Ancient Norse Art

Norse art is a broad term that encompasses the art of Scandinavian people during the Viking period and the Germanic Iron Age. The term typically applies to the Nordic Bronze Age as well. The various styles of Norse art often depicted animals and ornamental designs that have much in common with Celtic art. Norse artists liked to feature such animals as dragons, wolves, horses, and even dogs. The rich traditions of Norse mythology also figured into the art of Norse peoples.

Norse art is also characterized by its use of commonly used objects as artistic mediums. In fact, the Norse seldom created art that did not have a functional purpose. An axe might be richly carved, for example, but it could also be used. Perhaps the most famous examples of purposeful art are the Viking ships that were ornately carved. Carvings were also evident on doorways, jewelry, and tableware and artists worked with stone, wood, metal, and even bone.

As time progressed, six specific styles emerged during the Norse period of art. Often these styles shared elements and existed side by side. These six styles of Norse art are: Oseburg, Borre, Jelling, Mammen, Ringerike, and Urnes. Naturally, these styles grew out of the Nordic Bronze Age traditions that stem from Neolithic times and also feature animal carvings as well as people, but the development of art grew more sophisticated and stylized with time and possibly through trade and exploration of more distant lands.

The Oseburg style of Norse art was employed during much of the ninth century and was the culmination of Nordic Bronze Age Art—art that featured beasts most prominently. Its ornamental designs were typically repetitive in nature—branches might interlock and then repeat. The use of repetitive patterns is used in the other styles, but it is seen commonly in Celtic art as well.

The Borre and Jelling styles of the end of the ninth century and early part of the tenth century often depicted beasts with mask-like features and bodies in pretzel form. Intertwining designs became more prominent in the Jelling period that is also known for its diagonally symmetrical designs. The Mammen style of the mid to late tenth century appears to have borrowed from other European art as its lions, birds, and serpents bear similar artistic traits.

The beginning of the eleventh century witnessed the Ringerike style that also featured beasts, but is noteworthy for its designs of intricate foliage. Motifs that featured plants were used extensively during this period. The Urnes style comprised the latter half of the eleventh century and extended into the twelfth as well. Looped designs and highly stylized animals were the main elements of Urnes art. The carved doors of the Urnes Stave Church in Norway lent its name to this style of Norse art.

Some famous examples of Norse artistry include the Solvogn (a sun chariot) discovered in Denmark, the Gundestrup Cauldron of Denmark, and the Oseberg Longship. Examples of Norse Art can be viewed at prestigious museums throughout the world, but most of the famous pieces are housed in museums of Scandinavia.