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Carved Ivory Caskets and Reliquaries of Early Northern Europe

One of the more spectacular art forms of the Vikings were carved ivory boxes or caskets, intricately carved with an assortment of motifs. Having long admired these caskets, I decided to make my own casket, utilizing themes from Norse mythology.

The information below was created as documentation for my Viking casket, for use in SCA Arts and Sciences competition.

Historical Background

It is possible that the Norse casket tradition evolved after native craftsmen came into contact with reliquaries captured by Viking raiders and brought back to Scandinavia (Margeson, 17; Simpson, 18)

Ranvaik’s CasketRanvaik’s Casket
Ranvaik’s Casket

House-shaped casket of Celtic manufacture, ca. 8th cent. A.D. This casket was most likely a reliquary seized from a Celtic church or monastery and taken back to Norway as loot. Runes incised on the bottom read, "Ranvaik owns this casket". Construction is thin plates of a copper alloy over a box made of very thin yew-wood. Left: Front View. Right: Rear view showing hinges (Margeson, 17; Simpson, 18). Click on thumbnail to see full-sized image.

Gandersheim Reliquary
Gandersheim Reliquary

Photo of 8th century carved walrus ivory casket with bronze fittings from the Gandersheim Monastary. Thought to have been manufactured in southern England. Size 5" x 2-5/8" x 5" (12.7cm x 6.67cm x 12.7cm). From the collection of the Herzon-Anton-Ulrich-Museum. Click on thumbnail to see full-sized image.

Three caskets survived to the modern era, although one, the Cammin Casket, was destroyed in the firebombing of Dresden:

The Bamberg Casket a 10.4" x 5.1" square oak box covered with thin, carved sheets of walrus ivory in the Mammen style of ornament. The seams are covered with gilt-bronze bands engraved with a formal tendril pattern, which are nailed to the wooden base. "Barbaric, vulgar and ostentatious... a satisfying object which a queen would be proud to own" (Wilson and Klindt-Jensen, 124-128).

Bamberg CasketBamberg Casket
Bamberg Casket

Note that the panel designs were adapted for my casket. (Wilson and Klindt-Jensen, Plate 54) Click on thumbnail to see full-sized image.

The Cammin Casket a 24.8"l x 13"w x 10.2"h wood box overlaid with 22 sheets of carved elk-horn in the Mammen style of ornament. The seams are covered with gilt-bronze bands engraved with formal tendril patterns, ribbon interlace and scrolled leaf patterns, which were nailed to the wooden base. This casket may very well have been made by the same workshop as the Bamburg Casket, above (Wilson and Klindt-Jensen, 126-28).

Cammin CasketCammin Casket
Cammin Casket

Note that the panel designs were adapted for my casket. (Wilson and Klindt-Jensen, Plates 55 and 56) Click on thumbnail to see full-sized image.

The Franks Casket a small box of carved whalebone produced by Viking craftsmen in Northumbria at the end of the 7th cent. A.D. The lid and sides have runic inscriptions, and the motifs carved with scenes both from Norse and Classical mythology and Christianity, including the tale of Weland Smith, the Adoration of the Magi, a sacrifice to Óðinn, the discovery of Romulus and Remus with the wolves and the image of a Viking archer named Egill (whose story, unfortunately is now lost).

Franks CasketFranks Casket
Franks Casket

This carved whalebone casket was made by Viking craftsmen working in Northumbria ca. the late 7th cent. A.D. (Davidson, 125 & 134) Click on thumbnail to see full-sized image.

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Construction and Techniques

CasketFrontTop   CasketBackTop
CasketFrontLeft CasketFrontRight   CasketBackLeft CasketBackRight
Casket Front   Casket Back


CasketLeftTop   CasketRightTop
CasketLeftBottom   CasketRightBottom
Casket Left Side   Casket Right Side

Click on images to view detail

The Viking casket I made shares features with all the caskets mentioned above. The form itself is the house-shaped reliquary style box. While the Viking caskets we have remaining do not follow this form, they certainly had access to examples of caskets made in this shape, and the large rectangular panels of the house roof were necessary to display my mythological panels.

The underlying box is constructed of thin sheets of wood which have been rabbetted and then glued together during final assembly. The "ivory " used in this casket is an imitation, made using materials and methods which are definitely not native to the Viking Age, as I used polymer clay in alternating translucent and cream-colored layers to simulate the natural graining of ivory. This not only aids in conserving endangered species, one can "half-bake " the polymer clay, and then carve it with a sharp knife while it is still relatively soft. A final baking hardens the faux ivory to its current rigidity. A layer of glue was applied between the "ivory " panels and the wood panels before final assembly, to help hold the pieces in place. After the "ivory " was cooked, I wet-sanded with very fine grit to polish the pieces, then applied a varnish to help protect the surface. The final step in preparing the "ivory " was to antique the designs using a brown stain, which not only defines and highlights the designs, it adds to the natural appearance of the "ivory. "

I did not have the financial means to obtain gilded bronze metal stripping used to cover the seams: instead I used thin brass which I hand-engraved using one of the formal tendril designs from the Bamburg casket.

