Jonas Lau Markussen
Urnes Style

Urnes style

The Anatomy of Viking Art





The Anatomy of the Urnes Style


c. 1050 – 1125






1. Extremely elongated proportions (head almost reduced to a mere ribbon terminal).
2. Tendrils usually without offshoots.
3. Tightly scrolled tendril terminals.
4. Tendrils with a single lobe.
5. Head in profile.
6. Almond-shaped eye.
7. Upper and lower lip-lappets.
8. Neck-tendril.
9. Spirals representing hip joints.





Even outlines with slight tapering and almost without kinks and dents.





Circular curves looping in opposite directions.


A. Figure-of-eights loops.





  • Open interlace with a more visible background.
  • Single-stranded ribbons.
  • Usually limited to only two ribbon widths.






  • Two basic schemes of interpenetrating loops:
    1. Two intersecting ribbons of figure-of-eight loops (A, C).
    2. Multi-loops – three or more intersecting ribbons (B, D).
  • Absence of axiality and symmetry.
  • Balance in design is built by the fluent juxtaposition of the circular loops.






  • Great Beasts, almost exclusively, and typically executed in a very similar and extremely formalistic manner.
  • Occasional vegetal motives (not displayed here although the terminals of feet and tails in illustration D are of vegetal origin).





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Consolidation of the Norse Regions



The Throne of Norway


Harald Hardrada, the half-brother of Olaf Haraldson, had fled to Kievan Rus’ after he and Olaf were defeated at the battle of Stiklestad.


He became a captain in the army of Yaroslav the Wise, king of the Rus’, and later went to Constantinople, where he earned great honour and wealth serving in the Byzantine Varangian Guard.


After fifteen years in the East, he returned to Norway just before the death of Magnus the Good and soon became king of Norway.




The Throne of Denmark


Sweyn Estridsson, who had served under Magnus the Good became king of Denmark. Though he was not a direct successor of Cnut, he was the closest living legitimate heir to the throne by his family link through his mother, Cnut’s sister Estrid Svendsdatter, and he took the matronymic surname Estridsson after her, emphasising his connection to the Royal Danish bloodline.


Sweyn is often considered to be Denmark’s last Viking Age king as well as the first Medieval one.




The Norman Conquest of England


After securing his power as Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror who was a descendant of Rollo launched the Norman conquest of England and claimed the English throne.


In the pursuit of the English crown for himself, Harald Hardrada died in the Battle of Stamford Bridge opposing the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson. Later the same year Harold was defeated by William who was then crowned king of England in London.


A few years later Sweyn Estridsen made a couple of final attempts at reconquering the English throne to reestablish the Great Norse Kingdom but failed.


These events are traditionally considered to mark the end of the Viking Age.




The Conversion of Sweden


There had been numerous attempts to convert the Swedish regions of Scandinavia, but they were not very successful due to the resistance of the Swedish people with their deep-rooted Norse beliefs and their strong traditions around the cult at Uppsala.


None of the Christian Swedish Kings had the strength nor the support to force the conversion, until the reign of Inge the Elder, who was a devoted Christian. He is known to have founded the first abbey in Sweden and acted harshly against pagan practices.




European Integration


By now the Norse people in Scandinavia and around Europe had all converted in some form to the Christian faith. Their leaders grew dependent on the Church to support their rule, and on every level, the societies of Scandinavia became more and more dependent and similar in culture and customs to the rest of continental Europe and the British Isles.





Old Norse Minimalism





Where the Ringerike style skewed towards a more elaborate tendency with numerous tendrils, sprouts and offshoots in the interlace patterns, the Urnes style is much cleaner and almost geometric and modern. Though the two styles may seem very different in their approach to the execution of animal ornament they share a lot of common characteristics, among them the fondness for the great beast motif invented in the Mammen style. Plant-based motifs on the other hand vastly diminished in importance, although they were not altogether abandoned.






The style can be approximately dated through dendrochronological samples of the surviving wood-carvings and dateable coins found in hoards together with Urnes style metalworks.




