The Vikings, fierce seafarers, and warriors from the North have etched their names in the annals of history, commanding both fear and awe. Yet, there is more to them than just their legendary exploits at sea and in battle. These Scandinavian denizens were also artisans and creators, leaving behind a rich tapestry of art that beautifully captures their worldview and cultural ethos.
In our quest to answer the question, “Did Vikings have ancient drawings?” we uncover a fascinating narrative of Viking artistic expressions, a unique blend of form and function that transcended mere representation and became integral to their daily life. This journey takes us deep into the realm of Norse and Viking art, offering us an illuminating peek into their existence beyond battles and voyages. From intricate carvings on rune stones to the ornate patterns on their everyday tools and weapons, the Vikings told stories, revered their gods, and immortalized their heroes in ways that still captivate us today. So, brace yourself as we set sail into the captivating world of Viking art, a testament to a civilization that continues to fascinate historians, artists, and culture enthusiasts alike.
Introduction to Norse and Viking Art
The term “Viking” conjures images of seafaring warriors from the North. More than mere fighters, these Norse men and women were explorers, settlers, and artists. The artistic legacy they left behind—under the umbrella term of “Norse art”—is filled with intricate patterns and designs, shaping our understanding of Viking culture and civilization. Yet, the idea of Vikings leaving behind drawings in the modern sense may be a bit misleading, as their artistic expressions were quite different.
A Unique Medium: The Language of Viking Art History
Traditional Nordic art, including Viking art, primarily existed in the form of carvings, sculpture, metalwork, jewelry, and manuscript illumination. However, the term “old Viking paintings” or “ancient Viking paintings” might be a misnomer since Vikings did not create paintings in the sense we understand today—on canvas with oil or acrylic. Instead, their ‘paintings’ took the form of intricate carvings and colorings on various mediums such as wood, bone, stone, and metal, akin more to relief sculptures than flat paintings.
Styles and Motifs in Traditional Nordic Art
The Viking era, approximately 793 AD to 1066 AD, is traditionally divided into several distinct art periods, each showcasing different stylistic elements and motifs. These include the Oseberg style (c. 750 – 850 AD), the Borre style (c. 850 – 950 AD), the Jellinge style (c. 900 – 975 AD), the Mammen style (c. 950 – 1000 AD), the Ringerike style (c. 1000 – 1050 AD), and the Urnes style (c. 1050 – 1150 AD).
The Oseberg Style
The Oseberg style is characterized by its extravagant depictions of animals, with the Great Beast motif being particularly significant. Named after the famous Oseberg Ship burial, this style features ribbon animals that are gripping, biting, and interlacing with each other.
The Borre Style
The Borre style, named after a group of bronze bridle mounts from Borre in Norway, employs gripping beasts and ring chains, filling a rounded space with symmetry and harmony. It serves as an essential link between the earlier and later Viking art styles.
The Jellinge Style
The Jellinge style introduces the use of schematic animal figures, which are often seen in silhouettes against a light background. Named after the runestones at Jelling, Denmark, this style reflects a transition towards more intricate patterns and designs.
The Mammen Style
This style, named after the Mammen axe from a grave in Denmark, became known for its depiction of complex beasts and intertwined motifs. The figures are highly stylized, often characterized by a mix of animal and plant motifs, resulting in an ornate and flowing design.
The Ringerike Style
The Ringerike style takes its name from the Ringerike district North of Oslo, Norway. It’s characterized by its distinctively large, curvilinear, vine-like tendrils, plant spirals, and intricate animal forms, often placed within geometric shapes.
The Urnes Style
The Urnes style, named after the Urnes stave church in Norway, marks the last phase of Viking art. This style is characterized by its slim, stylized animal forms interlacing and overlapping, creating a complex, intricate design. It marks a stylistic transition into the Romanesque style that followed in the Middle Ages.
Materials and Techniques in Viking Art
Viking artistry was heavily influenced by the materials available to them, which determined the techniques they employed. For a culture that was closely tied to the sea, it’s not surprising that a significant amount of Viking art utilized materials such as wood, bone, ivory, and even walrus tusks.
Wood was an abundantly available resource in Scandinavia for constructing ships, buildings, and everyday objects. Notable examples of wooden Viking art include the ornate carvings found on the Oseberg ship burial, which showcases intricate animal and geometric motifs. Wood’s natural flexibility and durability make it an ideal medium for intricate carvings.
Ivory and bone, often from sea mammals such as whales and walrus, were favored for intricate small-scale works like chess, combs, and elaborate boxes. The Lewis Chessmen, a group of distinctive 12th-century chess pieces discovered in Scotland, are perhaps the most famous examples of Viking art crafted from walrus ivory.
Vikings were also master metalworkers, creating intricate jewelry, weapons, and religious objects from iron, silver, bronze, and gold. Their technique of overlaying precious metals on iron, known as ‘Niello,’ was particularly renowned. The use of punch-work, filigree, and granulation in their metalworks resulted in visually striking patterns and designs.
Textile art was another domain of Viking craftsmanship. The Vikings were skilled weavers, creating complex designs using a technique called tablet weaving. Though rare, remnants of richly decorated Viking textiles have been found in burial sites.
In the end, the variety and diversity of materials and techniques employed in Viking art highlight their ingenuity and adaptability. Despite the limitations of their environment, the Vikings were able to craft an artistic language that was not unique but also visually stunning, carving their cultural identity into the annals of history with every stroke, cut, and weave.
