Art of the Anglo-Saxon and Vikings -
Part 1: Introduction, and Rudimentary Decoration
-Dr Andrew Thompson
It is clear that the creation of art is one of the defining characteristics of humanity, and civilization. In its strictest sense ‘art’ refers to works made with the intention of being aesthetically pleasing rather than serving any other function, however, a broader definition would include the decoration of functional objects such as tools (what might now be referred to as “arts and crafts”), and the majority of works of ‘art’ from Northern Europe during the what we in England call the 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'Viking' periods would fall into this latter category.
In this context, decoration may have served to personalise objects, or have even greater significance - perhaps serving as an emblem for a particular group identity, or serve as a focus for story-telling, much as stained-glass windows did in later medieval churches. The Anglo-Saxons, 'Vikings' and associated Northern European cultures in this period seem to have enjoyed stories, riddles and puzzles, and it may be that their artwork often had a layer of meaning that would be easy for them to tease out, but is extremely difficult for us, who are not steeped in their mythology.
For those studying, or (like us) hoping to recreate the material culture of these peoples, a broad, working understanding of their art styles is arguably essential. To that end it is hoped this series of articles, containing annotated summaries of the broad artistic styles of these cultures and periods, will be useful.
It is not my intention to try to advance the field of Migration and Viking-Age art studies, and the explanations below must be considered to be summaries only. A number of far more authoritative and comprehensive (if not comprehensible) articles are included in the reference material cited at the end of each chapter. This is a challenging subject but certainly worth studying.
To the modern eye, used to functional or clean minimalism (itself a deeply culturally ingrained acquired taste which ultimately derives from the artistic effects of the Protestant Reformation) the creative environment of Northern Europe in the first millennium may seem over-decorated. No item seems to have been left plain and undecorated, and even simple every-day and relatively disposable items such as combs almost always had some kind of ornamentation. The obsession with decorating objects to the maximum - the implied abhorrence of empty space (“horror vacui”) is perhaps the single uniting principle of art from 400-1100 CE (as it is, to an extent, it was in neighboring eras), and may have its roots in the relatively high value / scarcity of refined materials - particularly metal, stone or velum - compared to the lower value / scarcity of crafts-peoples’ time. If an item had been made from hugely valuable material it would be wasteful not to go the extra mile by devoting a few hours to decorating it. This contrasts strongly with our own circumstances in the 21st century, where materials are, broadly speaking, relatively cheap, and the monetary value of the hours spent decorating a functional item might often exceed the value invested in the materials. In this sense it is no surprise that, in our everyday lives, so many of our functional possessions are left un-decorated.
Across the whole period concerned, the sophistication of art and decoration varied widely depending on the value or status associated with an item, or the creative context from which it originated. Thus, while highly sophisticated art-works, presumably the preserve of a relatively small class of highly skilled and sought-after craftspeople, show clear stylistic development over time, more “every-day” items originating in lower-status contexts, perhaps made by the owner themselves, or by a semi-skilled local craftsperson, show distinctive, rudimentary but often highly conserved artistic styles. Though most academic study has understandably been confined to the former, it is important not to overlook the latter.
Rudimentary Decorative Styles
As previously mentioned, a number of rudimentary decorative styles exist which seem to be associated with more grass-roots crafts, although occasionally crop up on higher-value objects. Many of these decorative styles have their origins in much earlier periods, and often persist right through and beyond the Anglo Saxon and ‘Viking Age’. They can be interpreted as gestures towards ‘filling the vacuum’, by less specialist craftspeople (as opposed to full-time ‘artists’), often working in less cooperative materials. The following list is not comprehensive, but includes a number of very common, and, for the most part, long-lived styles.
Ring and Dot
Perhaps the most common of simple decorative motifs across all of European history, ring and dot is extremely ancient - certainly present on personal items all the way back to the Bronze Age, and, perhaps, represented in its very earliest form, in the “cup and ring marks” of the Neolithic. Any attempts to infer some kind of meaning of this very common motif would be pure, arguably pointless speculation.
|Bone comb from 6th century Anglo-Saxon grave|
|Bone-inlaid buckle and belt-mount set from Oxfordshire (Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock).|
|Silver-inlaid ring and dots on a 4th century spearhead from Illerup Ådal (Moesgård Museum, Denmark)|
An ancient family of symbols which appear occasionally on archaeological finds, these too are defined by symmetry and rotation, although, unlike ring-and-dot motifs, must be very carefully carved or punched freehand. Number of prongs varies from three (triskele) up. These symbols are most commonly found on simple personal items, or occasionally stamped into vessels such as cinerary urns.
|5th-6th century Anglo-Saxon cinerary urn from North Elham, Norfolk. (British Museum)|
However, the swastika is not entirely confined to simple items and crafts, bleeding through into more sophisticated and technical items of personal art, including elaborate textiles (the gold brocaded tablet-weave from Chessel Down, Isle of Wight 1855/Grave I, and the famous Snartemo V tablet weave from 6th century Norway), and sophisticated metalwork (the such as the 7th century garnet and filigree raven pendant from King’s Field, Faversham, the similar gold pendant from the Wieuwerd (Friesland) Hoard,and the bronze Andernach Pendant from Germany, each of which represent the spokes of the wheel as birds of prey).
