The rich world of Norse mythology, combined with an eventual Viking conversion to Christianity in 965 AD, has resulted in a range of artistic symbolism much too vast to fully cover in a short post. However, there are, of course, some particularly notable or interesting motifs which any collector of Viking art should attempt to familiarise themselves with.
A major proportion of Viking art, especially the type of small artefacts, such as brooches, which are sometimes available to purchase today, centre around the motif of elaborate interwoven patterns or knots. It is likely that such designs are derived from the frequent Norse mythological stories which make reference to binding, both literally, in the stories of bound gods, and metaphorically, in the form of oaths. In Viking culture, it was believed that knots bound one to either good or evil, and thus rope-like or woven patterns make frequent appearances in all sorts of Viking art, no doubt to secure divine protection, good fortune and agreements between men.
One of the most common symbols in Viking art, Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer), is a motif which appeared across many different forms of Viking artistic production. One particularly popular medium was the hammer-shaped amulets which have been found at various Scandinavian sites; many believe that the intention of such amulets, which would likely have been worn on the person, was as a protective charm, possibly intended to draw the favour and protection of Thor himself. Examples of such items have been discovered in a wide range of materials, from iron to gold and even amber, suggesting that individuals of varying personal wealth could potentially have owned such an item.
Animals often appear in Viking art, though the nature and form of such animals is frequently unfamiliar to the modern eye. Many of the animals depicted in Viking art are either composite, mythological creatures, sometimes of uncertain origin, or depicted in such a stylised way as to be difficult to clearly identify. Incorporated into the swirling interwoven designs common across the majority of Viking art, animals can be hard to pick out at first, such as the so-called ‘Gripping Beast’, named as such due to the uncertainty surrounding exactly what kind of beast it actually depicts.
Christian and Norse combined
The transition to Christianity which occurred in many European countries during the Late Antique and Early Medieval periods, often came with an accompaniment of ‘transitional’ religious art. This phenomenon occurred much the same with the Vikings as it did with the Romans in the 4th Century AD or the Franks in the 9th Century AD. It took form either in objects with dual Christian and Norse symbolism, or in the simultaneous production of art of each style; this is perhaps best represented by the Viking casting moulds which have been discovered, which allowed for the smith to create Mjolnir-shaped amulets alongside Christian crosses.