The first thing that pops into our mind when we say Vikings certainly isn't art. Warfare, shipbuilding – yes, but art is undoubtedly far down the list of things that we associate with the Viking age.
Nevertheless, Vikings were only people, and as any other nation, they had a rich art history of which they were proud. Today, we will tell you a bit about the six styles of Viking art.
The Six Styles of Viking art
Just like in any other culture, the Viking art styles went through several phases. The most important ones happened between the 8th and 12th centuries and are commonly known as "the six styles of Viking art."
1. Oseberg Style
Since Oseberg was the first style Vikings used, it is no wonder that the other five kept some aspects of it. But there is one particular thing that may help you distinguish Oseberg by taking only one look. Whether it was a boat or a weapon, the gripping beast's motif was an indispensable part of any Viking age object from the Oseberg period.
Some of you may wonder, how in the world could Vikings think about naming art styles, given everything else they were doing at the time. And you would be right – they didn't.
Oseberg was named much later. It was during the early 20th century when two archeologists were working on a site near the Oseberg farm in Norway when they discovered huge parts of a medieval burial ship.
It happened to be what we know today as the Oseberg ship.
And although archeologists can't agree upon whether or not it was used as a ship burial, one thing we know for sure – the Oseberg ship is one of the best-preserved objects from the Viking age.
However, it is essential not to confuse Oseberg with Broa style. They might share several similarities, but Broa style was only a transitioning period between Oseberg and Borre.
2. Borre Style
Although it may be the first one, no one says that Oseberg lasted long in its pure form. It was only several decades later when it started to get some aspects of Borre. The gripping beast remained the main element of Viking arts, but several new details came with Borre.
For example, decorations were getting more and more complex, and they consisted of many chained patterns. Yet, it wasn't the complexity that made the Borre style stand out from the others – it was geometry.
Borre's primary purpose was to fill in the empty spaces around the central motif, to accentuate it, and yet remain flawless in its execution.
3. Jelling Style
During the early 10th century, Vikings realized they needed to find a way to make their everyday objects really stand out from the rest of the world.
Their style was getting more and more refined, and Viking drawings from that period testify it. It was time for Oseberg to pack its bags and leave for the Jelling style to settle in. Although both styles were based on portraying beastly animals, and their approach to drawing was the same, Jelling's execution was much more precise.
4. Mammen Style
Just like its artistic antecedents, the Mammen style got its name from an archeological site where its most important artifact was discovered.
During the excavation of King Harald Bluetooth's grave somewhere near Mammen, Denmark, archeologists found much more than fabric, jewelry, and human remains.
It was where the famous Mammen axe was discovered. And although at first glance may seem to us that this simple weapon wasn't very important, the Mammen ax itself tells the story of this Viking style, making it a priceless piece of Norsemen heritage.
5. Ringerike Style
During the Mammen phase, animals that Vikings were portraying on the objects were getting a more and more peaceful look. It was during the Ringerike style that they got their finishing touches. Drawings of animals got curvier and were often associated with motifs from runes.
6. Urnes Style
In the late 11th and early 12th century, Vikings were already in the process of Christianization. But did it mean accepting everything Christians brought with them and forgetting about their old habits?
Well, the answer is simple.
That process wasn't about forgetting. It was about combining what they' learned to what they already knew. During that process, the Urnes style took over.
This remarkable phase in Vikings art history was named after a Norwegian village called Urnes, where an enormous stave church was found. It is decorated with both Christian and Norsemen ornaments, and it is probably the oldest stave church in Norway.
The Features of Viking Art
When it comes to some distinctive features of Viking age art, the important one is the material. The most often material used in the making of Norse art is – you guessed it – wood.
The main reason for using wood so much is its abundance in northern Europe. The second important thing is that wood is relatively easy to carve, and because of that, it is a perfect artistic medium.
With the expansion of Christianity came the change in artistic material and stone took over as the primary material used by Viking artists. This could be seen in Jelling in Denmark, where the royal monuments are made of stone.
The last but not least important artistic material is metal. Most of today's research regarding Viking artwork comes from their metalwork. For example, Viking age jewelry was very important and was worn by both men and women.
Of course, men and women wore different types of jewelry.
Married women fastened their overdresses with a pair of big brooches. Because of its domed look, the archeologists called them "tortoise brooches." Of course, every region had its own distinctions, but they were usually based on openwork.
Men, of course, wore rings. Rings were worn on fingers, necks, and arms. Arm rings were very important for Vikings tradition since having one meant entering a lord's service and becoming an integral part of Viking society. For jewelry, Vikings usually used silver and bronze, but there was a lot of gold in some more luxurious findings.
Many metallic pieces were found in the graves of Vikings since their burying practices involved grave goods, which were used as a gift for the deceased in the afterlife. Aside from the goods, the deceased themselves were dressed in their finest robes, including a lot of jewelry, all of it to be carried into the afterlife.
Also, many of the recent Norse art findings came from hidden goods that were intended to be recovered later, but the owner, for some reason, never showed up to collect his treasure. Although, this could be a case of offering to the gods, in which case to remove it would be considered sacrilege.
In recent times, metal detecting did a lot to help Norse art investigation since many objects were found this way. This encompasses mostly Viking coins, which can be some form of art given that their design had to be created.
As you can see, almost every Viking art style was visual and involved carving and jewelry making. There were also some other forms of art such as a bit of painting and poetry, but they were nowhere near as important for the Viking world as carving.
How did the Vikings Affect the Art World?
During the mid 19th century, German composer Richard Wagner paid homage to Vikings and their mythology in his capital work "The Ring of the Nibelung." The story of this cycle of music dramas revolves around a dwarf called Alberich and his obsession with a ring that could give its owner incredible power. These operas eventually inspired an English academic John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, to write his famous fantasy books: "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit."
Apart from classical music, Vikings found their place in many heavy metal songs. The influence of their warlike nature was, in fact, so strong that it eventually evolved into a unique genre called Viking metal.
Moreover, Norse mythology still continues to instill today's popular culture.
Legends from Prose and Poetic Edda found their foothold in many comics, books, mangas, movies, and TV shows. For example, during the early 2000s, Marvel Comics published a famous comic book called Ragnarok, which Marvel Studios eventually turned into a movie.
And how could we possibly forget about Michael Hirst's television show "Vikings"?
And although though most of these works of art might not be historically accurate, it is important that they exist and remind the audience of the greatness of Viking age warriors.
As you can see, Vikings' lives, mythology, and art were so special and unique that it would be impossible not to find inspiration in it. They managed to impress artists for decades after their existence and therefore make sure they will never be forgotten.
Their art history is something we cannot underestimated and look down upon, for it is still an essential part of our society, whether we see it or not. So, instead of visiting your favorite local museum, try to find one that could give you a better understanding of Viking art styles...
...or simply take a horn of mead and find out more about it online, like the rest of us, modern Vikings.