Viking art

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

61James Graham Campbell
Thames & Hudson
£9.95

ISBN 9780500204191

Viking art is an illustrated study of the applied art of Scandinavia and the Scandinavian world in the period c. AD 800–1100. The subject is large in time-scale, in geographical area and in the range of decorated objects of differing scales and functions, materials, methods and techniques. What comes across wonderfully from this book is just how extraordinary, vigorous, bright and vibrant this art was, often glittering and highly textured, sometimes subtle and complex. The artistic legacy serves as an expression of the bold and confident societies that existed but remain enigmatic owing to the absence of contemporary Viking documents. The messages conveyed by Viking art are nevertheless often recognisable as being of status, military rank and political or religious affiliation (at first pagan and later Christian).

The origins of Viking art lie in prehistoric Germanic art, and animal ornamentation was a key element immediately before and throughout the Viking period, with figural and narrative art featuring to a lesser extent. Applying the approach and relative chronologies established by Viking scholar David Wilson, Graham Campbell traces the progression of the animal ornament through the various styles, illustrating them with a host of colour images and line drawings of finds from sites around the Viking world.

The earliest of the six main Viking styles are Oseberg and Broa, prevalent in the first three quarters of the ninth century. The Oseberg style is typified by textured carpet patterns made up of squat animals rendered in relief, often gripping the frames with their paws. It is found carved on wooden items in the remarkable Oseberg ship burial, excavated in south-eastern Norway in 1904.

Its successor was the Borre style, named for the decoration on a set of mounts from a ship burial in Vestfold, Norway, the principal element of which was a novel and lively gripping beast. The Borre style was popular through-out Scandinavia during the tenth century and was the first to make an impact in areas of Viking influence outside the homelands.

Overlapping with the Borre was the Jellinge style, deeply rooted in the Germanic tradition classified by George Salin. This style is named after a gilt and nielloed silver cup found in a mid-tenth-century royal burial mound at Jellinge in Denmark. The decoration on the cup features a pair of intertwined S-shaped animals, shown in profile with evenly shaped ribbon bodies, spiral hip joints, circular eyes, open jaws and a distinctive long mane.

The ensuing, more innovative Mammen style takes its name from the designs inlaid on an iron axe from a late tenth-century grave in Denmark; one side bears a new foliate design of fleshy tendrils with hooked ends, while the other is occupied by a muscular contorted bird with a robust shell spiral hip, both treated with surface pelleting. Other favourite Mammen motifs include a human mask with interlaced beard and a great beast, a muscular quadruped with backward-looking head, as found on the casket of walrus ivory from Bamberg cathedral.

Two art styles, Ringerike and Urnes, originated in the ‘runestone style’ of southern Sweden and flourished consecutively during the eleventh century in Scandinavia, to the end of the Viking Age. The earliest to emerge was the Ringerike style, which takes its name from a group of memorial stones from the Oslo region and drew extensively on western European art, making use of vegetal ornament, the great beast and bird motifs. The Urnes style, which takes its name from carvings on a stave church in western Norway, was, by contrast, purely zoomorphic, drawing on the long tradition of animal forms in Germanic art, ‘creating elegant compositions from the looping bodies of extremely stylised beasts and snakes’. The Urnes style influenced Romanesque art and architecture in Scandinavia and in Ireland.

A unique phenomenon in the tenth century was the Gotlandic picture stones, which feature figural scenes, the meaning of which are mostly inscrutable. Some have been interpreted as narratives from legends, such as Volund the Smith, or depicting Scandinavian cult practices. The Gotlandic stones and other items of figural ornamentation, such as the Oseberg tapestry, also hint at the potential for the lost art of the period. Christianity features in later Viking art, for example on the silver filigree-decorated crucifix pendant from Trondheim, Norway. There is also evidence for syncretism, the combining of seemingly contradictory beliefs, in the Conversion period, for example on the Gosforth and Middleton crosses in northern England. Graham Campbell also touches on the legacy of Viking art, its survival and revival throughout the Middle Ages down to the twentieth century, when it influenced the Nordic Art Nouveau.

Graham Campbell, now emeritus professor at University College London, is recognised as a giant in Viking studies. His academic bibliography is extensive but he is no stranger to popular publications. This little paperback book is the perfect size for reading on the move but don’t be deceived by this—it is a master-class, embodying a lifetime’s research, and is impressively illustrated. I studied under James Graham Campbell at the Institute of Archaeology in London and the book is written in the same style in which he lectures—elegant and unfussy, with a lightness of touch and a sense of pure delight in the exceptional art of the period.

Reviewed By
Ruth Johnson

Ruth Johnson is City Archaeologist at Dublin City Council.

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