rykan Velarian
AC 2018

In this essay I will be looking at Viking art, its styles, the mediums that the art was used on, and what meaning it had. The resources available were general books on the Vikings, and specific websites. Viking art did not specifically have a meaning; the aim of this essay is to examine what meanings can be discerned.

Viking’s art base style uses animal forms and sinuous shapes, and generally is not specifically representational (Viking Art and Artefacts lecture, 22nd March, Simon Roffey). The styles are usually divided into groups, which are usually named after the find spots for the better surviving examples. These groups are Oseberg/Broa, Borre, Jellinge, Mammen, Ringerike, and Urnes. The Oseberg and Broa styles used animals with sinuous bodies, small heads and tendrils, and the animals are often very difficult to identify. The Borre style often used ‘gripping’ animals (http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/wood.shtml) with ribbon bodies. The animals usually had four legs and knot work bodies. It occasionally used plant motifs. The Jellinge style used animals with elongated bodies, often symmetrical and intertwining. The Mammen style, the animals are more ‘natural’ (http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/wood.shtml), but with more complex details, and the bodies of the animals often used dots and lines infill. This style uses a lot more plant elements than previous styles (P.139 Lang 1978). Ringerike style has more curvaceous animals, but without the lines or dots of the previous style. The eyes are oval shaped, whereas before all eyes had been circular. The last style, Urnes, animals are very stylised and often have a greyhound shapes, and often seem to be fighting. The style is often assymetrical. Some patterns were in use for long spans of time, the ‘gripping beast’ was a “hallmark of Scandinavian art for over 150 years.” (http://viking.hgo.se/Files/VikHeri/Viking_Age/art.html). For the most part, the Viking art style used animals, and tended towards shapes being either symmetrical or asymmetrical. There were regional differences. A sword hilt from Hellvi has a “stamped pattern-ornament, a technique evidently known only on Gotland.” (p.125 Arbman, 1961). The Borre style occurs in English sculpture, but only in the west, and the Jellinge style rarely occurs in England, but the Mammen style is common on the Isle of Man. (p.142 Lang 1978).

Some of the most prominent uses for art were jewellery and weapons, which we have excellent examples of because most of what we have surviving of Viking art is on metalwork, with some of wood. There are carvings in expensive or rare materials, such as amber, jet, bone and walrus ivory (http://viking.hgo.se/Files/VikHeri/Viking_Age/art.html), however, wood and iron were the most important mediums. Jewellery would have been made from gold, silver, bronze and glass (http://www.tvnznetguidewebchallenge.co.nz/room27/Craftsmen.html). Art was an important element of jewellery and weapons, because “wearing fine jewellery was an outward sign of a person’s wealth.” (P.3, Guy 1998) so the more elaborate and intricate the designs showed the wearer had plentiful money. Most Viking clothing required extra items to hold it together, such as pins, brooches and buckles, all of which would have been decorated in some way. This was another way of showing wealth, through the amount of items or their complexity. Swords and sword hilts needed to be impressive as well. They were extremely important as “a Viking’s position in society could be told as much by the quality of his weapons as by the cut of his clothes.” (p.4 Guy 1998). The more intricate and impressive the sword was with decorative inlays, the more valuable it was. Generally speaking, Viking helmets and armour were not as intricately decorated, if at all. Jewellery was important in another aspect, to show ones religion and faith, such as wearing Thor’s hammer, and later crucifixes, because “religion was an integral part of society and life in all respects.” P.222 Sawyer 1997). This was a less important aspect of art, but it was still part of it’s uses.

The finest surviving examples we have of Viking art are on jewellery and weapons from graves, with fine later examples from silver hoards (http://viking.hgo.se/Files/VikHeri/Viking_Age/art.html). Wood was the Vikings main material, and almost everything wooden was decorated in some fashion, even if it was only lightly on the surface. There are surviving examples of woodcarving, some excellent examples being the Oseberg animal-head post, and the decoration of Urnes stave church. The skill required to make such intricate designs must have be immense. The elaborate woodcarvings that do survive often show “heroic exploits of warriors or scenes from mythology” (p.15 Guy 1998). Woodcarvings would often be painted in addition to the carvings. The paint would have been an important effect, as it would have emphasised the designs.

