viking \u0026 chinese art .docx
Tang China (618-907) and Viking Scandinavia (793–1066) are two
contemporary art historical periods during which both cultures experienced an
increase in wealth, military power and, as a result, the production of art. Tang
China expanded its boarders and saw an upsurge in cultural exchange due to a
policy of religious toleration. The Vikings began to trade overseas, exchanging
ideas with cultures they came in contact with. Both were strongly influenced by
new religions: Christianity in Scandinavia and Buddhism in China. The chosen
works are characteristic of the style and nature of most art produced in China
and Scandinavia during the period 750-980CE. Animal figures depicted on
funerary goods and the depiction of human figures in religious art will be
analyzed in a cultural context to explain differences and similarities in the
representation and use of animal and human forms in art during the Viking age
and Tang China.
The animal-head post from the Oseberg ship burial in Oseberg, Norway,
was sculpted circa 825CE as part of an elaborate burial for two Viking women: a
queen and her companion.1 In Viking tradition notable individuals were buried
in wooden long ships bearing any goods they might need in the afterlife. This
animal-head post is believed to have been “devised for magical protection of the
The funerary purpose of the animal-head post dictates its ornamental
nature and fierce appearance. On the serpent’s head numerous bird-like shapes
intertwine to create an interlace with “new plays of light and shade”
1 Stokstad and Cothren 441, Kleiner and Mamiya 3042 Williams, Pentz and Wemhoff 200
characteristic of the Oseberg style.3 The serpent’s head is sturdy and squat,
giving it form like any living thing and “the restraint of the smooth, curved
neck . . .contrast[ed] with the restless pattern of the head” accentuates this
dynamism.4 The animal-head post achieves the semblance of life through its
open mouth and bulging eyes. The corners of the serpent’s snarling mouth best
illustrate the blend of both naturalism and stylization in the overarching form of
the serpent: the shape is naturalistic but the pattern of lines which suggests the
shape is stylistic.
During the Tang dynasty, placing glazed ceramic figurines in a royal tomb
was common practice. Rather than being a unique occurrence in Chinese history,
the sculptures found in Tang tombs “carried on the traditions of funerary art”
that had been established in the earliest Chinese dynasties.5 These particular
figures are dated to the first half of the 8th century CE and are made of red
earthenware with cold-painted pigments over white ground.
The stylistic features of the two equestrian figures are the result of
confidence in the strength of the government and a focus on material wealth. The
two figures are seated on saddled and bridled horses with their hands arranged
as if holding on to reigns.6 The figures sit upright and seem to be expertly
balancing themselves as the horse moves, giving the impression of great dignity
as well as ability. The assurance of dignity and security given by the strong
3 The Oseberg style is the initial phase in Viking art, to which this work belongs (Graham-Campbell).4 Wilson and Klindt-Jensen 545 Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri S.p.A 626 Stokstad and Cothren 348
government and military of the Tang dynasty is perhaps the reason why the
sculpture of this age gives the impression of vigor and nobility.7 The horses’
chests are broad and muscular, suggesting confidence and strength. The Tang
dynasty focused on material splendor, as a result Tang sculptors used a “more
plastic and sensuous style to express the more humanistic and worldly” outlook
of the period.8 The fine costumes of the riders reflect this material focus: both
wear pointed boots and tunics with embellished collars and the male figure also
wears a tall, elaborate hat.9
The animal-head post and the equestrian statues share the same sense of
energy and movement, however, each was also rendered in this way for another
purpose and using different techniques. Both works are inherently vigorous and
full of energy. This dynamism was for the purpose of adding beauty and artistic
merit to the work in order for the deceased to appear prestigious in the afterlife.
However, the animal-head post achieves the affect of alertness and vigor through
the seething forms on its head and neck. The purpose of the serpent appearing
almost alive was to protect the burial because of superstitions that the Vikings
held. The equestrian statues, by contrast, are animated by their naturalism and
realistic proportions in order to reflect the material culture of the Tang.
