Viking Art

The art of the Vikings, also known as the art of the Scandinavian countries or Norse Art, shows the same use of interlace and zoomorphic themes displayed by the Anglo-Irish Pre-Romanesque art.

The Golden Horns of Gallehus, replicas at the National Museum of Denmark.

Since the Iron Age, the art of the Vikings was heavily influenced by the Scandinavian art, primarily by Celtic artistic elements, and by the art from the steppes which originated in the nomadic peoples inhabitants of the great plains of Central Asia. The Viking art was influenced mainly by Celtic-inspired curved lines and the stylization of animal figures typical of the art of the steppes plus other artistic influences inspired in Roman medals or other Roman goldsmith pieces that were imported during Imperial times. Once the Roman Empire ceased to influence these Nordic countries, the Scandinavian art strongly built its own characteristics. Throughout this process, the influences of Ireland and Scotland (through Denmark) played an important role as well as the influx of Eastern and Byzantine art forms imported through an ancient trade route that ran across the territories of Sweden-Novgorod-Kiev-Byzantium. From around the year 400 came two famous golden horns with a figurative relief decoration found in Gallehus (Jutland) and that later were stolen from the Danish royal treasury.  Nowadays the National Museum of Denmark has exact replicas of these lost artifacts.

Some Swedish stelae* or tombstones are carved with episodes allusive to the myths and sagas of local legends. Thus, the stele of Tjängvide or  Tjängvide image stone from the eighth century reproduces scenes from the life of a Viking hero (usually identified with Odin himself), all related to the worship of Odin.  This tombstone represents the combat in which this hero met his death, the only means of entering the Walhalla or mansion of the blessed according to ancient Viking legends. The hero appears lying under his horse while a winged female genie (Valkyrie) flies over ready to take him away. Further down, a ship with shield-armed warriors, sails over the waves.

Large stones with runic inscriptions were relatively frequent in Denmark, and often had carved decorations with curvilinear ribbons and figurative motifs. But the most important known works of this art are represented by tombs dating from the time of the great maritime expeditions made by Viking warriors. These expeditions began in the late eighth century and acquired its supremacy in the year 830. Its greatest importance was during the tenth and eleventh centuries when Scandinavian maritime warriors settled down forming true States on the Normandy coast (911), England (early Xth century), and the Italian and Sicilian south coast (between 1016 and 1091). At the same time Vikings colonized Iceland and Greenland.

The Tjängvide image stone is a flat slab of limestone measuring 1.7 mt height, 1.2 mt wide and 0.3 mt thick (Swedish Museum of National Antiquities, Stockholm).
A large stone with a runic inscription or “Runestone”, here the Runestone Sö 280 at Strängnäs Cathedral, Sweden. [“Tjängvide” by Berig – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tj%C3%A4ngvide.jpg#/media/File:Tj%C3%A4ngvide.jpg%5D

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chiefs of these pirate expeditions used to be buried inside their ships, along with their wives, weapons and valuable possessions. This lavish custom has allowed us to know in detail, not only the personal items of these warlords, but the characteristics of Scandinavian sumptuary art in its peak period.  Such ship-burials are represented by those found in Valdsgärde and Vendel in Sweden. But the most important of these ancient ships is a female burial (of a queen named Åsa) found in Oseberg (Vestford district, Norway), dating from around the year 850 and discovered in 1904. The artifacts coming from this tomb are stored in the Museum of the University of Oslo; the highlight of this ship-burial is the beautifully constructed ship marvelously well preserved, whose bow with a serpentine outline ends in a spiral, a typical Scandinavian decorative element (see the Votive Chariot of Trundholm). Along the keel and bow of this ship runs an edging carved with reliefs representing an interlace of stylized monsters. These same characteristics are shared by several scepters or ritual instruments representing heads and necks of a bear with an open mouth and those of two mastiffs. The neck of the bear is formed by medallions decorated with stylized birds, these same themes are masterfully combined to form the head of the beast resulting in an ornamental design of an extremely high quality.

Above: the Oseberg ship on display at the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway. Below: Detail of the carved ornamentation of the Oseberg ship.

The main characteristic of the ornamental style found in the ship-burials of Vendel and Oseberg is the interlace, a non Scandinavian ornamental motif but, as we saw, of Celtic and particularly Irish origin, from which Vikings took great advantage and used profusely in their own wood works (beds, wagons, sleds, batons).  This ornamentation using fine intertwined ribbons was also used in architectural decoration and lasted long until the introduction of the Romanesque style during the twelfth century  after the Christianization of the Nordic countries.

The animal head posts from the Oseberg ship burial (Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Norway).

Different artifacts from the Oseberg ship-burial: a bed (top), a small wagon (medium), and a wooden sled covered with ornate carvings (bottom) (Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Norway).

A good example of this type of architecture is the church of Urnes in Norway built entirely with wood between 1060 and 1080, with its doors decorated with interlace and a characteristic pyramidal structure resembling a pagoda* tower using overlapping roofs, details that give it a strange oriental look. This same type of construction was used in other Norwegian rustic churches among which stands out that of Borgund (ca. 1150) always cited as a classic example of the stavkirker* or Scandinavian stave churches.

Urnes Stave Church, built between 1130-1132 (Ornes, municipality of Luster in Sogn og Fjordane county, Norway).
Urnes stave church, north door with carved doorjambs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Borgund Stave Church, built between 1180-1250 (village of Borgund, municipality of Lærdal in Sogn og Fjordane county, Norway). It is considered the best preserved of Norway’s 28 extant stave churches.
Borgund stave church, interior view.
Borgund stave church, the roof and lateral walls seen from the interior.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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* Stavkirker: Also known as Stave churches, are churches built of wood with a supporting structure of post and lintel a type of timber framing, thus its name of “stave” church because the posts that carry the weight of the building are called stav in modern Norwegian. 

 

 

 

*Stele: A stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected as a monument, very often for funerary or commemorative purposes. They very often have texts and may have decoration. This ornamentation may be inscribed, carved in relief, or painted onto the slab. Traditional Western gravestones are technically stelae, but are very rarely described by the term. Equally stelae-like forms in non-Western cultures may be called by other terms, and “stela” is most consistently used in archaeological contexts, especially for objects from Europe, the ancient Near East and Egypt, China, and Pre-Columbian America.

 

 

*Pagoda: A tiered tower with multiple eaves, built in traditions originating in historic South Asia and further developed in East Asia. The modern pagoda is an evolution of the Stupa which originated in Ancient India. Stupas are a tomb-like structure where sacred relics could be kept safe and venerated.

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