|7th century Pendant from Wieuwerd (Friesland) Hoard (Rijksmuseum Van Oudheden, Leiden, NL).|
Unlike most other decorative motifs, the meaning of swastika symbols to Northern Europeans at the time is easier to unpick; It has been theorized* that this symbol was associated with the thunder god Þunor, possibly representing his hammer, which symbolised thunder. It may have originally derived from the ‘sun-wheel swastika’, with curved outer limbs, which is first seen in the Bronze Age. The swastika seems to have had special significance as a funerary symbol and may reflect the belief in the hallowing power of the hammer of the thunder-god. This belief is shown in the runic inscription on the Velanda Runestone, Sweden, which means "may Þórr hallow."
*H.R. Ellis Davidson (1965). Gods and Myths of Northern Europe
Hatching, Parallel Lines and StrapworkA commonly used technique, particularly on items such as combs, was to carve designs consisting of parallel lines, either concentric borders, or zones of oblique hatching (sometimes within partitioned areas in geometric shapes), into surfaces. As well as creating a textured surface which functions to increase grip, this type of decoration has the impressive quality of, like the Ring and Dot motif, creating a very ‘ordered’ look.
|Combs from Haithabu / Hedeby- Viking Schleswig. (Schloss Gottorf Museum, Schleswig, Germany).|
Close examination often reveals such lines to be irregularly spaced, or imperfectly arranged, as one might expect from a semi-skilled craftsperson carving lines free-hand, yet the overall effect gives the impression of perfectly ordered designs and textures, almost as if produced by a machine. This tendency for the human eye to interpret such textures as perfectly ordered at anything other than ultra-close examination, may explain their appeal and longevity. Like the ring-and-dot, these patterns are an easy way to produce visually pleasing order using basic tools.
|Close-up of C10th seax sheath from Parliament Street, York. Tooled interlace below, and alternating hatching /dogtooth pattern above. (York Castle Museum).|
Examples such as the preserved 10th century seax sheath from Parliament Street, York, demonstrate that such patterns were used to decorate leatherwork, and may represent a long-lived, default technique for neat space-filling decoration on a wide range of materials.
Contrasting strongly to this sense of visually pleasing order, are crude runic inscriptions which appear occasionally, though rarely, on items from the Iron Age into the Migration Period. These, almost always crudely scratched into the surface of an object, perhaps with a knife, are cut shallow and with irregular letter size and shape.
|Comb from Vimose, Denmark. Circa 150 CE. Currently the oldest dateable runic inscription.|
These crude inscriptions are not confined to lowly personal items such as combs (read more about combs, inlcuding the rune-inscribed comb from Vimose, here), but even elaborately decorated and well made high-status objects (such as the Chessel Down Throat, see article, or Nordendorf Fibula, see article) where such inscriptions (though hugely useful to modern archaeologists) could almost be seen as acts of artistic vandalism.
|Reverse of the C6th Anglo-Saxon scabbard mount from Chessel Down, grave 76.|
|6th century radiate-headed brooch from Kent (back) showing scratched runes on the footplate. (British Museum)|
Added to these, arguably, could be added the runes included in 5th-6th century cinerary urns such as the famous example from Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire (pictured), or the Alu cipher-runes which appear on three cinerary urns from Spong Hill, Norfolk. These were evidently carved into the clay before firing.
|Rune-inscribed 5th-6th century CE Anglo-Saxon cinerary urn from Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire.|
These runes can hardly be described as an artistic style, yet it is undoubtedly the case that, into the middle and late Anglo-Saxon period, and so-called “Viking Age”, rune carving had undoubtedly become a sophisticated art form, in beautiful metal inlay (as on the 9th-10th century Seax of Beagnoth / “Thames Scramasax”), carefully carved into bone (as on the 8th century Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket, see article) or carved and painted into stone (as on countless ‘Viking’ runestones, or the spectacular 8th century Anglo-Saxon Ruthwell Cross).
|Runes finely carved into whale-bone - The Franks Casket, c8th Anglo-Saxon treasure box.|
|Wolf-headed seax-chape from Westminster, c8th Anglo-Saxon, featuring finely cut runes.|
|Replica Viking runestone, brightly painted as others are believed to have been in their day. (Ribe Viking Centre, Ribe, Denmark).|
|Runestone from Ölsta, Uppland, Sweden. U871. (Currently located at Skansen, Stockholm). Decoration corresponding to Urnes Style. Paint scheme as seen, was reconstructed in 1991 by Swedish Rune Authority.|
The techniques discussed so far exist at the fringes of the study of art from this period and cultures, which is otherwise typified by unusual, abstract designs, including mysterious animals and complicated interlace.
In coming installments of this illustrated series, we will be looking at the various phases of 'northern' Migration-Age animal art and their antecedents, examining the sophisticated Insular art which emerged when 'Celtic' and 'Germanic' artistic cultures collided in Anglo-Saxon England, and then navigating the explosion of distinctive art-styles which emerged in Scandinavia during the "Viking Age".