Viking Art
History, Characteristics of Borre, Jellinge, Mammen, Ringerike, Urnes Cultures.

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Viking Animal Carving (c.800-50)
Animal-head post from the Oseberg
Viking ship Museum, Oslo, Norway.

Viking Art (c.700-1150)


Viking Art: Brief Introduction
Styles of Viking Norse Art (850-1050)
- Impact of Religion on Viking Arts
- General Style of Norse Arts
- Oseberg Ship Burial Site
- Two Wood Carvers
- Borre Style
- Jellinge Style
- Mammen Style
- Ringerike Style
- Urnes Style

The Gundestrup Cauldron (c.400 CE)

Introduction to Viking Art

Vikings were Scandinavian seafaring warriors - pagan Danish, Norwegian and Swedish - who raided and colonized wide areas of Europe during the period 790-1050 CE. Viking or Norse settlements were achieved in North America, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, England and Continental Europe. In the East, Vikings expanded into the heart of Russia where they left their name - 'Rus' meaning red, after the red-haired Norsemen. Unfortunately, their raids were responsible for the decline of monastic art in Ireland, especially illuminated manuscripts.

The Cammin Shrine/Casket (c.950-1030)
Viking Mammen Culture (Jutland)
National Museum of Copenhagen.

VIKINGS, also called Norsemen were
aggressive sea-farers who founded
settlements across the Atlantic, in
Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland,
Orkneys, Faeroes, Shetlands, Hebrides
and even North America. They also
raided the Seine estuary in France
and the Iberian peninsular. Vikings
also spread into Russia, giving it
their name "Rus" (read-haired), and
as far as Byzantium where they
formed the Varangian Bodyguard
of the Byzantine Emperor. See
also: History of Art Timeline.

For a review of primitive art forms
including painting, sculpture and
decorative arts, see: Ancient Art.
For other Iron age cultures,
see: Celtic Art (Hallstatt & La Tene)
as well as Celtic culture.

For definitions, meanings and
explanations of different arts,
see Types of Art.


As might be expected among a race of aggressive outdoor warriors, Viking art tends to be more functional and symbolic, rather than contemplative or expressive. And since Vikings were often moving from place to place, most Norse art consists of portable artworks, such as decorated drinking horns, body armour, pagan icons, paddles, and a wide range of objects used in daily life. That said, their wood carving and sculpture displays great inventiveness and level of skill, and Viking artists have left a rich legacy of extravagant animal ornament. Their metalworking was also of a high quality and both influenced and was influenced by Celtic metalwork art.

Early Viking art focused on jewellery and weapons, while later craftsmen are known for their silver-work and runestones. Norse art also survives in the form of small-scale ivory carving as well as works in amber, jet, bone, walrus ivory and, occasionally, wood. Significant finds of Viking art have been made at: Oseberg, Borre, Jelling, Mammen (eg. the Mammen axe, currently displayed at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen) Ringerike and Urnes.

Moving away from the visual arts, the Viking interest in riddles and rhyme led to a rich tradition of poetry and story-telling, as celebrated in Old Norse epic sagas. But perhaps the greatest Viking achievement is the longship, whose ingenuity and effectiveness have raised it almost to an art form. Fast, light, maneuverable, and flexible, the longship could be quickly beached or launched, rowed by oarsmen or sailed in any wind. Not exactly fine art, perhaps, but fine craftsmanship.

In summary, the imaginativeness and intricacy of Viking arts and crafts contrasts strongly with the other image of the pillaging barbarian. Norse craftsmen excelled in woodwork and metalwork, engraving and adorning brooches, weapons, implements, and ship timbers with a huge variety of animal forms and intricate patterns. There was hardly a material to hand which Viking craftsmen had not stopped to beautify or enhance. Examples of Norse art can be seen in museums in Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm.


Styles of Viking Norse Art (850-1050)

For the inhabitants of Scandinavia the Viking age was a period of rapid expansion, a period which lasted from the 9th to the mid 11th century. For piracy, trade, and colonization the Vikings travelled from Russia to Byzantium, from Iceland to Gibraltar. At the beginning of the 9th century factors both inside and beyond Scandinavia made the expansion possible.

Reasons For Viking Migrations Overseas

First, the population of Scandinavia rose and in the savage climate it only needed a few extra mouths to feed for small farms to become overcrowded. At the same time, the Viking ocean-going ship, the knorr, had reached a high stage of technical development which enabled men to sail to the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic.

