Viking Age Art with Luciano Pezzoli and Lars Grundvad
Sitting down with one Viking Age art specialist is a treat, but Sean Parry was fortunate enough to pick the brains of both Luciano Pezzoli and Lars Grundvad during this episode of the Northern Fire Podcast.
Together, they dissect Viking art styles (and sub-styles) while addressing the true purpose of these motifs: to make a profound and specific statement.
About our guests:
Luciano Pezzoli is a renowned researcher, artist, tattooer, and reenactor who shares insight on his wealth of work, much of which is unmatched for detail. You can follow and support Luciano’s incredible contributions to the field through Children of Ash @childrenofash.
Lars Grundvad is a Danish archaeologist and museum specialist who is literally digging deeper into Viking artistry with each excavation and application of his knowledge on the topic. Lars’s papers and reports are found in many high-tier academic publications.
Many listeners will have a knowledge of the six primary styles of Viking Art, but if you are unfamiliar or would like a visual guide and timeline refresher, we are providing (a basic) one here as a supplement to the podcast.
Even if you’ve seen these images many times, remembering that we come from a modern aesthetic perspective is imperative.
“You need to break down your aesthetic basic view,
the way you look at things.
You have to eliminate that first...
and then you start looking into something else,
something that is not what you are used to.”
Timeline & Terminology
Vendel Style ~ Mid 6th century to last quarter of the 8th century CE
Found in Pre-Viking Sweden on many artifacts from the period, the most famous depictions in this style may be the Torslunda plates from Öland. These were utilized to create decorative elements for the helmets found in the kingly graves from the Vendel Period. The human and animal motifs are also seen on the 7th century helmet found with the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo burial from Suffolk, England. Some researchers believe the iconography is related to a cult of Odin, due to the intentional colouration or marking seen on a single eye of some figures.
Broa Style ~ Mid 8th century to first quarter of the 9th century CE
Named after the twenty-two Broa harness mounts from Gotland, this style of Viking art acted as the “brewing ground” that formed the basis for all of the following Viking art styles. Themes can be traced back to Broa Viking art centuries in the future. Defined through engraved metalwork, the primary motifs of animal and knot-work intentionally challenge the viewer to look into otherworldly reality through a starkly pre-Christian lens.
Several of the iconic Broa harness mounts from Gotland, displayed on leather as they would have been originally. The piece illustrated above is to the far right. (Image: Sean Parry)
The Oseberg Ship Burial ~ Early 9th Century
(Interred 834 AD / Excavated in 1905)
It is a common misconception that “Oseberg” is its own style of Nordic art, when in fact this refers to a collection of grave goods that represent widespread artisanship from the time. Diverse and elaborate, the objects range from tapestries to sculptures and even rattles. The ship itself, constructed of oak from the far west of Norway, was created 14 years prior to the burial. The ornamented sleds are even older. This gives the impression that the two women buried within had the wealth and power to surround themselves with their choice of goods from across Scandinavia, which they commissioned and brought with them in death.
Borre Style ~ Mid 9th century to mid 10th century CE
Found on a vast and widespread scale, Borre style is named for an archaeological discovery from Vestfold, Norway in which horse-harness mounts include the distinctive Borre gripping beast (now seen with a defined and easily identified central head). This was the longest lasting style of Viking Age art, likely because it was not utilised to define or label relationships to royal individuals, like is seen with the Jelling dynasty and their motifs. The knotted patterns of Borre continue into the famous Hiddensee Hoarde and the Terslev style pendants, which are all heavily ornamented, but abstracted in the sense that they lack the strong detail of the beast. This is also the only style in which we see mirror imagery, and there are several substyles!
Jellinge Style ~ Beginning to third quarter of the 10th century CE
Named for the Viking art related to the Jelling Dynasty, this iconography is defined by ribbon animals, maturing throughout the period with distinguished hooks and hip spirals. The detail on various pieces of jewellery from this period tell a story of strict symbolism, in which status or relationship with royalty was displayed through the design and therefore restricted to chosen individuals. The Jelling dynasty itself included King Gorm (who ruled from 936 - 958 AD) as well as his son, Harald Bluetooth, who famously erected a runestone alongside his father’s around 965 AD. This stone famously depicts Christ with the proud declaration that King Harald has “made the Danes Christians.”
Perhaps the most well-known piece (aside from the stones) is the Jelling Cup itself, complete with ribbon animal and made of silver. This is currently housed in the Danish National Museum.