The Runestone Style


The development from the Ringerike style can be traced across a large number of runic memorial stones spanning the period of transition, which are mostly found in Uppland, Sweden. The transitional style is therefore commonly mentioned by the name the runestone style. The runestone carvings consist of three main phases each dominated by one or more key craftsmen.


The early phase was dominated by Asmund Karason, who is popularly described as the inventor of the style. His work includes some of the earliest multi-loop compositions.


The golden age dominated by Fot and Balli represents the middle period.


The later phase was dominated by Öpir who was an average craftsman with a limited repertoire but a large body of work with over eighty inscriptions attributed to him.


Some of these runestones describe events also known from later sources like the Icelandic sagas and is, therefore, some of the only Norse contemporary written sources, from which we get a tiny glimpse of the Norse culture, history and events described by the contemporary native people of Scandinavia themselves.




Openwork Brooches


A common Urnes style find is the small openwork brooches shaped like a great beast motif. The exact execution can vary, but they all display a relatively simple figure-of-eights-loops intertwine of a larger animal fighting one or two smaller and thinner serpents.




The Urnes Church


But it is of cause the magnificent wood carving of the Urnes church, from which the style got its name, which comes to mind when recalling great examples of the style. The carvings originate from an earlier church built on the site and were reused in the current surviving iteration of the stave-church.






The style is found throughout Scandinavia and the Norse settlements around Europe, and like the Ringerike style it was partly adopted in Ireland and had an afterlife here even when its popularity had faded in contemporary Scandinavia.




Romanesque Art


In Norse regions, the Urnes style transitioned towards and blended with the later Romanesque art, which came to dominate the Christian European culture.















c. 1050

Fluted silver bowl
— the Lilla Valla hoard

Lilla Valla, Gotland, Sweden.
Historiska Museet, Stockholm SHM 3099


(c. 1130 – the current stave church)

The Urnes church wood carving

Urnes, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway.


c. 1070

The Hørning beam

Hørning, Jutland, Denmark.
Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen D2309


c. 1100 – 1150

Wood carving from furniture

Trondheim, Trøndelag, Norway.
Vitenskabsmuseet Trondheim N30000/FH415







The Ardre memorial stones

Ardre, Gotland, Sweden.


Bottom plate of ‘box-shaped’ brooch

Tjängdarve, Träkumla, Gotland, Sweden.
Historiska Museet, Stockholm.
SHM 3871


Box tomb in Vreta monastery

Vreta, Östergötland, Sweden.


The Gåtebo crucifix

Gåtebo, Öland, Sweden.
Historiska Museet, Stockholm SHM 100


Openwork bronze brooch

Östervarv, Östergötland, Sweden.
Historiska Museet, Stockholm.
SHM 9170:1216


Openwork silver brooch (I)

Lindholm Høje, Jutland, Denmark.
Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen ÅHM1937


Openwork silver brooch (II)

Tröllaskógur, Southern Region, Iceland.
Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, Reykjavík 6524


Runestone U 130

Nora, Uppland, Sweden.


Runestone U 177

Stav, Uppland, Sweden.


Runestone U 202

Vallentuna, Uppland, Sweden.


Runestone U 460

Skråmsta, Uppland, Sweden.


Runestone U 961

Vaksala, Uppland, Sweden.


Runestone Sö 276

Strängnäs, Södermanland, Sweden.


The head of a tau crozier

Thingvellir, Iceland.
Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, Reykjavík 15776







Graham-Campbell, James, 2013. Viking Art.


Fuglesang, Signe Horn, 1980. Some Aspects of the Ringerike Style.


Fuglesang, Signe Horn, 1981. ‘Stylistic Groups in Late Viking and Early Romanesque Art.’ Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Pertinentia (Series altera in 8°) 79–125.
















The Anatomy of Viking Art

The Anatomy of Viking Art

This article is part of a series on Viking Age art, which has been turned into a handy e-book (PDF).

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