Secondly, the break-up of Charlemagne's empire and political disorders in the British Isles left a power vacuum which the Vikings were quick to exploit. Although they seldom missed the opportunity to raid a monastery or a town, the Vikings also had peaceful motives for travel. The Swedes conducted a profitable trade with eastern Europe and even with Asia Minor, moving up and down the Volga and Dnieper rivers. This accounts for the large amounts of Arabic silver found in eastern Swedish hoards. The Norwegians left their homes to settle around the north Atlantic, on the Scottish islands, Iceland, Greenland, and even, for a short while, in north America. They established themselves in Ireland, on the Isle of Man, and in north-west England: the fusions of cultures which occurred in these areas were to have important artistic results. On the other hand, the conquest of Normandy by the Norwegian or Danish Rollo, in 911, had practically no artistic effects on Viking styles. The Danes concentrated their activities on the northern part of the Holy Roman Empire and on eastern England. Here they were granted the Danelaw by King Alfred in 878 and under King Canute (reigned 1017-35) created the joint kingdom of England and Denmark.

Impact of Religion on Viking Arts

Religion, rather than political conditions or commercial activity, had the greatest effect on Viking art. In the 9th century Scandinavia was pagan and its inhabitants worshipped pagan gods such as Odin, Thor, and Frey. They frequently, though not consistently, practised inhumation, burying their dead along with a wide variety of grave goods. A ship, either real or symbolic, was often associated with the grave, to carry a dead person on his spiritual journey. Unfortunately for archaeologists, the advent of Christianity brought an end to burial with possessions, but the Vikings continued to bury hoards of gold and silver.

Christianity made progress in Scandinavia for a variety of reasons, including the missionary efforts of such priests as Ansgar and Poppo, and the political ambitions of kings. Thus the attempts to convert Norway by King Olaf (the Saint) were closely linked to his desire to become sole ruler of the country. Denmark was converted under King Harold Bluetooth (c.980); Norway with the help of Anglo-Saxon missionaries during the 11th and 12th centuries; and Sweden, finally, in the late 12th century.

General Style of Norse Arts

Viking art can be divided into several distinct styles. They often overlap chronologically and so cannot be used for accurate dating, but they are useful when analyzing the content of a design. The styles take their names from the find-places of important objects. The approximate dates given to styles below are deduced from coins or from inscriptions that occasionally accompany finds.

Generally, Viking art is based on the abstract animal forms which flourished in northern Europe from the period of migrations (c.400) onwards. The animal style consisted of contorted, writhing snakes and beasts whose actual shape is often barely recognizable. Such designs were almost entirely devoid of plant ornament and were most frequently applied to objects in daily use, for example swords, bridles, and buckles. Some representational art is found on carved stones, but probably more once existed on tapestries or wooden carvings.

Most Viking buildings were made of wood and earth, and as such have mainly disappeared. However, excavations of the Danish military camps at Trelleborg and Fyrkat show that the Vikings could design settlements with mathematical precision. Houses themselves were long and low, with slightly convex walls made of posts and planks. They were buttressed by an additional row of inclined posts around the outside of the walls. Little is known about the architecture of the Vikings' shrines and temples.

Oseberg Ship Burial Site

The earliest Viking art emerged without a break from the traditions of the Migration period and is found, executed to an exceptionally high standard, on objects from the Oseberg ship burial (now in the University Museum of Northern Antiquities, Oslo). The grave at Oseberg in Norway (on the west side of Oslo fjord) was made some time between 800 and 850 for an important lady, perhaps a queen. She was buried with a serving maid and a wealth of everyday artifacts including a cart, four sledges, a loom, buckets, and eiderdowns. She was placed inside a small cabin in the magnificent Oseberg ship with grave goods stacked around her on deck. The grave was robbed of its precious jewellery early in its history but soil conditions preserved the wooden objects until the burial mound was excavated in 1904.

The ship itself was an elegant fjord cruiser - too low in the beam for long-distance voyages. Its stem and stern posts, terminating in spirals, are lavishly carved with interlocking animals. They have small heads, double-contoured bodies, and pierced heart-shaped hips. Another part of the ship is carved with a variation of the "gripping beast". This motif was a new feature in the 9th century, its compact form contrasting with the running ribbon animals. It is recognized by its round head, bulging eyes, snub nose, exaggerated biceps and thighs, and omnipresent gripping paws. It usually resembles a feline creature but on this occasion looks like a group of old men gripping each other's long beards.

Viking Carvers/Sculptors

Several carvers worked on the collection of objects and some have been identified as artistic personalities, for example the so-called "Academician" and the "Baroque Master" who worked in contrasting ways. The former's animal head-post is a masterpiece of restraint, its head covered with a flat, well-spaced mesh of intertwined birds, its neck completely plain with a geometric ornament at the bottom. A comparable post made by the Baroque Master is totally covered with gripping beasts, carved with a good feeling for plasticity. The bodies are arranged around a series of oval shapes which give some rhythm to the overall design. The decoration of two bed posts and a sledge runner includes an important precedent for future Viking styles: they are carved with imposing beasts in a heraldic stance, which reappear as the main motif of the Mammen style.