In the Viking world, rune stones were used to commemorate
achievements or the death of a relative. The pictorial stone erected by Danish
king Harald Bluetooth between 983-985CE was a mix of the two. The Jelling
7 Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri S.p.A 618 Munsterberg 1339 Stokstad and Cothren 348
Stone, so called, is located near the royal burial mounds at Jelling. 10 Runes
inscribed in the 3-sided, 8 foot high granite boulder read “King Harald had this
memorial made for Gorm his father and Thyra his mother: that Harald who won
for himself all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians”.11 This
work belongs to the Jelling Style.12
Placed in the context of contemporary beliefs, the image of Christ on the
Jelling Stone is a symbol of power that enhances the prestige of King Harald. On
one face of the Jelling stone is carved an image of Christ with his arms
outstretched as if he is being crucified. The figure of Christ is robed in the
Byzantine manner and his head is surrounded by a simple halo. The only major
ornamentation of Christ’s figure are the lines representing the folds of his tunic:
horizontal, crescent-shaped lines on the torso and vertical lines around the
knees. Surrounding the figure of Christ are a series of inter-twining knots and
vines. The vines have a line down the center, perhaps meant to represent two
vines placed close together. Christ’s outstretched arms bear the same line down
the center as the surrounding vines. Instead of nailed to a cross, Christ is held in
a tangle of double-ribbon interlace representing vines of a tree, possibly a
reference to Yggdrasil.13 According to legend Odin hung himself from the
branches of Yggdrasil and pierced himself with his spear in order to gain the
knowledge of using runes.14 The fact that Christ is being crucified in Yggdrasil’s
10 Although it resembles Hiberno-saxon art due to Scandinavia’s close proximity to the British Isles, art historians classify Viking art as a distinct pictorial tradition11 Stokstad and Cothren 442 12 The Jelling style is the third style of Viking art, after the Oseberg and Borre styles, and is characterized by heavy animal designs (Graham-Campbell).13 Yggdrasil is a mythical tree which holds the Viking world in its branches (Murphy).14 Odin is the main god of the Viking pantheon and the god of wisdom (Orchard 35-37).
branches on the Jelling Stone equates him with Odin and the incredible power
the Vikings associated with Odin. This pictorial stone is therefore primarily a
religious work as well as a commemorative one, which may account for the stark
nature of the representation, as the focus was not on Christ as a savior, but as a
symbol of power and wisdom: both highly valued by the Vikings.
During the Tang dynasty the expansion of Chinese boarders closer to
India and a policy of religious toleration led to Buddhism and Buddhist art
reaching its zenith. Mural painting was one important form of Buddhist art and
was primarily used to decorate shrine-filled pilgrimage caves.15 One of these
murals is the so-called Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha, dated to 750CE, in
the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas at Dunhuang, Gansu. The work was
commissioned to gain favor with the Buddha and represents the vision of the
most popular Buddhist sect in China at the time, Pure Land Buddhism.16
The Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha was a religious image
designed to motivate Buddhist pilgrims to reach paradise. In the center of the
composition, a seated Amitabha Buddha is flanked by four bodisattvas while two
other groups of bodhisattvas gather to the right and left.17 The Buddha figure is
seated cross-legged on a lotus blossom with multicolored petals of teal, ochre
and azure-blue. He wears the costume of an Indian priest, with one shoulder
uncovered, and is making the Abhayamudra with his right hand. 18 Towers and
15 Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri S.p.A 6916 Pure Land Buddhism taught that if one’s soul was kept clean during one’s lifetime one could live in paradise in the afterlife. It came from India and was commonly represented in Buddhist art before this time. 17 Stokstad and Cothren 34518 Abhayamudra is a gesture which means “do not fear” (Buswell).
halls reminiscent of Tang palaces rise in the background. Swirls of color cover
the yellow sky above the Towers. This vision of paradise is full of opulence and
recorded with great detail.19 Focus is placed on complex composition, with rich
coloring and linear figures, and architectural unity.20 In addition there is no
awkwardness in the composition, but rather a “harmonious serenity” in the
design.21 The bright colors and details culminate in a direct appeal to the
material in order to motivate both the layperson and the aristocracy to lead good
lives so that they may live in paradise in the afterlife.
