Classifications of Viking Art


Lesson 18 – Viking Art: Decorating Useful Objects.

Note: [If you have not done so already, check out last week’s lesson. Visit “Viking History” on my blog to view all of the lessons.]

Komiði sæl og blessuð, vinir,

We have already seen that “Vikings” were incredibly crafty, but now we shall focus on their actual art form. Their art was not like our standard for art today (though, that standard, in all honesty, can be rather low). By that, I mean to say that they did not simply “waste” their creation by sticking it on a wall. They used their art, and, in some ways, their art made those objects more powerful.

Art may not seem to be important when studying the “Vikings,” but classifying art still has its importance. One benefit of this practice is that it helps establish a chronology. Yet, most importantly, art and artistic styles show us their mentality and influences – who they interacted with and took inspiration from. Their art tells a story, one that was originally inspired by Celtic art, but then moved to a “Scandinavian” style, until eventually integrating Christian elements. Art tells a story as we trace it through time.

My conversation of each art style will be rather basic, with at least one example for each style. This is not meant to be a cohesive study on the matter, but a general insight into their art. Before we begin, I would like to mention that “Zoomorphic Art” is a form of art that uses animal-like forms and motifs. Also, this lesson is more focused on the images than on textual explanation. Do not worry yourself with remembering the subtle differences between styles. If anything, just enjoy the interesting, lavishly decorated objects.

1. Zoomorphic Art: Oseburg Style (Style “E”).
2. Zoomorphic Art: “Borre” Style.
3. Zoomorphic Art: Jelling Style.
4. Zoomorphic Art: Mammen Style.
5. Zoomorphic Art: Ringerlike Style.
6. Zoomorphic Art: Urnes Style.
7. Narrative Art

Oseburg Style (Style “E”)

Date Range: Late 8th century – 9th century.

As a zoomorphic art form, animals are a common motif for this style. This style, the earliest of the “Viking” set of art forms, reveals gripping beasts with triangular, tapered bodies. The space in which they art filled was full, leaving very little empty space. This results in very elaborate and detailed artwork.


Oseburg Ship Detail (from where one name for the style originates):

“Borre” Style

Date Range: ca. 850 – 970.

This style was the most Scandinavian in nature. It was also the most widely spread. This style rises alongside the very height of the Viking Age, and thus gives us no surprise that it is the most Scandinavian and widespread of the art styles we are discussing. It was also the last fully pagan period for their art style.

This style features tightly interlaced, ribbon like beasts, often singular and without multiple other animals lacing around it (but not always). These animals had pretzel-shape, or ribbon-like, bodies.


Bronze Pendant from Hedeby:

Jelling Style

Date Range: mid-10th century.

This art style, emerging during the early phases of Christianization in Scandinavia, features ribbon-like animals. Unlike the Borre style, these animals have “S” shapes, versus the pretzel shape. This style is much more spacious and open than previous ones.


King Gorm’s Cup, ca. 958:

Mammen Style

Date Range: late 10th century.

This style still features ribbon-like animals (this aspect really sticks, doesn’t it?), yet the bodies of these animals are much more substantial. They are filled with figures twisting around. By this time, Christian motifs had begun to work their way into the styles, such as the motif of the lion and the snake.


Mammen Axe:

Jelling Stone (still Mammen, just located at Jelling):

Ringerlike Style

Date Range: ca. 990-1050.

This style is very similar to Mammen, but tighter and featuring more tendril designs. As earlier styles had Celtic influence, this style has more Anglo-Saxon influence (partly due to their experience abroad in places featuring these styles, such as England). This style truly demonstrated the syncretism between the Scandinavian pagan styles and the new Christian styles they were incorporating. Thus, this art reveals some of the first patterns for consistent evidence of conversion. Of course, not all works of the Ringerlike Style were Christian.


Sigurðr Runestone:

Urnes Style

Date Range: 1040-1110.

Many may criticize this style curly because it was the least “traditional” of the Viking styles. By that I mean to say it was the most influenced by Christian elements. Yet, it is foolish to reject such a beautiful style for such petty reasons, for this style is a careful blend; one does not conquer the other. For this is truly the final phase of Viking art.

This style features intricate animals interweaving, as we have seen throughout these styles. The animals have chunky bodies, as we began to see in the Mammen style. Everything is curvy and asymmetrical, balancing instead around a system of thinly laced ribboning. This style was most often featured in wood carving, especially on stave churches. Yet, runestones and metalwork also featured this style. Romanesque art would replace this (and this is the true shame, I must say).


Urnes Stave Church Portal (Entrance):

Narrative Art

This post is already terribly long, but I could not possibly leave out this type of art. This art form is essentially storytelling through pictures, as we have actually already seen with the Sigurðr Runestone. The best example of this art form, though, would be the Gotland Picture Stones (dates ranging from the 5th to 11th centuries). The Stone from Ardre is also a good example (seen below), dating from the 8th-9th century. This stone features Óðinn and Sleipnir as well as Þórr. In short, this art form often depicts mythological stories and figures. Yet, these works are also not often very clear. Ships are also extremely popular motifs for this style. Nearly all of these things I have told of the Narrative Art form is seen on the Ardre Runestone:


In short, there is quite a lot to Viking Art. Yet, as the title of this lesson suggests, every object they placed their art upon had a specific function. Ships, jewelry, cups, axes, storytelling stones, buildings, memorials, and so forth. Art was integrated into life. It was not its own sphere, but rather a natural element of every object. Art gave objects more meaning – more power. They conveyed wealth, culture, and history. 

I hope you all enjoyed this lesson!

Skál og ferð vel.

Next Week’s Lesson: Lesson 19 – Viking Warfare.

Sources and Notations:

[Gen.] Jennifer Dukes-Knight, “Crafts, Art, and Weaponry,” Lecture, Viking History, University of South Florida, 2015. || I had little extra input to make this lesson (again), so there are clearly a lack of notations this time. If there is any aspect of this lesson that you would like more detail, send me an ask and I shall research it for you.

[Fig.1] “Oseberg Ship – Detail,” via Maraire on Flickr. (link)

[Fig.2] “Bronze pendant from Hedeby (Haithabu).” by Cassiopeia via Wikipedia Commons. (link)

[Fig.3] “Gorm’s Silver Cup,” via Green, J. R. (1902) A Short History of the English People from the Wikipedia Commons. (link)

[Fig.4] “Viking Axe from Mammen,” via the National Museum of Denmark. (link)

[Fig.5] “Lion Runestone at Jelling,” via Sven Rosborn from the Wikipedia Commons. (link)

[Fig.6] “Sigurdsristningen,” by Ann-Sofi Cullhed via Wikipedia Commons. (link)

[Fig.7] “Urnes Portal,” by Nina Aldin Thune (?) via Wikipedia Commons. (link).

[Fig.8] “Ardre Runestone,” From Ardre Parish, Gotland, Sweden. Now at the National Historical Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo via Wikipedia Commons. (link)

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