Viking Art by Dr Fenella Bazin – 17th June 2015

by John Slater

It’s always a pleasure to welcome Dr. Fenella Bazin, RBV, to Peel Heritage Trust. She is well known for her work in continuing education, making good use of her doctorate in Manx music up to 1896. Indeed, she is credited with helping to put Manx music on the map.

Fenella opened her talk by saying that her love for Peel developed when she was engaged in archaeological work in the castle and surroundings in the 1980s. This soon plunges one into the Norwegian Vikings with their glamour and vigour, not only brave in battle and conquest with, it must be said, no little attraction for the young ladies of the day. This led to settlement and application of their skills as farmers. It also enriched the gene pool, with many of their strengths still visible today.

The Vikings’ skill in metalwork and artistic embellishment of not only fine swords but also decorated items such as brooches, buckles, amulets and jewellery are well known, with exciting finds on the Island still being made. Carved crosses are another part of their artistic legacy.

We had a look at a map of their voyages, with trading as far away as Tashkent. They were very keen on adopting new technology as displayed in their fine ships. Thanks to a system of building the skin and then applying internal bracing ribs, a very flexible structure was formed, riding the seas more easily.

Navigational skills were remarkable. Indeed, there is even some evidence to show that the Vikings solved the problem of calculating longitude.

By gathering knowledge and further developing it, they excelled in steel and glass- making. This served practical as well as artistic needs.

Narrative art was particularly important, given limitations in literacy amongst the general population. Fenella showed us illustrations of stones from Gotland in cream and terracotta to highlight stories.

Ships sails were made of small woven panels stitched together. However, they went to the additional trouble in setting these at angles to each other to produce attractive patterns. Other decoration may be applied to impress whoever was on the receiving end of their attention or out of a sense of identity and pride.

Interestingly, the Vikings didn’t write their own history. This was done by their enemies, hence a rather one-sided account of terror, destruction and violence.

Runes, a developed form of carving words in stone, using only straight lines for ease, are often accompanied on stones by carvings of the gods Odin, Thor and Freya. Runes and interlacing were similar to Celtic knots. Odin was the chief god, often depicted on his eight-legged horse.

Metal smiths held a very high status in Viking Society. Their ability to transform lumps of rock into fine swords, tools or other artefacts was held in awe. I suppose more recent examples would be the respect accorded to Victorian engineers constructing railways, building cars, bridging impossible looking gaps with fine bridges or tunnelling through mountains.

Fine, engraved work such as gilded bronze amulets was performed with the aid of magnifying lenses made from polished rock crystals. All this involved a whole range of sophisticated skills with nothing but hand tools. Even in the 10th C, they were little different to those still in use. There are plenty of examples of Viking chisels, augers, saws, drills, rasps and hammers.

There were three carving styles – incised : low, flat relief : high, rounded relief. Once again, a modern carver would still make use of these methods. We looked at illustrations to appreciate this and the legends some of these carvings portrayed. Indeed, Wagner drew upon Norse Legend in some of his operatic works.

The Norse embraced Christianity on the Island, in the 10thC. Some of the timber churches they built in Norway have survived for 1000 years, thanks to their timbers being soaked in ox blood as a preservative. Goodness knows how this was discovered. Many medieval, English dwellings have benefited from having their timbers treated with a mixture of molten tallow and oxblood. This is probably just as effective as ‘modern’ treatments and much kinder to the environment.

Fenella closed by talking about the Viking’s notion of the ‘end of the world’ when Odin would be devoured.

A brief account can do know more than whet the appetite. We look forward to a return visit! The mass of questions from the floor showed the level of interest.

We now take a summer break, the next meeting being at 7.30pm in the Centenary Centre on 15th September when Dessie Robinson will treat us to part 2 of his presentation on the Calf of Man.