In the three centuries of the Viking period the Nordic countries developed a rich and varied decorative art whose essential component was a native and traditional development of animal-ornament. In the period from 800 to 1100, however, it was stimulated by outside influences from the many lands, both in the east and west, with which the Vikings made contact. There were three principal spheres of art in western Europe able to influence the North: the Irish, the Anglo-Saxon, and the Frankish (Carolingian-Ottonian). In addition to these there was some influence – though of no great significance – from the Orient which reached the North either directly because of the connexions between Russia and Sweden, or indirectly via western Europe. Animal motifs, however, were always predominant during the Viking era; ornament based on plant-forms played only a secondary role.
THE PRE-VIKING PERIOD
before considering the development of the decorative are of the Vikings, in each of the nith, tenth, and eleventh centuries, we shall look briefly at its progress during the pre-Viking period. All the Germanic peoples shared a preference for animal-ornament in their forms of decoration. They are not alone in this: so too, indeed, did other races such as the Irish and the Scythians. The Germanic peoples of the south were never entirely dominated by this fashion, but the northern tribes practiced it intensely and constantly for half a millennium. As early as c. 700, animal-ornament was declining among the Continental Germanic peoples, but in Scandinavia it continued to flourish throughout the entire eighth century. By the beginning of the Viking era the Scandinavian artist was at the height of his skill, having achieved an extreme refinement in the practice of his art. This had reached its highest stage of development: therefore all possibilities open to the artist had been exhausted. The animal drawing – intricate, capricious, and refined – is now far removed from its prototype of the sixth and seventh centuries. Its elaboration is now on a par with that in many of the most extreme works of the contemporary Irish masters. At the same time, however, the identities of the motifs have been preserved, they have not been disintegrated as had been the fashion in the earliest phase of Teutonic animal-ornament. Each beast can be followed through – just as in Irish are – despite all its curves and twists. Much deliberation has gone into the invention of all sorts of fantastic variations of animal heads and feet. But the means the artist uses to give the pattern refinement and elegance – dividing the beast’s limbs and giving elaborate decorative emphasis to its joints – are dangerous. Since no art-style on earth has the power to stop its own development, they lead to the degeneration of animal-ornament into facile linear patterns based in turn merely on the exaggeration of such conventions. Such a development, however charming, leads, inevitably, to decline. Throughout the eighth century the style reveals its inner weakness. Only an injection of new force could save it from collapse. Such was the artistic situation in Scandinavia at the end of the eighth century. Now to the Viking Age.
Of the three spheres of Western European art with which we have seen the Viking to have been in contrast, the following characteristic must be noted. The Irish possessed a fully developed independent animal style as old as the Germanic style, but they had not allowed their designs, however intricate, to degenerate. Anglo-Saxon decorative art employed in the south of England an animal-style influenced by the Irish, and in the north a particularly fruitful motif borrowed from Syrian craftsmen who had immigrated to northern England- namely regularly curving ornament, vine-scroll with animals – either leaping, climbing, or flying – decoratively disposed within it. In adopting this Syrian design the Anglo-Saxons gradually stressed the animals more than the vine; and, in the eighth and ninth centuries, new pattern of this kind became a popular form of decoration on stone crosses and other monuments in the north of England. The third influence was Frankish. Merovingian artists of the eighth century used half-Oriental, half-barbaric animal motifs; while the Carolingians adopted classical-type naturalistic animal ornament (lions, bears, etc.) with leaf ornament (particularly acanthus), a group of motifs continuing into the Ottonian period.
Let us now look at the further progress of Scandinavian decorative art during the Viking period, century by century.
