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Art and Architecture of the Vikings


While the Vikings are best known as fierce marauders, a thousand years ago they built sleek ships and stately stave churches. Surviving artifacts show a society with an impressive artistic flair.

Complete Video Script

[63] With Muslims on the southern fringe, and Byzantines to the east, early medieval Europeans had one more surprisingly sophisticated culture on their northern border — the Vikings.

[64] Though best-known as fierce marauders, the Vikings were also wide-ranging sea-traders and hardy settlers with their own artful culture — one that dated back well before the 11th century arrival of Christianity, to pagan times.

[65, Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway; Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, Denmark] Their remarkable ships are icons of those days of pillage and plunder. In formidable boats like this — finely crafted of oak — the Vikings ranged far and wide from their Scandinavian homeland. Gazing up at the prow of one of these sleek vessels, you can imagine the horror peasants as far away as France, England, or Ireland felt when those redheads on the rampage sailed up their river. It's often said that, for generations, the standard close of the prayers for many Europeans was not "amen" but "and deliver us from the Norseman, amen."

[66, artifacts from Viking Ship Museum, Oslo] While feared raiders, they also had a remarkable sense of beauty and design. That's clear in the excavations of the graves of Viking rulers. The Vikings worshipped pagan gods and believed in a life after death. And they believed you could take it with you. In their graves archaeologists have found everything from jewelry to weapons — much of it with an impressive artistic flair. Viking chieftains were buried in their ships alongside their possessions — like fine leather accessories, ornately carved sleighs, or even a horse cart decorated with scenes from old Viking sagas. Their artistic objects seemed to provide a link between this world and the next.

[67] Over time, the Vikings intermingled with the Christian people they previously terrorized. Eventually converted and tamed, Vikings re-directed their boat-building skills and, rather than sleek ships to raid in, they built fine wooden churches to pray in.

[68, Stave Church, c. 1180, Borgund, Norway] There were once over a thousand of these stave churches. Because little remains from societies that built primarily of wood, few of these churches survive. They were supported by pine poles — or staves — and slathered with a protective coat of black tar. Wood was plentiful and cheap. While the basic design reflects the simple technology of the age, more elaborate examples, like this one, stand as proud testaments to the Norse culture and its art.

[69] Carvings evoke the pagan roots of these early Norwegian Christians. Stylized dragons reminiscent of those that once adorned Viking ships probably functioned like gargoyles — to keep evil spirits at bay. Interiors were stark and dark with tiny windows and simple X-shaped crosses of St. Andrew — a local patron saint. The architecture guides your gaze upwards, toward Heaven.

[70] The Vikings were yet another example of the blending of ancient pagan and Christian culture that would eventually create the Europe we know today.