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Styles of painting of the ancient Scandinavians

The study of the examples of Viking art shows us that all the items had their functional role. They were not just pieces of art. However, amazing ornamentation made true art out of the objects of everyday use. Even the shiest objects had very rich decoration. Scandinavians used complicated an innovative techniques and marvelous imagination in their works. 

Many of the subjects for their works the artists drew from Scandinavian mythology. The most famous compositions portrayed Norse Gods and heroes of Scandinavian epics - Sigurd, Sigmund, Vëlund, Helga, Viking. The peasants associated the man with the hammer (the hammer of Mjolnir) with Thor – the frightening defender and master of elements, and the solar sign (solar ring) - with Odin.

During the Norse era, various styles of artistic decoration were developed. It is customary to divide the sequence of Norse art into six successive styles. A particular style lasted for a period of time, but was not immediately replaced by a new style. Rather, the two styles coexisted for a period of time. It's remarkable how quickly new styles overspread the entire Norse sphere of influence. Clearly, communications between the various parts of the Viking world was excellent, and new artistic styles were carried from place to place and were readily adopted.

The six styles of Norse culture got their names for geographic areas where the main finds were made. Each style has a number of unique features, although all of them are the part of one culture.

Broa/Oseberg, 750-840

Each work of art in Scandinavian culture has the imprint of Vikings' astonishing primeval energy, which, combined with technical skill and individuality make them truly unique.

The Broa style is sometimes called 'Broa-Oseberg' or 'Oseberg.' The reason is that 'handwriting' of woodcarver of the finds made in Oseberg, is in many ways similar to the style of the Pagan jewelry found in Broa.

The style is characterized by a range of different, unnaturally bent beasts with small heads and with the limbs in the form of leaves. It is also worth mentioning, that typical for Broa style “catching themselves” creatures became a 'quality mark' of the Viking jewelry style.

The certain masterpiece of Broa art is the lion`s head, discovered more than 100 years ago on the famous Viking drakkar in Oseberg, near Oslo. The item really astonishes with its expressiveness. The design of the item is unique: delicate pattern on the top and by the sides of the head is an interlaced ornament of the fantastic bird-like creatures, which, despite the complexity of its structure, perfectly matches with the curved shape of the lion`s neck. 

Many other items, performed in the style of Broa, also give a sense of primitive, violent force.

Stylized head of the viciously grinning lion-1Stylized head of the viciously grinning lion

The handwriting of an unknown master, who carved the head, has so colorful personality, that scientists did not hesitate to classify two more outstanding items found in Oseberg as his work:

Broa style: goggle-eyed beasts. Horse harness. Gilded bronze

The stretched-out, S-shaped body of a snake-like creature covers the whole top of the gilded bronze decorative element of horse harness, discovered in Broa, the ancient city on the island of Gotland. For many years the city was situated at the intersection of the busiest trade routes in the Baltic Sea. At the bottom of the ornament, there are two other creatures with big eyes and long claws; they seem to be swaying on sea waves.

Another decoration of horse harness in Broa style

Borre, 835-970

Borre style is a Scandinavian style in the second half of the 9th century and in the late 10th century. It received its name from the bronze gilded harness found in the mound in Borre, near Oseberg. Borre style replaced several characteristics of the Broa style: massive ornamentation and experimental searches of 8-9 centuries, displayed in many subjects, including the Oseberg carving (finishing of carriages, sleighs, ships).

Borre style is the first style with 'animal ornamentation'. Also, it was the first style of the ancient Scandinavians that became popular in the colonies of the Vikings. Many items were found in the territory of the Isle of Man (England) and in Russia. This certainly shows that at the time of Borre style there were settlements of the Vikings on the above-mentioned territories.

The items in this style are also well preserved in the Gokstad burial, referred to the period before 905 year.

The central image of a style is a Nordic alternative to “Carolingian Lion’. It is half-naturalistic creature, the body of the creature is depicted in the profile and its head in front. The clawed paws of the beast squeeze its own body and the details of ornamentation or decorative border. Often, the picture illustrates two or three fighting creatures. Again, the details of the form are much exaggerated: the body and the neck are in the form of broad ribbons, thighs are plastically determined; some elements are filled with filigree that gives an extra volume.

The central image is complemented by additional ornamental element: the relief image of 'masks' that is typical motif for the art of the ancient Nord peoples. In the Borre style jewelry it is presented by a wide range of images - from portrait to theriomorphic ones.

Image lines executed in the style of Borre are often highlighted by a number of additional strokes; there are many geometric shapes, jewelry has granulation, filigree or casting imitating them.

Plastic, solid, full of interesting images Borre style seems to be addressed to the democratic, mass viewer: the masters decorated the things that were or could be worn by everybody.

At first glance, the pattern of this fine brooch found in DenmarkA found from Hedeby, finely crafted bronze object in the Borre Style.

One of the masters of the Borre style immortalized his name in runes of the flat cross-monument, discovered in a tomb in Kirk Michael, Isle of Man. The item was made for the Celtic patron, but Gaut worked for Scandinavians as well. The inscription reads: 'Gaut made this and everything on the Isle of Man.'

