Viking art is often split into six main styles dating from AD 750 – 1150: Broa (or Oseberg), Borre, Jellinge, Mammen, Ringerike and Urnes. It was not the case that the styles existed independently at individual periods, but rather the styles overlapped, often with two or three co-existing at any one time. This was a result of good communication between the different Norse regions, ensuring that developments in art and design were quickly spread over the many lands the Vikings inhabited, and it was a large area indeed, spreading out from Scandinavia to Britain, Ireland, Greenland, Russia and even the Americas (naming it Newfoundland long before Columbus ever set foot on it).
The art of the Vikings is characterised by unrestrained decoration and the most extraordinary ornamentation of everything from their iconic ships to the most mundane everyday objects. High levels of skill and impressive craftsmanship went into everything they produced, resulting in a plethora of intricately designed artefacts with an appeal still strong today.
“The sophistication and delicacy of Viking art presents a striking contrast with the stereotype of the rude and restless barbarian. Viking craftsmen excelled in woodwork and metalwork, adorning broaches, weapons, implements, and ship timbers with abstracted animal forms and elaborate patterns of interlace. Runic texts and complementary scenes were inscribed on stones and rock faces.”
Sorabella, Jean. “The Vikings (780 – 1100)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002
The Broa / Oseberg Style, c. AD 780 – 850
This is the earliest style of what we consider Viking age art and the most popular motif to originate in this period was that of the gripping beasts. Like most Germanic art from this period in time, Viking art was often zoomorphic, however it rarely attempted a naturalistic representation of animals, preferring more abstract, stylised creatures with contorted bodies that would intertwine, often biting or gripping each other. The key feature of the Broa style gripping beast is that its paws grip the borders around it, neighbouring beasts or parts of its own body. Many of the animals also possessed flowing tendrils that would form their tails or other parts of the body, giving the compositions a flowing, natural aesthetic (source). Many artefacts in the Broa style were found in the Oseberg ship burial site and in a grave at Broa on Gotland, giving the style its name.
The Borre Style, c. AD 840 – 970
Like the preceding Broa style, the Borre style of Viking art takes its name from a ship burial from where a number of artefacts were excavated, this time at Borre in Vestfold, Norway. The stye continues the use of the gripping beast motif, but with a new development in the form of a ribbon-shaped body beneath a triangular, mask-like head with protruding ears, as seen in the silver-gilt pendent from a hoard found in Vårby, Sweden.
In Britain, an insular form of the Borre style developed, known as “Gaut’s Interlace”, and appears as a ring-chain motif, seen on the Gosforth Cross at St Mary’s Churchyard. The Gosforth Cross is an interesting piece as it displays how Norse mythology made appearances in Christian artefacts as a number of the scenes and motifs relate to stories of the Norse trickster god, Loki. The Binding of Loki (west side) depicts the Norse myth of Loki’s punishment after causing the death of the god Baldr. Loki and his two sons, Vali and Narfi were captured by the Æsir who changed Vali into a wolf and he tore his brother apart. The entrails were then used to bind Loki to three flat stones, the bonds becoming iron. A poisonous snake was set up to eternally drip poison onto Loki’s face.
However, Loki’s wife Sigyn sits by him, catching the drops with a basin. Yet when it is full she must leave him to face the venom, a fate so terrible his shudders cause the Earth to shake – an earthquake. The myth states that Loki will lie in bonds until Ragnarök, the end of days. The idea of the “bound Satan” has much in common with this myth, showing how religions can often intersect and show parallels. The Gosforth Cross may reside within a Christian churchyard, yet the stories it depicts tell more of the mythology of those who instigated the Borre art style that inspired the cross.
The Jellinge Style, c. AD 880 – 1000
Named after a small ornamental cup found in the burial mound at Jellinge, Denmark, thought to have been the burial site of King Gorm, dating it to AD 958. The Jellinge style is the first to not use the gripping beast, instead the artefacts are decorated with S-shaped animals featuring distinctive ribbon-like bodies, spiral hips, their heads in profile, tendrils that form “pigtails”, and curling upper lips. The S-shaped animals are frequently intertwined to form an open interlace pattern with diagonal symmetry (source). The Borre and Jellinge style overlapped timewise, leading to many examples of fusions between the styles, for example the hoard in Vårby produced a silver-gilt pendent with a beast in the Jellinge style with its head in profile, a ribbon-shaped body and sporting a pigtail, but it also displays the gripping paws of the Borre style.
The Mammen Style, c. AD 950 – 1030
The Mammen style grew out of the Jellinge style and the two have many similarities making it difficult to distinguish artefacts from each style. The name comes from a small, decorated axe-head, found in a grave in Mammen, Denmark, dating to c. 970. The axe demonstrates an interesting method of Viking decoartion in which groves were carved into the iron surface and silver wires were then inlaid into the patterns and hammered in, forming intricate silver patterns. This particular piece features a foliate pattern on one side, the other a bird. The body of the bird is thicker than the ribbon-like bodies of the Jellinge animals and us decorated with dots. It still shows large spiral hips and its wings and tail are stylised, drawn into long, curving tendrils. Atop the axe is a mask-like human face with round eyes, a large nose and a spiralling beard. The Vikings portrayed a greater range of semi-naturalistic animals in the Mammen style, with lion and bird motifs appearing alongside the Norse serpent.
The Ringerike Style, c. AD 980 – 1070
From the Mammen style, the Ringerike style was developed during the first half of the 11th century, at a time when stone monuments were becoming more common. While it is clear that it derived from the previous style, there are significant differences as animal forms are thinner and more curvaceous, no longer decorated inside. The eyes changed from round to almond-shaped and the tendrils became thinner and longer. There was also a greater use of plant motifs with foliate patterns.
The Urnes Style, c. AD 1040 – 1150
This was the last phase of Viking Age art, its name derived from the remarkable wooden doors of the stave church at Urnes, Norway. The style is typified as a refinement of the Mammen and Ringerike styles, featuring highly stylised animals with curvaceous bodies, their heads and feet reduced to elongated terminals. The style depended largely on an intricate interplay of graceful curving lines that would intertwine in elaborate patterns. Designs of this style were often used on runic stones, the inscription carried within the body of the animal.
Vikings in Ireland
The Vikings raided across Ireland from the end of the 8th century until around 850, attacking and pillaging many of the prominent monasteries, alongside the dwellings of the common people. Most of the beautiful illuminated manuscripts, hand-produced in the monasteries, were burned as the Vikings saw them as lacking monetary value. Eventually the Vikings settled in Ireland, establishing towns such as Dublin and Cork, their culture gradually merging with that of the native Irish people.
The Celtic and Viking art styles began to fuse and Irish Art thrived in the form of metalwork, stone carvings, architecture and manuscripts. The two cultures brought their own skill and knowledge of fine craftsmanship, producing beautiful works and defining an aesthetic still recognised today. The impact of the Viking influence on Irish art was most clearly felt late in the 11th century as Irish metalwork began intimidating the Scandinavian Ringerike and Urnes styles. An example of this is in the Cross of Cong, 1123 – 1127 AD. Gold, silver, copper, niello, bronze brass, enamel, coloured glass and other ornamentation cover an oak cross in one of the finest examples of metalwork and decorative art from this period in Western Europe.