The Jelling Stone and The Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha are both
religious images that appeal to worldly concerns, however, they accomplish this
through very different means and for different purposes. Christ being crucified
on the Jelling Stone is ostensibly a religious image, but in the context of Viking
mythology it becomes a symbol of power: an earthly concern rather than a
devotional one. Similarly, The Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha represents
a religious scene but the motifs within the scene are of this earth and speak to
superfluous wealth. The starkness of the Jelling Stone, which does not distract
from the simple idea of what is being represented, effectively conveys the idea
that Christ is an allusion to Odin and his power. This is done in order to connect
King Harald with power in turn. The Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha,
however, utilizes bright colors and attention to detail to represent material
wealth in the form of palaces and jewels for the purpose of motivating Buddhists
to live untainted lives.
19 Stokstad and Cothren 34520 Ashton and Gray 114 21 Encyclopaedia Britannica
There are indeed many factors that influence the development of artistic
styles. Perhaps so many that art historians may never find the root cause of the
increased plasticity of ceramic figurines during the Tang dynasty or the
incredible grace of the animal-head post from Oseberg. 22 However, there are
several elements that can be attributed as causes of the style and function of art
during the Tang dynasty and the Viking age. A strong funerary tradition in both
cultures as well as a shared value for prestige can be seen as the reasons for the
dynamism of animal depictions and the use of such objects in funerals. An
established tradition of intertwining animal forms may be why intricate
patterning is used to animate and beautify Viking animal art. Confidence in the
Tang military is perhaps the reason for the use of naturalistic representation in
the animation and enrichment of Tang sculptures. The increasing power and
wealth of Viking Scandinavia and Tang China account for the worldly concerns of
religious images in both cultures. The Vikings’ emphasis on symbolism and
personal power may account for the starkness of human figures in Viking art
while the Tang focus on material wealth could be used to explain the activity in
Tang compositions with human figures. Thus the values of contemporary culture
and historical events dictate which artistic elements are emphasized and
developed and the purpose for which each object is created.
22 Increased plasticity of figures during the Tang dynasty as compared to the two preceding dynasties, the Sui and the Wei: from 581-618CE and 220-590CE respectively (Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri S.p.A).
Animal-head post. Wood, c. 825CE. 91cm long, University Museum of National Antiquities, Oslo, Norway.
Stokstad and Cothren 348
Two Equestrian Figures. Molded, reddish-buff earthenware with cold-painted pigments over white ground, first half of the 8th century CE. 37cm, Harvard Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachussetts, USA. 3.
The Jelling Stone. Granite, 983-985CE. 3- sides, height about 244cm, Jelling, Denmark.
Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha. Pigment on stone, c. 750CE. 3.1 x 4.86 m, Cave 217, Dunhuang, Gansu, China.23
Works CitedAshton, Leigh and Basil Gray. Chinese Art. London: Faber and Faber, 1925.
Buswell, Robert Jr. Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press, n.d.
Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chinese Art. Ed. Warren E. Cox. Garden City: Garden City Publishing Co., Inc. , 1936.
23 The Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha is in bad condition due to the fading and flaking off of pigments. This was the clearest image that could be obtained.
Graham-Campbell, James. Viking Art. Oxford University Press.
Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri S.p.A. Chinese Art. Ed. Francesco Abbate. Trans. Pauline L. Phillips. London: Peerage Books, 1972.
Kleiner , Fred S. and Christin J. Mamiya. Gardner's Art Throughout the Ages. Ed. Sharon Adams Poore. 12th. Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.
Munsterberg, Hugo. A Short History of Chinese Art. East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1949.
Murphy, G. Ronald. Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North. 1st. Oxford University Press, 2013.
Orchard, Andy, ed. The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore. Trans. Andy Orchard. London: Penguin Classics, 2011.
Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael W Cothren. Art History. Ed. Craig Campanella. 5th . New Jersey: Pearson, 2014.
"Viking Art." The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide. Abington: Helicon , 2015.
Williams, Gareth, Peter Pentz and Matthias Wemhoff. Vikings; Life and Legend. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014.
Wilson, David M and Ole Klindt-Jensen. Viking Art. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980.