THE NINTH CENTURY
The century began with just such an infusion of new thematic material as was needed to save Scandinavian animal-ornament from decadence. The new motif was, in fact, a new animal. During the ninth century it appeared everywhere in the decorative are of the North, occurring with the richest and most surprising variations and nuances in the Norwegian wood-carvings of the Great Oseberg find. It may be asked how a single animal motif could, within a century transform the decorative tradition of three countries. Yet that is precisely what happened. The invention which achieved this result is called the ‘gripping beast’. This ‘gripping beast’ was a fantastic, composite creature, a mixture of bear, lion, dog, and goodness knows what; a fierce little troll full of vigour and animation. It was never still: its paws were always clutching either itself, a neighbouring animal, or the edges or corners of the frame. Its head was large, its eyes so round and solemn as almost to suggest that it wore spectacles; the forehead was bald, and there was long tuft of hair at the back of the head. Its body was often elongated to a thin thread. this fantastic invention seems to have captured the Viking imagination immensely, for it dominated their decorative art in the ninth century. The restless energy and mobility of the ‘gripping beast’, expressed in its ever-clutching limbs, invested it with endless possibilities from the designer’s point of view as he drew its image inside frames or cages of various shapes; and its wildness and virility were evidently qualities which keenly appealed to the Vikings. The ‘gripping beast’, then, was a versatile and regenerating force in transforming the traditional Scandinavian animal-art. It is important to stress the fact that it was a new beast which could not have developed from the old forms: this is shown by the fact that on ninth-century bronze ornaments from Gotland the new animal is placed in it own special frames, side by side – but never intermixed – with the old familiar designs.
Where did this remarkable beast come from? What seems a feasible answer to this question was offered in 1880 by the Danish scholar Sophus Muller, and subsequently endorsed by the Norwegian Haakon Shetelig and others. It is that the animal is a complete figure due to the impact upon Viking artists of the realistic Carolingian renderings of lions and other creatures. The ferocity and power of these beast took the fancy of the Northerners, who liked animals, and they proceeded to stylize the motif in their own way. Shetelig has pointed out that the characteristic frames or cages in which the ‘gripping beasts’ are presented are also found in Carolingian art. Although, as we noted above, the Gotland bronze show that to begin with the new animal motif was isolated from the old one, the Oseberg material indicates that by the middle of the ninth century it had penetrated and fused with the old, to produce by the end of the century a new style, named by archaeologists after a place called Borre near Oslo Fjord, where examples were first found. This ‘Borre animal’ retains from the old tradition the elongated animal body, though somewhat coarser; and from the ‘gripping beast’ it has borrowed the clutching paws and the mask-like head. what is significant about the new style is it uninhibited vigour, sometimes even a roughness of surface; the earlier refinement is abandoned in favour of a robust and barbaric expression. thus did the ‘gripping beast’ play havoc with the decorative fauns of Nordic art.
viking artists were rather unresponsive to plants and flowers as a basis of decoration; not yet aware of their beauties, they went for animals almost every time. Nevertheless they do appear to have seen possibilities in the Carolingian handling of classical plant forms, especially the acanthus. The tree-lobed golden brooch from Hon in Norway, brought home by a Norwegian Viking, was a master-piece of Carolingian goldsmith’s work – and it was completely covered with luxuriant acanthus. Such revelations as this induced Viking metal-workers to try their hand at similar decorations on three-lobed and oblong brooches, but with little success. Their stiff and clumsy copies of floral motifs soon gave was again to their old favourites, the animals. They did better in their efforts to copy the Carolingian vine-pattern designs in filigree, usually silver; but here too, the animals intruded.
THE TENTH CENTURY
The Borre style continued in the tenth century, but a new influence had the effect that the dominant motif became a ribbon-shaped animal figure, harmoniously drawn in the shape of an S, often symmetrically croosing another beast of the same shape. The head with the tuft at the back (now dog-like) is displayed in profile, The origin of this new influence is disputed, but I have no doubt that the ‘Jelling animal’, named after the little silver goblet found at Jelling in Jutland on which it appears, is of Irish inspiration. Most probably the ‘Jelling style’ arose from the long and intimate association of the Norwegians with Ireland. I cannot accept the theory, sometimes advanced, that this style is a revival of eighth-century Scandinavian art, to which it bears no resemblance. This Jelling style, with its ribbon-shaped animal, must not be confused with the ornamentation found on the Greater Jelling Stone mentioned earlier, the splendid monument which King Harald Bluetooth raised in Jelling over his parents. This famous rune-stone is three-sided; most of the inscription is carved on its largest side between horizontal lines as in a manuscript; one side bears a figure of Christ, and one a large animal – a fine ornamental ‘lion’, its mane and tail adorned with leaves, and a snake coiled about its body and throat. This great Jelling lion, related to beasts on Swedish rune-stones of around 1000, is evidently inspired by English art (as are the floral motifs on the same stone). ‘The great animal’ festooned with interlaced ornament derives from Anglo-Saxon art, from the ‘Anglian beasts’ of the stone crosses of northern England.