Historians believe that such plates-crosses (crosses of Man) are the result of the peaceful cohabitation of the Vikings and the Celts.

Jellinge, 880-1000 

Jellinge style is the second style with “animal ornamentation” It was named after finds at the residence of Danish Kings of 10-11th centuries and developed during 880-1000 years.

For a long period, it existed along with the style of Borre, therefore sometimes the item has both variations of ornamentation. Nevertheless, Jellinge style is very different from democratic, filled with pagan images Borre style; it differs by origin, by the characteristics of form, and by social address. The first one is more aristocratic, and the linkage with the Royal residence is not random. The things decorated in Jellinge style were worn mostly by Konung`s retinue.

Jellinge as well as Borre has granulation and filigree, or casting imitating them. English and Russian archeological findings represent beautiful examples of Jellinge style; and in Northern England the influence of the Jellinge and Borre styles gave rise to Anglo-Scandinavian art.

Jelling images accurately and very elegantly fit into different kinds of metalwork.

The central symbol is an important ancient image of German animal ornamentation - a big Beast depicted in profile. Sometimes, it is the pair of fighting creatures.

Eight-like figures of animals played a major role in a tense but balanced composition of Jellinge style images. The bodies of creatures are in the form of narrow, long lines and have dual contour (the stylistic feature, which appeared in 5-6th century in German art); the animal heads have small number of features, only wide-open jaws and huge, popped eyes.

Animal`s bodies and paws, as well as the main image background, are rich in decorative details. Many of the magnificent, exquisite things of Jellinge style have gilded adornment and targeted at those with high artistic perception.

The images of animals on the Silver Cup from the mound in Jelling (958-959) give a great understanding of the style. The height of the cup is only 4 cm, it portraits two S-shaped figures of animals united symmetrically. The style is perfect: the heads are depicted in profile, the animals have long withers.

ChaliceThe wide-open jaws of the beasts and long ribbons are distinctive features of the Jelling Style.10th century. Copenhagen, National Museum.

Mammen, 950-1060

One of the forms of the 'Big Beast' style is the style of Mammen that existed in Denmark in 950-1060. The 'Big Beast' style (combining the local varieties of animal ornamentation: Mammen style in Denmark (960-1020), Norwegian style Ringerike (980-1090) and Urnes style (1050-1170), the style of “the Runic stones” in Sweden, XI century) appeared as a kind of simplification and generalization of complex system of Jelling ornamentation.

Viking artists traditionally tended to animalism. At this period they began to portray the new animals – large creatures with more vicious character and new extraordinary power. Moreover, they continued experimenting with plant ornamentation - plant motifs became more imaginative, daring and fresh.

Mammen is a logical development of Jellinge Style, therefore it is often hard to distinguish them from each other. However, in Mammen Style the birds and animals have special shape of the torso, and the plant ornament becomes more important.

Mammen Style has no symmetry; instead, it has power and expression. Mammen Style is an excellent example of the synthesis of Western European and Scandinavian art: Western European art has a strong impact due to the half-naturalistic image of animals and an abundance of plant ornamentation.

In addition to a rich plant ornament, Mammen style is characterized by great relief (sharpness) in adjusting an image to a surface that creates a sense of contrast.

Neither the bodies of the creatures, nor the tree roots have the constant width - they constrict and expand. Interlaces between them and the space around them form the typical thin 'tentacles'. Inside the contour of the figures a rich ornament emerges, and the limbs of depicted creatures have a spiral pattern.

Many of the new style features indicate the eclecticism that is the result of territorial contacts of Scandinavia in 1000 year (from England to Kiev). These are the features such as lion, depicted in profile, or the birds facing each other. In addition to the images of the battle of Lion and Serpent (a well-known Christian symbol), there are often images of the scary masks - local tradition that came from Oseberg. The direct function of such masks is to scare evil spirits.

Famous works in Mammen Style

The true masterpiece of Mammen Style is the massive Runestone erected at Jellinge approximately in 980 year by the powerful Danish King Harald Bluetooth. The Scandinavians call this stone the 'metric certificate of Denmark`s baptism'.

There are runes on both sides of the stone telling about the valiant deeds of Harald, and an image of crucifix, a symbol of King taking Christianity. The third side of great pyramid is covered by the amazing carving - the mighty lion standing on three legs, and the snake, entwining lion`s body. The creatures literally radiate energy and power. This is one of the most impressive works of Viking art. The lion`s figure is definitely full of strength even though the head is quiet small and the ears are upright. According to the canons of Mammen style, the acanthus leaf decorates the tip of the tail.

It is interesting that the famous name 'Jellinge big walking beast” has a certain terminological inconsequence, the animal depicted on the memorial stone of Harald Bluetooth belongs not to Jellinge but to Mammen style. 'Big walking beast' is the most famous example of this style. During the 11th century it has been used by the Nordic and English artisans as a prototype. 

Mammen style is well-known for its decorative patterns. The famous example of artfully decorated work in Mammen style is the Scandinavian axe found in a burial of a man from the retinue of King Harald Bluetooth in Mammen (Central Jutland).

