Vikings are popular these days, but please don’t invite me to that party. As far as I’m concerned, being a fan of Vikings is akin to being a fan of Isis. Like Isis, Vikings destroyed priceless works of cultural heritage (and yeah, they killed a lot of people too). I’m taking the side of the creators, not the destroyers.
Of course I know that Vikings did, in fact, create objects that could be described as art. Certainly some were accomplished woodcarvers and boat builders. While we were in Norway, I made an effort to appreciate Viking art on its own terms.
I mean I really tried, but even after all that effort my favorite part about the Viking Ship Museum was meeting these cheeky Norwegian boys who insisted I take their picture and then attempted to convince me that they were from Japan.
We also visited Oslo’s Historical Museum to see the Viking exhibit. While there were a few moderately interesting Viking-made artifacts, the major portion of the show consisted of treasures that had been looted by Vikings from other cultures.
It wasn’t until we visited the Gol Stave church that I could begin to engage in the Viking artistic heritage, because I saw an influence of Viking art on the church’s design.
The Gol church was the only stave church we visited in Norway—naturally I had planned to visit as many as possible, only to realize that all stave churches are closed during off season, with the exception of Gol. This church is part of Oslo’s outdoor Norwegian Folk Museum. The original, c. 1200, was moved and reconstructed from another location, so I think of it as a stave in captivity.
Here is the Oseberg ship, c. 800, from the Viking Ship Museum. There’s something about the curvilinear elegance of the ship’s prow that is recalled in the Gol church’s roof chapels and the flamboyant wood carvings projecting from the gables.
(I didn’t meet any cheeky boys who wanted me to take their picture at the Gol church, but there was this one hot dude…)
The resemblance between the Viking art and the stave church is also quite apparent in the decorative details. On the left is a bit carving on the Oseberg ship and on the right is a detail of the décor next to the Gol church door.
These winners of the Norwegian Facial Hair Lifetime Achievement Award are from a Viking wagon (left) and the Gol Church (right).
I guess there’s nothing too shocking about these similarities—the Viking age extended to 1066 so it makes sense that their artifacts would have influenced, or have even been incorporated, into early stave churches.
What I didn’t expect was to see the Viking art motifs so obviously reflected in the furnishings of the Norwegian Art Nouveau movement. Here are some details from a chair and chest drawer in Ålesund’s Art Nouveau museum next to that detail from the Oseberg ship. Like, isn’t the whole point of Art Nouveau to be new? It must have nationalism that compelled Norwegian artisans of the early 20th century to look back with nostalgia to a more barbaric age.
Yeah, I deliberately used the word barbaric, though I realize it could be misinterpreted. I don’t mean barbaric to imply pagan (paganism is a party I want to be invited to). I mean barbaric as destructive of human values—Viking sacking monasteries, Christians on crusades, and a US presidential administration that locks up migrant children in unsafe ersatz prisons—-when a culture embraces cruelty, I can try to appreciate its artifacts, but it sure as hell isn’t getting my affection.
Give me a stave in captivity any day.