After the panels had been glued together, I applied the engraved brass stripping using both nails and upholstery tacks. The tacks are ornamental, and somewhat resemble the round-headed nails used in period caskets. The tacks are long enough that they not only secure the "ivory " panels to the wooden base, but at the edges also further secure the panels together.

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Artistic Themes and Motifs

The roof of this casket features two original designs based upon the style of the 12th cent. A.D. carvings on the Hylestad church in Norway. I have used traditional Viking mythological motifs melded with the Hylestad style to achieve designs which both are entirely original, but capture the feel of Viking art. The triangular bird motifs on the "gables " of the box are also original designs, which are based on the Mammen-style beasts of the Cammin and Bamburg caskets. I have used three smaller panel Mammen beast motifs around the body of the box. The long panels feature a bird and a wolf-like animal adapted from the front of the Bamburg casket, while the side panels are adapted from the wolf-like central roof panels of the Cammin casket. Since my large featured panels were utilizing the later, less cluttered Hylestad. style, I slightly modified the Mammen style beasts that I adapted for my casket, usually leaving out the carved circular space-fillers that are a typical feature of the Bamburg and Cammin caskets. The resulting designs are reminiscent of the Franks Casket in some details.


Hylestad Church Doors, Norway, 12th cent. A.D.

I adapted the Hylestad style when designing the two top panels for this casket. Utilizing the figure construction as well as the circular narrative panels, I have told two famous tales from Norse myth. (Davidson, 102 -Photographs; Simpson 72 and 127 - Diagrams)


Þórr Fishing for the Midgarðs Ormr

The tale of Þórr’s fishing trip that resulted in his hooking the World Serpent, Jormungandr, was a popular motif in Viking art. Here are three examples of this motif, which served as inspiration for me in designing the Hylestad-style Þórr panel on my casket. Left: Medieval manuscript from the National Museum of Iceland. (Wernick, 27) Center: Stone fragment found under the church at Gosforth, Cumbria. Right: Side panel from a runestone at Altuna, Sweden. (both Davidson, 61)

Tyr Binding the Fenris Wolf

From a 6th cent. A.D. helmet plate die, Torslunda, Sweden.
(Davidson, 57)

Óðinn Being Eaten by the Fenris Wolf at Ragnarokr

From a 10th cent. A.D. stone cross on the Isle of Man.
(Simpson, 28)

Motifs such as these inspired my design of the Ragnarok panel on my casket. I have used the Hylestad narrative style to show Tyr after binding Fenris, as well as Óðinn being seized in the Wolf’s great jaws.

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Notes

 1Gwyn Jones. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1968. p. 177.

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Bibliography

  • The Poetic Edda. trans. Lee M. Hollander. 2nd revised ed. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1962.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Cammin Casket Reproduction Panel. Reproduction of the carved elk-horn "Gothic Lion" panel from the Cammin Casket. Heritage Sculpture. Accessed 7/24/99. (Link dead and unavailable thru the Wayback Machine as of 12/02/05)

  • Franks Casket. The Franks Casket is an 8th century Anglo-Saxon box of carved whale bone ivory. Size 9" x 7-1/2" x 5-1/4" (23cm x 13cm x 19cm). The Franks Casket Webpage. Accessed 7/24/99. (Link dead as of 12/02/05. The page may still be accessed via the Wayback Machine).

  • Gandersheim Reliquary. Photo of 8th century carved walrus ivory casket with bronze fittings from the Gandersheim Monastary. Thought to have been manufactured in southern England. Size 5" x 2-5/8" x 5" (12.7cm x 6.67cm x 12.7cm). From the collection of the Herzon-Anton-Ulrich-Museum. O'Brien's Celtic and Medieval Page: Anglo-Saxon Artifacts. Accessed 7/24/99.

  • Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R. Viking & Norse Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble. 1996. (Also titled as "Scandinavian Mythology")
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1968. Revised edition 1984.
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  • Margeson, Susan M. Viking. Eyewitness Books. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1994.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Pendleson, K. R. G. The Vikings. New York: Windward. 1980.

  • Simpson, Jacqueline. Everyday Life in the Viking Age. New York: Dorset. 1967.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com today! Buy this book today!

  • Wilson, David M. and Ole Klindt-Jensen. Viking Art. 2nd ed. London: George Allen & Unwin. 1980.
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