On one side of the axe we can see a big bird with circular eye. The other side has a beautiful foliate decor. The handle of the axe is also finely decorated: on one side we can see an interlaced knot, on the other side - a human mask. 

Other famous works in this style are the caskets from Cumming and Bamberg and the elk antler handle of the sword discovered in Sigtuna.

Another excellent example is the cross in Kirk Brèddan, on the Isle of Man, though in general this style was not particularly widespread in the British Isles. The fact that can be explained by the political situation of the time.

«The axe in Mammen style»The axe in Mammen style

Artfully, in full accordance with existing archaeological finds, we create unique products -handmade sterling silver pendants, sterling silver rings, handmade chains, etc. 

You can find other products made in Mammen style in our catalogue: Perun's Axe pendant (reconstruction)

The birds with a sharp beak and the heads of the animals are the details of gilded bronze bands that fasten plates from the elk horns with complicated carving and wooden frame of this exact copy of the famous 'Cammin casket'. During several centuries, the original was kept in the Cathedral in Сammin (Poland), but it was lost during the Second World War.

Cammin CasketDetail of the Cammin Casket

Detail of the Cammin Casket, Mammen Style

The Bamberg Casket
The Bamberg Casket. The Bavaria National Museum, Munich, Germany

The stone from JellingButton M.

Button in Mammen style

A sword in Mammen style

A sword in Mammen style. The end of 10th century

Ringerike, 980-1080

In the period between 10th and 11th centuries, the new expressive style named Ringerike replaced the Mammen style. 

The name of the style Ringerike came from the name of a certain type of limestone from the northern part of Oslo. This material was used for sculpturing ornamented stones.

In this style the plant ornaments acquire great importance as the background of the images of birds and animals. However, the image of a large animal, pictured in the movement, remains a key motif of the composition (the result of the development of the “animal ornamentation' of the Jellinge style). Sometimes, the image of the animal is substituted with snakes and ribbon-like beasts, surrounded by vines and leaves that grow from the bodies of the creatures or grow apart.

Most of the works executed in the Ringerike style have composition that is centered on the axis, and the small tendrils of the plants are usually grouped together.

The finest example of the Ringerike style is the wind vane from Heggen (Norway). The main images on both sides of the vane are the large animal and the bird.

Another great example can be seen on the tombstone in the St Paul`s cemetery in London.

Ringerike style is represented by the large number of finds made on the territory of South England. In Ireland this style developed so noticeably, that literally started to live its own live.  Often this style can be seen in the elements of decorations for the Irish churches. In Ireland it existed much longer than in Scandinavia, where it existed until the middle of 11th century.

The central element of the ship weathervane made of gilded bronze. Once adorned the nose of the ship. It pictures a figure of lion (the head is on the right side, the paws - on the left)Fragment of the weather vane

The central element of the ship weathervane made of gilded bronze. Once adorned the nose of the ship. It pictures a figure of lion (the head is on the right side, the paws - on the left). Other details of the pattern are the snake and the stems of the plants. At the top is a mythical animal.

The rune-stone with the text-1The rune-stone with the text

The rune-stone with the text: Ginna and Toki had this stone set up. Found in the churchyard of St Paul's Cathedral in London.


The combination of the earlier Jelling Style with the later Ringerike Style

The combination of the earlier Jelling Style with the later Ringerike Style. 10-11 century.

Urnes, 1035-1170

Urnes style was the final phase of a long development of “animal ornamentation”. Urness style appeared in the middle of the 11th century and existed during the subsequent century, and partially in the Middle ages.

Urnes style was named after the perfect in artistic and technical sense carving that decorated the door, and the corner post of Urnes stave church in Western Norway. Also, the examples of style decorated the Hørning church, in Jutland.

Initially, for some time the Urnes style existed in the form of specific details and had a significant impact on the Romanesque art that was dominant at that time in Scandinavia. In about 1200 it disappeared completely.

Urnes style has no such energy and power like the Ringerike style: it is more sophisticated, 'refined' and has decadent features.

The beast remains the key motif in Urnes style, but here its forms are more exquisite than in other styles. There are the same snake-like creatures with one front foot, snakes and plant stems, sometimes with the snake head on top.

Urnes style typical feature is asymmetric extended composition, and the first thing that catches your eye is wavy knot of snakes and animals. The twists have a clear form of an eight, the expansions and contractions of the lines in Urnes style are constant, without contrast transitions.

In Sweden, the final phase of the development of this style acquired the name “the runic stones style”. Urnes style was masterly used on such stones in Middle Sweden, the typical wave ornamentation was adapted to the contour of the stone surface, and the runes were carved in the long snake bodies.

Urnes Stave Church carvingUrnes Stave Church carving-2


Urnes Stave Church carving-3

Urnes Stave Church carving (10 century)

Lacy silver brooch in Urnes style (late period)Dragon Brooch in the Urnes style

Dragon Brooch in the Urnes style, 11th century. Found near the village of Kiaby, Skåne, Sweden

Carving on the furnitureCarving in the Church in Herning, Jutland

Carving in the Church in Herning, Jutland, Denmark