2000 Years Of Art History
The place of Viking art in history
2000 years of art history: From Ancient Rome, through the Middle Ages, via the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Empire periods, and into our Modern Age
The Viking age happened in the high-middle ages. This notorious time of raids, plunder and explorations of ruthless Viking warriors from Scandinavia started in 793, and ended in the late 11th century. Of course, the Vikings knew how to brandish a sword and axe before that, but it was some remarkable progress in ship building technology among the Scandinavians that facilitated the seaborne expansion of the Vikings.
The pagan Vikings would appear suddenly in their long ships, with a carved dragon‘s head placed at the tip of the stern, and in a swift operation rush into plunder and pillaging. During these three hundred years of the Viking age, this caused a near collapse of some of the Christian societies of Northwestern Europe.
The Vikings were also skilled artisans
But the Vikings weren‘t just ruthless warriors, thirsty for blood, silver and gold. They were also skillful craftsmen and artisan. During the bloody Viking age, their artisans did also create works of great beauty. Their artisans created works in their own, unique Viking art styles. In terms of form and composition, despite the alleged ruthless and blood thirsty character of the Vikings, these works were even more sophisticated and elegant than much of the works that were being created for the kings and queens in more southern lands of Europe at the same time.
The Vikings were glamorous and very clean
The fact is that the Vikings were quite glamorous. Vikings who became wealthy, for instance because of their share of the wealth gathered in successful Viking expeditions but also sometimes because of profitable trade, liked to show their wealth by wearing opulent, colorful clothes, and expensive jewellery. The Vikings were also among the cleanest people of their time (or at least when they were home and not crammed together for weeks onboard a Viking ship or sweating their brow during difficult and dangerous raids). They preferred to bathe every week. They washed their hair quite frequently, using special shampoo they made from ingredients that I refrain to discuss further. They also practiced careful grooming practices. Hair combs are among the most common find in Viking age grave finds, and razors, tweezers and even ear spoons are known as well. The day of Saturday, named after the Roman god Saturn in English, is named Lördag in Swedish, or laugardagur in Icelandic/Old Norse, which simply means „bath day“ or „pool day“. This fact reflected that they preferred to bathe once a week, while the Anglo-Saxons bathed perhaps once or twice a year. A successful Viking drew attention to himself, not only because of his valor in battle, but also because of his fashionable attire and cleanness.
Viking artistry was utilitarian
The Vikings didn‘t create works of art, as art is defined today. Their artistry was in decorating various objects that were of utilitarian use of some kind. The opulence of the decoration was varied, according to the use of the object and the wealth of the owner. We know that the Vikings liked to decorate their clothes with colorful, woven ribbons and embroidery, but very few textiles have survived.
What is has survived are mainly jewelry of bronze, silver and gold, some weapons – especially those parts that were delightfully decorated with silver inlay, and some carved wood and rune stones. Some of these pieces were rather simple, and even mass produced as much as things could be mass produced during these times. Other pieces, without doubt belonging to kings, queens or powerful Jarls and their wives, were richly ornamental, with silver or gold, showing a very high level of expertise and craftsmanship.
The main focus was animal motifs
The Vikings carved wood, created jewellery, adorned weapons and made tapestries, embroidery and woven ribbons sewn on clothes in their own unique Viking styles. Their works are characterized by a focus on animal motifs, both four legged beasts, and sometimes birds and serpents. They did not create pictures of flowers and leaves, portraits of people or landscape, which was more common among the people of Western and South Europe. However, for religious purposes they did create sculptures of their gods. Figures of Thor, Odin and Freyr were the most popular ones. Plant and flower motifs generally weren‘t seen until by the end of the Viking age, when Christian influences infiltrated the Nordic communities.
The most common motif featured an animal, or perhaps two, three or four animals, swirling and swaying in intertwined postures across the artwork, in a myriad of versions. Sometimes they spread across freely, and sometimes they grip each other‘s limbs, or their own limbs, creating the „gripping beast“ theme. The works of Viking artisans was often quite abstract, especially in the very beginning of the Viking age. They didn‘t even attempt to be realistic in their creations, but later during the Viking age.
Viking art was Medieval art: Don't expect finesse
Since the Viking age happened in the High-Middle Ages, the forms are in that category, raw, animalistic and often asymmetrical and even clumsy. Many people have the opinion, that the middle ages were characterized by a decline in the workmanship and expertise of artists. The reason for this developments, which are obvious when you examine the works, is unknown. Their creations were not fully realistic as Roman and Greek sculptures.
When you observe works of artisans from the Middle ages, you should not expect the realism of the Classical periods of Greece or Rome, or the disciplined lines and forms, and subtle finesse of colors, of the works created for the noble classes of the Baroque, Rococo, Empire or Victorian eras.
The creations of the Vikings, along with the creations of other societies during the Middle Ages, may seem unsophisticated and lacking realism, compared to those. But the artistic creations of the pagan Vikings are charged with their own charm, which can be enjoyed in their raw power, if you approach them with knowledge of their context.
2000 years of art history: Four periods snapshots
The classical era:
The stately and realistical statue of Augustus, first emperor of Rome. Around A.D. 0. Statue in the Vatican Museum, Rome. Photographer unknown.
The Middle Ages, the realism of the Roman and Greek art is lost:
Medieval sculpture in the Musée Cluny (also called the Museum of the Middle Ages, Paris, France). Photographer Arran Q. Henderson, from his blog post here.
Another Medieval sculpture, on the O'Brien/Butler tomb in St. Mary's Church, on Inis Cealtra (Holy Island), Clare, Ireland. From the website what-when-how.com here, author or photographer not mentioned.
Viking age art: The Vang runestone, a key item in the Ringerike style. It shows a lion at the top (it is thought) and some typical Ringerike ornament. From around 1030 A.D. Located in Vang in Oppland, Norway.
Viking age art: Brooch in the Borre style. It shows a man's head, perhaps the god Thor, and five animal heads of which one is missing. Around 900 A.D.
The Renaissance period, revival of Graeco-Roman influence:
Pietá by Michelangelo. 1498-99. In the Vatican, Rome. Photographer unknown.
The Rococo era:
Jean-Honoré Fragonard: Young Girl Reading. 1776. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
The 20th century, turning to "primitive" art:
Pablo Picasso: Woman's head (Dora Maar). 1941. Photo courtesy of Sothebys.com.
Karl Schmidt-Rotluff: Head (1917). Photo courtesy of the Tate Gallery, London, England.
The 20th century was friendlier to "primitive" art
When the 20th century arrived, artists became interested in new and different aesthetic rules than had been the norm during the 18th and 19th centuries. They also drew inspirations from various indigenous cultures around the world, that were not connected with the Greek-Roman influences that were so popular in past centuries. In the works of Pablo Picasso, for instance, you see clear influences from African art. In many ways, the art of the Vikings should be better accepted today than it probably was in the 18th and 19th centuries.
See more about the seven Viking age styles
To learn about the seven distinct art styles that have been defined in the works of Viking age artisans, you can see here on the dedicated page on that subject.