THE ELEVENTH CENTURY
The great lion of Jelling seems to have established the predominant design for decorative art throughout the remainder of the Viking period. It appears again and again in various sizes; on rune-stones in eastern Sweden; in wood on a stave-church in western Norway (Urnes); in bone, on carved treasure chests; in metal, on Swedish and Norwegian bronze weather-vanes and on personal adornments of silver and bronze, It is a leading motif of eleventh-century Scandinavian art. During this century the Viking artists seem more sympathetic than before to plant-ornament, as the beautiful Norwegian rune-stones of the ‘Ringerike group’ reveal. On these the motifs are acanthus and bunches of long leaves rolled up at the points and arranged overall in an oddly bristling or whirling pattern. There is scarcely any doubt that this design shows influence from southern-English art, as it is seen in the illuminated manuscripts of the Winchester School. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, too, there are to be found English influences upon Viking art in the eleventh century, a circumstance probably due (as Holmqvist suggests) to the extensive English ecclesiastical activity in Scandinavian animal-ornament, before it was decisively replaced by the flora and fauna of Romanesque are, can be seen in the ‘great lion’, with its network of lines and vines, carved on the late east-Swedish rune-stones, or on the beautiful wooden door frame now set in the little stave-church at Urnes in western Norway. With this we take out leave of Viking decorative art.
Apart from decorative are the Viking period also produced fine figure art – of which we have several examples, large and small. The themes of these were largely taken from myths and heroic tales, and sometimes even from recent history. The following examples are derived partly from the three Northern countries, partly from their foreign colonies.
An important group is constituted by the large carved an painted memorial stones from Gotland. One of them, the Lillbjars stone, depicts a large rider, no doubt the deceased, riding to Valhalla; a fine, severe representation in which the proud motion of the horses is particularly well depicted. The Larbro stone is a typical example of those grave-stones of Gotland nobles. At the base is the dead warrior’s longship, its armed crew manning the rails and holding the ropes, and its steersman, higher up in the stern, handling the long steering oar. The square sail is taut as the high-stemmed vessel breasts the foaming waves which, as one sees better on other stones of this type, are skilfully formed by elegant spirals. Many of the Gotlandic carved stones of the Viking period depict this most treasured possession of the Viking as, in brilliant sunshine, it glides over the waves; it is as typical of these later stones as is the circular ornamentation on top of the older, pre-Viking, Gotlandic stones. The ship on the Largo stone has, in fact, nothing to do with the actions depicted on the three upper sections of the stone. The top section, a great semi-circular field, shows a battle in progress; the sky is swarming with eagles and men. On the right a warrior is pitching off his horse, and on the left, in a building, two sword-bearing men seem to be pledging an oath together. The middle section shows Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipni, across which the body of a man is lying; and to the left walk three men each holding before him a sword pointing down towards the ground. The third section displays a proud rider (the deceased evidently) followed by his men, arriving at the gates of Valhalla where he is welcomed by a man with a drinking horn. The purport of the Larbro picture-stone, therefore, is to show, first of all, at the foot, the customary emblem of nobility, the longship; and above it the dead hero’s end on the battlefield (where Odin is aiding him) and his final arrival at Valhalla.
Other Gotlandic picture-stones portray mythical scenes and episodes, such as those we know from the Edda, and other Old Norse literary sources: Odin riding Sleipni; Thor fishing for the Midgard serpent with a bull’s head for bait; Volund’s (Weland, as he is known to English literature) smithy, and Volund himself in his feathered skin; Loki and his wife Signa. not all these picture-stones, however, can be interpreted, partly because some of the myths they portray are not known to us from other sources, and partly because we cannot tell whether real scenes and exploits from the dead man’s glorious life are being shown.
Another group of picture-stones are the crosses, already mentioned, of the Isle of Man, on which Celtic and Norwegian pagan and Christian influences are combined.
