The Vikings liked to surround themselves with colour and lively motifs. Painted interiors and colourful tapestries were used both to show status and to narrate myths.
Scenes and motifs from written sources
Written sources indicate that the halls of the kings were painted, and also that painted shields and colourful textiles brightened the interior. On the few occasions the colours are mentioned, it is most often blue, red and white.
Several poems invite us into the hall. In one, a kenning (a roundabout way of expressing an idea) is used to describe a wall as ‘the steep shield’, indicative of scenes painted on the wall.
- Bragi Boddason’s Ragnarsdråpa, a skaldic shield poem from the first half of the 9th century, describes figures and scenes painted on shields: Sorli and Hamdir attacking and killing Jörmunrekkr, the Battle of the Heodenings, Thor fishing for the Midgard Serpent and Gefjun ploughing Skjælland away from Sweden. This is the oldest description we have of images in a royal hall.
- Thjodolf of Hvinir’s skaldic shield poem Haustlöng describes the abduction of Idunn and Thor’s fight with Hrugnir. This is the best preserved shield poem in existence.
- Kormákr Ögmundarson’s poem Sigurdsdråpa mentions figures painted on the walls of Sigurd Håkonsen Ladejarl’s hall. Among the motifs are: Odin enchanting Rindr to win her, Urd coming from the well, and Thor sitting in a carriage.
- Illugi Bryndølaskald’s poem about Harald Hardrada describes scenes painted on the walls of the king’s hall, taken from the Sigurd myths.
- Ulfr Uggasson’s skaldic poem Husdråpa, from the end of the 10th century, lists scenes painted on the walls of Olaf Hoskuldson’s new hall: the funeral of Baldr on a burning boat the swimming competition between Loki and Heimdall, and Thor fishing for the Midgard Serpent.
- The Book of Haukr tells of a more mundane scene that is painted on the wall – a married couple.
The same range of images is transferred to the wood carvings that surround the entrance doors to stave churches.
Illustration below: From the Oseberg find. One of the bedposts. Watercolour by Ola Geelmuyden. Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo.
Archaeological finds displaying colours
The most renowned of the discoveries at Oseberg are the ship and accompanying wooden objects with their beautiful wood carvings. Today these are dark, but originally the fresh, pale timber was painted in red, russet, off-white, yellow and black, and with decorative metals nails. From the way these carved details were painted we can deduce that special craftsmen were assigned to this task.
When the sleds, chairs and beds were excavated in 1905, the brightly coloured surfaces were still in evidence. However, in order to conserve the wood, the paint had to be sacrificed. Fortunately, we have sketches made at the point of excavation that show how the colours looked.
The chair had flat areas that were ornamented with animal figuration in yellow and black. The so-called Gustavson Sled was painted with a lattice-work in a russet colour with red circles and decorative tinplated nails. The bedposts were painted yellow with black borders.
On the Gokstad ship, shields were attached to the sides. These alternated between yellow and black, first one, then the other. The same colours were evident on the tent poles found aboard ship. Remains of painted shields have also been found in a ship grave at Ballateare on the Isle of Man and Grimstrup in Denmark, and both the Oseberg and Bayeux tapestries depict coloured shields. The three upper strakes of the Ladby Ship were also painted, two of them blue with the middle one in yellow. The Grønhaug ship on Karmøy had triangular areas carved into it, and painted black.
Illustration: Detail from the tiller of the Gokstad Ship. Illustration from Nicolaysen (1882), plate XI, fig. 1. Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo.
Where did the Vikings get their colours from?
Certain pigments could be made locally, while others had to be imported. For the elite, the use of foreign products brought from great distances was a way of manifesting their status. Blue and some shades of red were particularly coveted and extremely expensive.
Yellow. Ochre gives a warm tone and is unproblematic to use. Orpiment gives a bright yellow, but contains arsenic. It has become known as The King’s Yellow, and it was used for the shields of the Gokstad ship. Today the price of pigment to make 1 litre of paint would be around 40.000 crowns.
Blue. Egyptian blue was made from copper and ammonia. Ultramarine was derived from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli and came for most part from Afghanistan by way of the oriental trade routes. It was extremely expensive. A green tinge to the blue of the Ladby Ship indicates ultramarine mixed with ochre. Egyptian blue has been found in Norway on shields from Bø in Steigen and Malvik in South Trøndelag. Both are from the Roman Era (AD 0–400). Towards the end of the Roman Era the use of Egyptian blue diminishes in Northern Europe, while the use of ultramarine seems to increase through the Viking Age and Middle Ages.
Red was derived locally from ochre or iron oxides, alternatively from cinnaber, which gives a bright and warm red tone. Cinnaber, which contains mercury, was brought from the Middle East, Italy, Serbia and Spain. Today the price of pigment to make 1 litre of paint would be around 20.000 crowns.
Black came from charcoal, not least from burnt animal bones.
White and off-white were derived from chalk and lime.
Green was derived from ochre, or from the verdigris of copper acetate.
Illustration above: The carved animal heads of the tent’s bargeboards were painted in yellow and black. Illustration from Nicolaysen (1882), plate XI, fig. 2. Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo.
The yellow and blue colouration of the Ladby Ship and other Danish finds indicate that linseed oil was used as a pigment binder. Binders could also be made from mixing cod liver oil and small amounts of pine tar, also from the adhesive properties of hides and animal bones. It is impossible to determine the binding agent used for the objects found at Oseberg.
Reading tips (Norwegian)
- Brøgger, A.W., Falk, H.J, Shetelig, Haakon 1920: Osebergfunnet, Vol. III.
- Christensen, Arne Emil, Ingstad, Anne Stine og Myhre, Bjørn 1992: Osebergdronningens grav. Vår arkeologiske nasjonalskatt i nytt lys. Oslo.
- Christensen, Arne Emil og Nockert, Margareta (red) 2006: Osebergfunnet, Vol. VI, Tekstilene. Oslo.
- Lie, Halvard 1956: Billedbeskrivende dikt. Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder, Vol. 1, p. 542–545.
- Nicolaysen, N. 1882: Langskibet fra Gokstad ved Sandefjord. Kristiana (Oslo).
- Stalsberg, Anne og Plahter, Unn 2012: Lapis lazuli, den kostbare fargen. SPOR nr. 1, 2012, p. 32- 35.
Illustration below: Examples of painted shields. Left: Actual finds of painted Viking Age shields. Right: Shields depicted on textiles. (Illustration, by Vegard Vike, from the book Vikings at War by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike).