VIKING Ornamentation Styles

By Jeff Clarke (Hafgrim Gunnarson)
I use the term 'ornamentation', as the Vikings produced little in the way of what we would nowadays call 'fine art'. Nearly all Viking art is applied art, that is the decoration of everyday objects. 
Viking art has a restless quality, characterised by a seething mass of surface ornament ,which is largely of stylised animals or more correctly zoomorphic designs. Contorted and distorted animals had formed the basis of Scandinavian art from the fifth century, this continued on, into and through the Viking age. However this does not mean it was without style changes due to western European influences. Nor could it be said that these western influences totally changed the Viking style. The Viking style was a strong confident style and merely absorbed the new western motifs, adapting them according to its own style conventions. 
The dates below give only a general idea of each styles duration, as according to most good text books, 'It is impossible to give absolute dates to any the of the Viking styles.'


          BROA/OSEBERG          750 to 840

          BORRE                 835 to 970 

          JELLINGE              880 to 1000 

          MAMMEN                950 to 1060 

          RINGERIKE             980 to 1080 

          URNES                1035 to 1150

BROA / OSEBERG - 750 to 840

The first style named after a grave find in Broa on Gotland and the magnificent ship burial at Oseberg which contained a fantastically carved longship, a wagon, sledges, bedsteads, tentframes and a huge number of highly decorated everyday objects. (The Oseberg ship find is in fact worthy of an article on its own.)

 The style consists of sinuous beasts with small heads, frond like feet and multiples of tendrils. The sinuous beasts are so highly stylised as to make them zoologically unidentifiable. It should be noted that the first 'gripping beasts' are in evidence, this is the hallmark of the true Viking style of ornamentation. 

BORRE - 835 to 970

Named after a ship burial find of bronze bridle mounts, at Borre in Vestfold, Norway. This style is a direct descendant of the Broa style. It has two principle motifs, a gripping beast and a ring-chain link style.

 The gripping beast motif consists of zoomorphic beasts with mask-like heads, with bulging eyes and Mickey Mouse ears, that look out over their bodies. The bodies themselves have a simple hatch infill. The ring-chain link motif has no identifiable animals but is purely a running pattern of intertwining tendrils. It boasts the first known Viking artist who wrote a runic inscription identifying his work, a cross slab from Kirk Michael on the isle of Man. It reads 'Gaut made this and all in Man.' 

JELLINGE - 880 to 1000

The Jellinge style takes it's name from the style found on wooden fragments in the Danish Royal Burial Mound at Jelling.

 The Jellinge style still has beasts, however, they no longer grip themselves or the surrounding frames. The ribbon shaped bodies are still seen in profile as per the Borre style, but now the heads have pigtails, the bodies are larger, there is more hatch infill and also small spiral hips. As you will no doubt have noticed the Borre and Jellinge styles chronologically overlap. Thus it is not uncommon to find pieces of work which are hybrids of both styles i.e. a ribbon bodied gripping beast with pigtails. 

MAMMEN - 950 to 1060

The Mammen style is named after the designs on an axe found in the grave of a Danish Viking from Mammen in Jutland.

 The Mammen style animal grew imperceptibly out of that of the Jellinge style. The two can be difficult to tell apart and indeed during the transitional period it would be a mistake to try to separate them. The Mammen animals become larger, realistic and more natural in proportion. Thus there was more infill and the spiral hips became much larger.

The Mammen style was not in fashion for very long, perhaps two generations, it could be said to be the transitional stage between Jellinge and Ringerike. This would be true except that before the Mammen style there was no interest in using plants, leaves or tendrils to be ornamental motifs in the form of foliate patterns. These new motifs are part of the western European influences mentioned at the introduction, it should be noted that during the 9th and 10th centuries vinescrolls and acanthus leaves were commonly used motifs in the rest of Europe. 

RINGERIKE - 980 to 1080

The Ringerike style which grew out of the Mammen style takes its name from a district in Norway to the North of Oslo where it was used to a large degree on carved slabs of stone. The Ringerike style differs from the Mammen style in two main ways. Firstly the short tendrils now become a foliate pattern of regularly crossing tendrils and secondly that large basal spirals are common.

URNES - 1035 to 1150

The wooden stave church of Urnes in Western Norway gives its name to the last phase of Viking art.

 The powerful beasts of the Mammen and Ringerike periods are no longer in evidence. Instead the magnificent beasts now have elegant greyhound like bodies surrounded by thin ribbons.

The foliate patterns no longer truly exist, they have now become thin curving ribbons with only the odd bud or animal head to indicate their past style.


Any comments, inaccuracies or wild orgies of praise...Please fell free to email (or course).


Mail to: Hafgrim Gunnarsson

August 12th 1996

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