There are, here and there in Scandinavia, other survivals of their pictorial art, engraved on stone, cut in wood, and woven in textiles. Some of these have already been referred to, but the following may be named here. At Ramsundsberg in Sodermanland, Sweden the heroic story of the slaying of Fafni is depicted, in a naive, but most lucid way, within an oval ribbon – which at the same time represents the dragon Fafni and contains the runes, From left to right we see the dead smith, Regin, his decapitated head lying among his blacksmith’s tools (hammer, tongs, anvil, bellows); the hero Sigurd cooking Fafni’s heart and putting his finger in his mouth (turning at the same time to the birds in the tree, for he now understands their language); Sigurd’s horse tethered to the tree, with the two birds at the top; and, finally, the great deed itself – Sigurd thrusting his sword through the body of the dragon. The Alstad and Dynna stones in south Norway show respectively a chieftain hawking, and the Three Wise Men. The Altuna rune-stone in Uppland, Sweden, the Hordum stone in north Jutland, the cross-fragment at Gosforth in Cumberland, all illustrate (though in difference styles) Thor’s fantastic attempt to fish up the Midgard serpent itself. There are also the carvings on the famous carriage from Oseberg, bearing two versions of the tale of Gunnar in the snake pit, and the Oseberg tapestry, with its coloured pictures of horsemen, warriors, carts, and weapons, and Odin’s holy tree with men sacrificed by hanging dangling from the branxhes.
We know from Scandinavian literary sources that it was the Viking custom to paint figures on shields and to decorate the great hall with tapestries and paintings. There is similar evidence of great wood carvings as well, e.g. Adam of Bremen’s famous account of the three statues of gods in the heathen temple of Old Uppsala. Statuettes of silver, bronze, and amber (some of them certainly figures of gods, Frey, for example) may well be small reproductions, used as amulets, of a now lost sculpture of great dimensions.
The favourite themes for pictorial art among the Vikings – whether in painting, carving, or weaving – seems to have been taken from the myths and heroic tales. Especially popular were such incidents as Odin’s fight with the wolf, Fenri, and with the giant, Thjazi; Thor’s feats against the giants and his fishing of the Midgard Serpent; the cremation of Baldr; Gefjon ploughing with her oxen; the tale of Weland; Sigard slayer of Fafni’ gunnar in the snake pit. And there remain many representations we cannot interpret. No doubt certain stylized forms became significant and well-known symbols of particular stories: a man surrounded by serpents stands for Gunnar; a man spearing a dragon, Sigurd; a man fishing with a bull’s head as a bait, Thor, etc.
Did the Vikings ever depict contemporary or recent events? It is conceivable, for instance, that the splendid scenes on the Gotlandic stones represent the feats of the dead man? This is not an easy question to answer. Some scholars declare that such action would be completely alien to the Norse mind. It seems to me, although I can produce no proof, that it is not an impossible idea. I wrote a little earlier that the themes of Viking pictorial art included recent history. I had in mind the Bayeux Tapestry made in the latter part of the eleventh century to commemorate the glories of the French-Norman/Conquest-Crusade of 1066. Of course French-Norman women were not Viking women, yet French-Normandy had been a Viking colony created only 150 years before the French-Norman/Conquest-Crusade. Therefore it may be suggested that since the idea of celebrating contemporary achievements in art was accepted in French-Normandy around 1070, it may not have been wholly foreign to the Vikings in their homelands at the same time. However, it must be admitted that the parallel is not a close one. The Bayeux Tapestry is an expression of a foreign feudal system (which needed to be brought in with the invasions of the Vikings and the break down of government and was used by the French-Normans to govern England) very different from the Norse way of life. A French-Norman duke was a monarch more absolute than a Viking king (the French-Norman duke was a vassal to the king of France). In French-Normandy the people were suppressed by a despotic duke who created around him a complaisant and obedient court. Scandinavian traditions in French-Normandy had been intermingled with alien feudal customs, so we had better pursue no further the hypothesis provoked by the Bayeux Tapestry (created by English needle women in Canterbury). Yet if we turn from one Viking art to another – from pictorial art to skald verse – we observe a remarkable phenomenon. It was very acceptable to an earl or chief to be praised by the skald for his glorious exploits; and it seems but a short step from this practice to that of painting or carving the exploits of someone recently dead, or even still alive, on a gravestone or on the wall of the great hall.