The Depiction of Viking Mythology and Religion in Art
Viking mythology and religion were central to their art, as these complex belief systems permeated every aspect of their lives. Norse gods, goddesses, and mythological creatures are frequently featured in their art, serving as a potent reminder of the spiritual and symbolic dimensions of Viking culture.
The Vikings believed in a pantheon of deities, with gods like Odin, Thor, and Freyr holding prominent places. Scenes from their mythology are captured in various mediums. For instance, Thor’s fishing trip, where he attempts to catch the Midgard Serpent, is a popular motif found on various runestones and metalwork.
Symbols related to their faith also prominently feature in their art. The Valknut, a sign consisting of three interlocked triangles, is associated with Odin, and the afterlife is frequently found in burial sites. Similarly, the Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer, is a recurring motif in jewelry, representing protection.
A vivid depiction of their mythological worldview is found in the imagery on the Gosforth Cross in England. This monumental stone cross combines Christian and Norse symbolism, including scenes from Ragnarök, the prophesied end of the world in Norse mythology.
Still, the Norse religion was not static, and their art reflects the transition from pagan beliefs to Christianity around the end of the Viking Age. The Jelling Stones in Denmark, erected by King Harald Bluetooth, illustrate this shift, with one stone famously depicting a Christ figure, marking the country’s official conversion to Christianity.
Thus, Viking art served as a visual narrative of their spiritual beliefs and religious evolution. Through their artistry, the Vikings immortalized their gods and heroes, and the tales of their mythology continue to enthrall us, providing a window into their understanding of the cosmos and their place within it. The symbols and scenes they chose to depict speak volumes about their values, fears, hopes, and the profound reverence they held for the divine.
Famous Viking Artists
The artists’ anonymity is one of the intriguing aspects of Viking art. Unlike in modern times when artists sign their work, or in medieval times when monks recorded who was responsible for illuminated manuscripts, most Viking art is anonymous, created by nameless artists whose individual identities are lost to time.
Nevertheless, a few artists managed to leave their names behind, mainly in runestone carvings, the most widespread surviving form of Viking art. We have artists like Asmund Kareson, who left his mark in Uppland, Sweden. His work stands out for the artistic ornamentation and the runic inscriptions he carved on several stones, including the famous U 875.
Another Viking-era artist, albeit a bit controversial, is Torgöt Fotskälm, one of the few runemasters whose work is found on both sides of the Baltic. He’s renowned for his work on the Gävle 1 Runestone in Gästrikland, Sweden.
In the realm of metalwork, we find references to Master TW or Þórrvirkr, an artist whose name is inscribed on molds found at the archaeological site of Trendgården, Denmark. Although his actual works haven’t survived, the molds provide a glimpse of his craft.
These examples illustrate a paradox in understanding Viking artists. Despite the robust artistic culture they fostered, very few Viking artists are known to us today; their identities dissolved into the broader tapestry of the Viking world. Nevertheless, their legacy lives on in the artifacts they left behind—each stone, each carving, and each piece of metalwork stands as a testament to their skill, creativity, and the timeless aesthetic of Viking art.
Beyond Scandinavia: Influence of Norse Art
The Vikings were not just warriors and seafarers but also traders, explorers, and settlers. Their extensive journeys and interactions with diverse cultures resulted in the wide dispersion of Viking art beyond their Scandinavian homelands. This influence can be observed in various corners of the medieval world, marking the Vikings as significant cultural contributors on a global scale.
In the British Isles, Viking influence can be seen in the Danelaw regions, where Viking settlers integrated their artistic styles with local traditions. The Gosforth Cross in Cumbria, England, is one such example where traditional Christian symbolism is combined with Norse mythological themes. This amalgamation reflects the syncretism of Norse and Christian cultures during the Viking Age.
In Eastern Europe, especially in regions where the Varangians (Viking-age Scandinavian seafarers) were active, the influence of Norse art is evident. Notable examples include the silver dirhams from the Middle East found in Scandinavian hoards, reflecting their extensive trading networks and their capacity to absorb and transform artistic styles from far-flung regions.
Even in North America, where Vikings are believed to have set foot, Norse influence can be seen. The most prominent example is the Norse settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. While direct artistic artifacts are scarce, the architectural style of the settlement bears the unmistakable mark of Norse culture.
Overall, the influence of Norse art traversed geographical boundaries, showcasing the extent of Viking reach and the adaptability of their art forms. This far-reaching influence underscores the remarkable fluidity of Viking art, marking it as a vital element in the broader tapestry of global cultural history.
Conclusions: Appreciating the Aesthetic of Viking Art
Although we might not find ancient Viking paintings in the way we traditionally understand paintings, the Viking era gave birth to a rich array of artwork that provides invaluable insights into their culture, religion, and lifestyle. The study of these artistic remnants—whether it’s ornate jewelry, intricate stone carvings, or decorated weapons—helps historians reconstruct the vibrant, diverse, and complex world of the Vikings. Their art, immortalized in the very fabric of their everyday items, speaks volumes of their ethos and worldview, testifying to the profound cultural significance of the Vikings in shaping the medieval world.
From the ornate designs of the Oseberg style to the intricate patterns of the Urnes style, Viking art history is a testament to this historical period’s cultural richness and complexity. Its influence stretches far beyond the Scandinavian peninsula, reminding us that the Vikings were warriors, sailors, skilled artists, and artisans whose aesthetic legacy continues to inspire us today.
So, even if we do not find ancient drawings in the sense of detailed figurative representations on flat surfaces, we discover a wealth of artistry that is distinctively Viking in its character and scope, each artifact a chapter in the annals of Nordic history.