Metalwork from the same stage of development as the Oseberg objects is represented by finds from Broa, Gotland (now in the State Historical Museum, Stockholm). They are mainly gilt-bronze bridle mounts, a bridle bit, and sword hilt etc. Most of the animal motifs found on them can be paralleled on the Oseberg objects.

Narrative art from this period survives on a few objects; on one of the Oseberg carts, for example, a man is seen struggling with a huge nest of snakes. Some fragments of tapestry art from the burial cabin show a procession of horses and figures and a gallows scene, possibly with reference to the god Odin. In Gotland there is a whole series of related stones carved in low relief, for instance those from Tjangvide (State Historical Museum, Stockholm) and Larbro (at Bunge, Gotland). They have a curved top, indented neck, and borders decorated with interlace. Scenes from legends are placed haphazardly over most of the surface. The motif most commonly represented is a splendid ship, looking rather like the Oseberg vessel, with a spiral prow and stern, a large square sail, and a company of warriors armed for battle.


Borre Style of Viking Art

The Borre style flourished from about 840 to 980, and is named after the bridle mounts from Borre in Norway (University Museum of Northern Antiquities, Oslo). The style has three main elements, the most obvious being the ring-chain motif: a two-stranded plait whose intersections are bound by a ring. Secondly there is a type of gripping beast with a ribbon body whose claws clasp the frame in which it is placed, and finally a backward-looking quadruped with spirals on its hips and a pigtail.

The Borre style is found on jewellery throughout Scandinavia and even as far away as Russia. In Britain it can be seen on stone crosses, for example the stone of Gaut Bjornsson at Kirk Michael, Isle of Man. Gaut's ring chain, an insular variation of the Borre type, is also found on a wooden gaming board from Ballinderry, Ireland (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin). The Borre style can be roughly dated from coins in the Hon hoard which includes Borre-type jewelry-treasure buried c.860.

Jellinge Style of Viking Art

The Jellinge style (c.870-1000) is often found in conjunction with the Borre style. For example, a brooch from Odeshog, Ostergotland, has Borre interlace at its centre and typical Jellinge animals around its sides (State Historical Museum, Stockholm). The style's name is derived from a silver cup from Jelling, Jutland (National Museum, Copenhagen). Each animal has a ribbon-like body, outlined by a double contour. Its head with a long pigtail is in profile and the upper jaw extends into a lip-lappet: the creature is derived from the elongated gripping beast found at Borre.

A florid example of the style is seen on a horse collar from Sollestad, Denmark (National Museum, Copenhagen). In England, the Jellinge style is found in a strangely modified form on a series of Yorkshire crosses, for example those at Middleton and Collingham. On these the delicate ribbon interlace is rendered in a thick doughy form, probably by an Anglo-Saxon who did not fully understand the style. An interesting fusion of cultures is shown by the Gosforth cross, the result of close connections between the Vikings in Cumbria and their confederates in Ireland. Its decoration includes elements of the Borre and Jellinge styles plus figural scenes deriving from the high crosses of Ireland. The scenes are selected from both the Bible and Scandinavian legends. On the Isle of Man, at Kirk Michael, there are perfect examples of Jellinge animals with twining pigtails, found on stone crosses. Here also, the Scandinavian tradition of picture stones is fully represented with stories about Gunnar, Sigurd, and Loki. Although details of costume, for example trailing skirts and knotted hair styles, show their Scandinavian derivation, the slabs are designed differently from those on Gotland because the narrative scenes are placed on either side of the cross shaft.

Mammen Style of Viking Art

The Mammen style (c.960-1020) overlaps both in time and appearance with the Jellinge but shows a more emphatic form on the same theme. Animals have fuller bodies instead of ribbons, spirals on the hips, and often a total covering of billets: the new feature is plant-like tendrils, derived ultimately from Carolingian acanthus.

The style takes its name from an ax-head found at Mammen, Jutland, which has an inlaid wire design of a pelleted beast with spiral hips enmeshed in tendrils (National Museum, Copenhagen). A stone erected by Thorleif at Kirk Braddan, Isle of Man, is an early example of the style. He uses a combination of the Jellinge ribbon animal and the fuller, pelleted Mammen beast. Two famous caskets were made in the Mammen style, known as the Bamberg and Cammin caskets. The Bamberg Casket is in the Bayerisches National Museum, Munich; the Cammin Casket was destroyed in the Second World War but photographs of it survive. Both are squat chests, with lids that slope like roofs, made of thin panels of ivory and horn joined together by bronze bands. The panels are completely filled with pelleted beasts and tendrils while the metal bands are more simply decorated with raised animal heads.