Mammen Style ~ Mid 10th century to start of the 11th century CE
These designs take their name from an axe found in a male grave from Mammen, in Central Jutland, Denmark. The axe is decorated with spiraling figures and includes a mask-like face and a bird with a large lappet and tendrils. Another mask from this style is seen on a famous stone from Aarhus, which is now housed in the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark and acts as their logo. There are also several caskets that are well-known from this period, which were carved in impeccable detail from ivory and ornamented with precious metals and crystal.
Ringerike Style ~ Late 10th to the last third of the 11th century CE
In Norway, the Ringerike district boasts a standing stone that bears this distinctive style, and silver and gold hoards full of disc-brooches have been discovered from the same time period in Sweden. But perhaps most notable are the Ringerike weathervanes that have been found from Norway to Gotland, on which the astounding depictions of a beast (that we have followed through each art style) now perches as a statuesque 3D figure.
Urnes Style ~ Mid 11th century to first quarter 12th century CE
The Urnes Stave Church in Norway offers an elaborate entrance (literally and figuratively) into this final style of Viking art, which of course takes its name from this location. With much more open and negative space in the design, these could easily be drawn onto the highly-demanded runestones of the time (and one artist’s signature has been found on over 60 of them!). Many of the most well-known runestones in Sweden display these highly identifiable beasts covered in runes, with their gracefully winding bodies, short lapets, and distinctive almond shaped eyes.
So...how and why are there so many Viking Art styles within such a short period of time? Was this due to style trends (like we see nowadays) or did this harbor a deeper meaning?
(Hint: It is not the former...)
Transcribing all of the answers would give away the full depth of the podcast (and Lars and Luciano have extensive wisdom to impart) but the general idea is that these styles were incredibly intentional and clearly understood by the people of the time. The symbolism and nuances acted as a form of artistic communication for the Norse people.
“There was a meaning to the ambiguity...
It’s not only an illustration, there are some deeper layers going on,” Luciano says.
“Through the styles there seemed to have been
a minimum common denominator for certain recognizable forms.”
Lars highlights why symbolism is likely important due to this function of jewellery sharing, referencing the sagas and text sources with their mentions of gifting an arm-ring, or oath rings, to the subjects or followers in a kingdom. Luciano elaborates on this concept, mentioning how the clues surface when looking at disc brooches next to one another, calling the artistic decisions within these pieces “...alliance marketing devices in silver and gold.”
But perhaps most fascinating is Lars’s mention of the Borre style as a key to viewing a Viking Age dynasty that has not been highlighted so profoundly through the texts, one that existed prior to the Jelling Dynasty that we are so familiar with.
“It seems like the Jelling Dynasty was at least inspired by this Borre style,
and that’s how it started,” Lars says.
“It’s just a matter of trying to break it down…
[there’s] some sort of renaissance in the use of jewellery...
it’s a Northern renaissance,
so we just need to figure out who initiated this process up here.”
So without giving away any additional gems of information, the last thing to remember is how influential this work has become in uncovering the history of the Viking Age material and immaterial culture. Aside from their visual impact, Nordic art styles harbored meaning through patterns that are just now beginning to be understood.
There is no doubt that Lars and Luciano are amidst breakthroughs as they uncover the stories of power transfer and spirituality through the knotwork and beasts. Understanding Viking art takes a massive amount of dedication to the research, reconstruction, and recognition of nuances. We are grateful to have spent time digging deeper with these two specialists, and we hope you enjoy their insight as well.
To support more Viking Age art research, reconstruction, and understanding, please consider becoming a Patron for Children Of Ash. Since its conception, this organisation has consistently churned out unparalleled analysis and design on Viking art, and we are honored to share their work.
Antonsson, Haki. "Viking-Age Scandinavia: Identities, communities and kingdoms." In Introduction to Nordic Cultures, edited by Lindskog Annika and Stougaard-Nielsen Jakob, 11-22. London: UCL Press, 2020.
Bill, Jan. “Protecting Against the Dead? On the possible use of apotropic magic in the Oseberg burial.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 26, no. 1 (2015).
Fuglesang, Signe Horn. Some Aspects of the Ringerike Style: A Phase of 11th Century Scandinavian Art. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1980.
Graham-Campbell, James. Viking Art. United States: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Price, Neil and Mortimer, Paul. “An Eye for Odin? Divine Role-Playing in the Age of Sutton Hoo.” European Journal of Archaeology 17, no. 3 (2014).
Wilson, David and Klindt-Jensen, Ole. Viking Art. United States: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.
A special thank you to Luciano for sharing his wisdom and guidance on the breakdowns of these art styles due to the lack of contemporary discoveries published within the known literature. ~ Grace