In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Art in Scandinavia, 400-800

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Art History Medieval Art in Scandinavia, 400-800
Nancy L. Wicker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0146


Art of the four-hundred-year period in Scandinavia spanning c. 400 to c. 800 CE begins with the close of the Roman Iron Age and extends into the early Viking Age. Archaeologically, this entire time span is considered part of the Iron Age, the final phase of European prehistory that follows the Stone and the Bronze Ages, with reference to the material used for cutting edges of weapons and tools. The art of an earlier phase, c. 400–550, is usually called the Migration Period in Norway and Sweden, while the later period, c. 550–800, is called the Vendel Period in Sweden, after a particular site there, but is referred to as the Merovingian Period in Norway. Using the terms “Migration Period” and “Merovingian Period” highlights contacts of Scandinavia with Germanic peoples on the Continent. In Denmark, the period c. 400–800 is referred to as the Germanic Iron Age, divided into earlier and later phases. In general, the terms “Migration Period” and “Vendel Period” will be used here. For all of Scandinavia, most scholars consider the second half of the 8th century a period of transition to the Viking Age. The art of these periods includes almost no painting, few examples of large-scale sculpture, and scarce remains of architecture revealed archaeologically. The surviving artistic evidence is skewed toward metal artifacts, especially weapons and articles of personal adornment, but also glass and pottery, found as grave goods in high-status burials. Undoubtedly large quantities of organic materials, including wood, textiles, and leather, as well as bone, ivory, and antler, have not survived well in the earth. Nearly all artistic finds have been recovered through archaeological investigations, and thus the fields of Scandinavian art and archaeology are closely interrelated. With the advent of metal detecting, the nature of the material is changing as more hoards and stray finds are discovered. Much of the art of the Migration and Vendel Periods consists of abstracted animal styles that contrast with the representational character of Roman art, yet the development of northern art was indebted to provincial Roman styles and techniques. The art of the period c. 400 through c. 800 is often referred to as pre-Viking art, since there is marked continuity in art styles through the fully developed Viking art (c. 800–1050). In the past, the study of this animal-style art was chiefly concerned with stylistic classification, but concerns about the status of artists and craftworkers, techniques of artistic production, and social uses of art have gained in significance.

General Overviews

There are few reference works or broad overviews of the art of the Migration Period and Vendel Period in Scandinavia, and even fewer in English. Most frequently, the art of these periods is included as a prelude to the art of the Viking Age. Some of the best synopses are found in archaeological sources.

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