Viking art is generally applied art, which means that items that are used in day to day life are decorated. The Vikings would decorate everything, from brooches, to plaques for smoothing clothes (Figure 2). But art was used to decorate more expensive items as well. Those with more money could “afford to have their ships, wagons and bedsteads carved with elaborate ornament.” (http://viking.hgo.se/Files/VikHeri/Viking_Age/art.html), such as in the grave of a woman buried at Oseberg.

The wood craftsman who made the art had a huge array of tools, such as axes, adzes, saws, chisels and augers. Most people would have had enough wood working skill to carry out simple repairs, some people would have been more skilled craftsmen, and then there would have been specialists, such as boat builders. The stone craftsmen would sometimes make templates from other sculptures to reuse again. The metal craftsmen used crucibles and moulds made of clay. Metal craftsmen would often add their own elaborately decorated hilts (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/weapons_03.shtml). There were specialist craftsmen for every different type of material, such as silversmiths and tinsmiths, or pine or ash specialists. The Viking craftsmen used specific types of materials for specific items, such as for chests or ships. They knew which materials were most effective for specific applications, and so always used those which worked best. Bigger settlements made money from the items they produced, and craftsmen would have sold their items in front of their houses or taken to markets.(http://www.tvnznetguidewebchallenge.co.nz/room27/Craftsmen.html).

Art had an important use when it came to conveying messages. One of the most used methods was when decorating ships and sleds. The images carved into the posts, prows, figureheads and sternposts were intended to strike terror into the hearts of the Viking’s enemies (http://www.angelfire.com/realm/shades/vikings/vikart.htm) or to protect themselves from evil (p.22, Guy 1998).They would carve images of monsters or fierce warriors, or sometimes images of deities, such as Thor, to protect them in battle. An early Icelandic legal code required approaching ships to take down the craved figure heads so as not to frighten away the guardian spirits (p.126 Arbman 1961).

The other way to convey messages was through the well known rock carvings.

Some stones were carved as memorials, usually describing heroic deeds performed by warriors, and would have been in public places. Some stones commemorated living people, usually the sponsors who were responsible for the stones being created (p.146 Sawyer 2003). The stones used both runes and pictograms, and some had religious significance, telling stories from Nordic mythology. Christianity came to the Vikings in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (P.58 Grate 1965), at which time crosses using the art style of the time, the Urnes style, were erected. On rune stones, crosses also became central motifs.

Viking art was carved into many different types of material. Everyday types of material were used, such as wood; some were more uncommon materials, like ivory. A lot of people had the skill to do basic carving, but specialists for specific materials existed who had immense skill in carving intricate images. Although Viking art did not have any specific meanings as such, it still had important uses. Viking art defined wealth and status. The more wealth a person had meant that person could afford much more elaborate artwork on their jewellery, weapons and ships. Art was used to put fear into enemies, through frightening carvings on ships and on helmets. The art used in stone carving conveyed messages as well as commemorating heroes, telling stories, and being monuments to or about deities. Art had an important fundamental meaning however, “Viking-Age man […] understood that the deepest reasons and purposes of life could only be encompassed in myth and art.” (p.209 Sawyer 1997).

Today, art has a new, important meaning, of being able to give us a good idea of what life was like at the time, as well as being extremely useful for dating.

Bahn, P. G. 1996. Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology. Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.


Arbman, H.1961. The Vikings. London: Thames & Hudson.
Grate, P. 1965. Treasures of Swedish Art. Allhem Publishers Malmö
Guy, J. 1998. Viking Life. Kent: ticktock Publishing.
Lang , J.1978. Anglo-Saxon and Viking Age Sculpture and Its Context. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.
Sawyer, B. 1997. The Viking-Age Rune-Stones. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.

The Internet Movie Database, http://imdb.com/, (March 25th 2006)

Viking Answer Lady Webpage - Woodworking in the Viking Age, http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/wood.shtml
Viking art, http://viking.hgo.se/Files/VikHeri/Viking_Age/art.html
BBC - History - Viking Weapons and Warfare, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/vikings/weapons_03.shtml
Vikings & their Gods - Viking Art & Architecture, http://www.angelfire.com/realm/shades/vikings/vikart.htm

Viking Art and Artefacts lecture, 22nd March, Simon Roffey

Figure 1, La Norvège, http://noreg.canalblog.com/archives/2005/09/p10-0.html
Figure 2
PRES http://www.clans.org.uk/hist_6.html

Pictures of styles

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