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Urnes Style

This latest and final style of Viking art dates from a little before 1050 until the early part of the twelfth century. Although the style may be of Swedish origin, it takes its name from a wooden church at Urnes, Norway, built around 1060. The building has finely carved panels reused from an earlier church on the site. The panels portray combat motifs of sinuous, greyhound-like animals that interlace in graceful loops with fine-lined snakes and other creatures. The animals typically have elongated, tear-shaped eyes pointing forwards, and curling lappets on their upper jaws. The designs use broad and narrow lines in striking contrast, and sometimes plant tendrils take the place of the snakes.

The style was widely used in fine metalwork and wood-carving in Scandinavia and is also common on rune-inscribed grave-slabs of the early Christian period in Sweden. The combat motif, which may be a symbol derived from fable of the conflict between good (the animal) and evil (the snake), was popularly used in a series of openwork brooches with regional variations. It occurs occasionally, too, in England - on the Pitney brooch, for example. But the style survived longest in Ireland in a distinctive native version, which shows the eyes pointing backwards. The Cross of Cong was decorated in this style around 1123. In the early twelfth century the Urnes Style finally merged into the universal, medieval Romanesque style of Christian western Europe. This marks the end of the succession of Germanic animal art styles that had developed in the fifth century, largely from Roman origins.

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Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99

Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99