The great stone raised by Harold Bluetooth in memory of his parents (in Jelling churchyard, Jutland) is historically the most important example of the Mammen style. It can be dated, from an inscription, to 983-5. On one face is a low-relief carving of the crucified Christ, surrounded by interlocking loops and circles: the first dated Christian monument in Scandinavia. On the other face stands a great "heraldic" beast entangled with a snake. The Jelling stone probably started a fashion for erecting carved stone memorials in Scandinavia which became more common in the 11th century.

Ringerike Style of Viking Art

The Ringerike style (c.980-1090) developed one element of the Mammen style still further: now thrusting tendrils threaten to dominate the animals they usually surround. The ragged tendrils derive ultimately from acanthus decoration in Ottonian and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, especially those of the Winchester School. The so-called Great Beast of the Jelling Stone, fighting with a snake, is often represented in the Ringerike style, the name of which comes from a group of carved stones in the Ringerike district of Norway. One vigorous example of its use is on the Vang stone, from Vang in the Valdres region of Norway, while a more refined version of the style, in metal, is shown on the Kallunge weather vane (State Historical Museum, Stockholm). On one side are the Great Beast and snake, on the other, two interlaced fighting snakes with tendrils sprouting from all parts of their bodies.


The Ringerike style flourished especially well in England during the reign of King Canute (1016-35), because there were so many Viking patrons in England and because the style was easily assimilated by artists versed in the contemporary Winchester style. In manuscripts the subtle change from Winchester acanthus to Ringerike can be seen by comparing the Harley Psalter (British Library, London; MS. Harley 2904) with a manuscript in the University Library, Cambridge (Ff I 23). In the former, acanthus ornament is lush but controlled; in the latter thinner and thrusting, forever exceeding its boundaries. A sketch in the back of the Caedmon manuscript (Bodleian Library, Oxford; MS. Jun. rr) shows a perfect combination of Winchester rosettes in a Ringerike style border. A grave slab from St Paul's churchyard, London, is one of the better renderings in stone, depicting the beast and snake in struggle, carved in low relief (Museum of London). The background was painted in blue and black while the beast was covered in white dots. The style is admirably represented in English metalwork by the weather vane found at Winchester (Winchester Cathedral Library) and by the silver disc brooch from Sutton, Isle of Ely (British Museum, London). The Ringerike style was very influential in Ireland and can be seen on such objects as the crozier of the Abbots of Clonmacnoise (c.1120) and on the book shrines of the Cathach and the Misach (both c.1090; all in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin). In England the style lost favour in the 1050s, shortly before the Norman Conquest, but it continued in Ireland until the 1120s.

Urnes Style of Viking Art

The last artistic invention of the Viking world was the Urnes style. It can be seen evolving from the Ringerike on a series of rune stones in Sweden. The series begins at Boge, Gotland, with a thick-set beast extruding tendrils like those on the Kallunge vane. Gradually the beast becomes more attenuated and elegant, as seen at Strangnas, Sodermanland, and Ardre III, Gotland.

The style takes its name from wood carvings at Urnes church, Norway. Here two techniques were used: one, a high, round relief with some threads almost 5 inches (12cm) deep but as thin as a knife edge; the other was a quieter echo of the same patterns in a low, flat relief. The motifs are a slender quadruped, a lizard-like animal with only one front and back leg, and a thin thread sometimes ending in an animal head. The forms are very sinuous and graceful, curling around each other in wide loops, and each animal can be easily distinguished from its fighting foe because they are all of varying thicknesses. At Urnes these carvings found on the doorway, gable, and two planks and a corner post, have been incorporated into a later church of c.1160.

Several high-quality examples of the style are to be found in England and Ireland where it continued to be popular long after Romanesque art had more or less become dominant in Scandinavia. The Pitney Brooch, found in Somerset though perhaps made in Scandinavia (British Museum, London) is decorated with the two-legged lizard struggling through threads. The Crozier of Bishop Rannulf Flambard of Durham (Bishop 1099-1128) is decorated with Urnes animals (Monks' Dormitory Museum, Durham). Stone sculptures in the Urnes style are found on a capital of Norwich cathedral (c.1140) and at Jevington in southern England. In Ireland the style was slightly modified so that animals are arranged in more compact, symmetrical designs, as on the Cross of Cong (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin) and on the Cashel Sarcophagus.

The coming of Romanesque art to the North considerably curtailed indigenous artistic design. Christianity required Christian architecture and for this Scandinavians were dependent on foreign examples: the countries are covered with hundreds of small, stone churches - and a few large ones - inspired by examples in the Rhineland, England, and Lombardy. Nonetheless, native forms continued in use for wood carving in the 12th and 13th centuries, while the remarkable sculpture and architecture of the Norwegian stave churches show the persistence of fighting dragon motifs well into Christian times.

Source: We gratefully acknowledge the use of material in the above article from "A History of Art" (1983), edited by Sir Lawrence Gowling.

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