Quest for Viking Art

Leonard Lea Frazer

There were two Vikings standing on the deck of their long-boat. As the enemy navy was approaching, the two comrades talked about the problem.

“They are more than we,” said the first Norseman.

“Yes”, replied the second.

“They have good weapons,” the first man commented.

“Yes,” agreed his friend.

“They seem eager to fight now,” observed the first.

“Yes,” said the second Viking. “Those who survive this day will have much to tell the others.” 

The legendary exploits of the Vikings comes alive today in the form of artifacts, jewelry, sculptures, the Icelandic Sagas and, if you have the “History Channel” the television series “Vikings”, now in its fourth season.

The Viking Age (AD 300 to 1050) in Scandinavia produced artists and craftsmen who created everything from grave makers to church sculptures. Two fine examples of artwork in wood are the sea vessels of the Norsemen and the all-wood Norwegian stave churches. Granite and limestone “pic-ture stones” and monuments were a popular way of recording the sagas of the Vikings.

In 1993, I set out to explore the art forms of the ancient Nordic people. During my visit to Sweden and Norway that summer, I traveled to indoor and open-air museums that now house many of the surviving Viking art pieces.

On the Swedish island of Gotland where my quest began, carved picture stones protruding from the earth, reach a height of 3.7 meters. These tall, flat-surfaced, limestone monuments were once situated in several locations on Gotland. They relate the sagas of Nordic heroes and their deeds. A Viking graveyard consists of a huge pile of rocks over each grave, with many gravesites carefully arranged over an open field. The picture stones, first erected during the 5th century, once accompanied some of the graves. They have, however, long since been removed from the graveyards to museums, leaving the rock piles as a lonely reminder of the once-feared Vikings.

As I walked around one of the many Gotland Viking graveyards I tried to imagine how the area might have looked centuries ago. I also recalled the humorous words of my tour guide Lars Nohlgren two days previously, as we drove through the southern part of the island. He explained, with his thick Swedish accent, how the Vikings might have looked. “The Arabs described the Vikings… They were as long as palm trees, had red hair, they smelled awful, but they were good to fight!” Mr. Nohlgren went on to recall the serious facial features of the Norsemen. “They had square-formed faces, I mean, they didn’t jump for joy (they frowned). For instance, the Viking man would stand as an enemy runs a spear through his belly, and after the spear is removed, he would say, ‘It’s very modern, these broad spear-heads.’ Then he drops down dead!”

Later, at a folk museum in the north of Gotland, I had the opportunity to examine the carved, cartoon-like, character silhouettes that decorate several picture stones on display. I was discovering that the study of the Vikings and their lives begins with the study of their art.

On the mainland of Sweden, in the modern Uppsala Municipal Cemetery, I stumbled upon a rustic granite “rune stone” that seemed quite out of place next to the more recent grave markers. The Vikings carved the letters from their own alphabet, or runic, in wood, metal, bone and stone. On the giant rock I encountered in Uppsala, each rune or letter was carved along the bodies of two intertwining serpents. This seems to have been a popular theme or motif throughout old Scandinavia. Sweden has several thousand similar Viking Age rune stones, Denmark has some two hundred and Norway has only forty. While touring Norway I stopped at the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdoy, near Olso. Three Viking burial ships are housed at the museum and the preserved contents included remarkable woodcarvings, a wagon, sledges, bedsteads and several animal head posts. The artwork from these Viking ships dates from the 9th century.

Also, in Norway I was able to study several stave churches that contain an interesting blend of Pagan and Christian woodcarvings. Beautifully-carved entrance ways, dragon heads on the roof gable-ends, similar to those found on Viking ships, and the internal wooden columns are the artistic highlights of these building. The craftsmen of the Viking Age were able to construct the stave churches as lasting monuments of their time. Thirty-two of an estimated 750 stave churches remain today on their origi-nal sites.

At the end of my Nordic pilgrimage I reached a misty central Norwegian valley and the site of the Borgund Stave church. Standing outside the dark, freshly tarred medieval building in the drizzling rain, I could feel the vibrancy of that 844-year-old structure. The building of stave churches in Northern Europe marked the end of the Viking age, and for me, my visit to Borgund, the end of my quest for Viking Art.   

The front entrance of the Borgund Stave Church in Central Norway.
The front entrance of the Borgund Stave Church in Central Norway.
 
Close-up of a large stone at Drammen, Norway showing a serpent and runic writing.
Close-up of a large stone at Drammen, Norway showing a serpent and runic writing.

Carved picture stones situated in several locations on the island of Gotland, Sweden.
Carved picture stones situated in several locations on the island of Gotland, Sweden.
 
Details of carvings on the side of an old wooden longboat in the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdoy, near Oslo, Norway. All photos by L.L. Frazer
Details of carvings on the side of an old wooden longboat in the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdoy, near Oslo, Norway. All photos by L.L. Frazer