Art Reviews, Insular Art, The Briefest Reviews, Viking Art - Urnes Style (11th-12th c)
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The Briefest Art Review: The Pitney Brooch

© The Trustees of the British Museum (British Museum / CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0)

A battle of the beasts. Or is this beast biting itself? And are those fleur-de-lys?

That is why I asked myself when I first saw the Pitney brooch. There is not much literature about the brooch online, but what a wonderful story emerged from the studies I did find.

The Provenance of the Brooch

A gravedigger finds the brooch during his work in a churchyard in Pitney, Somerset. This is the 1870s and word travels slowly. Only by 1906, a drawing of the brooch pops up in the Victoria History Somerset. The British Museum receives the brooch on loan only by 1930. A year later, the first brief analysis appears in The British Museum Quarterly. As short as it is, there are a few take-aways. First, the author’s conclusion that it is an Anglo-Saxon brooch with Jelling style artwork. Second, that it probably dates to c. 950. Third, that the quadruped beast is a lion. And four, that the decoration reminds of a “classical Carolingian renaissance.”1

Time moves on. Around 1979, the British Museum purchases the brooch.2 Insights move on, too, for Viking art styles. There are less than ten known Urnes style objects in England in the 1930s. At present, there are over 220 artefacts in Urnes style discovered across the Danelaw and England. As a result of the increase in artefacts and knowledge about the different styles, scholars now classify the Pitney brooch as late-eleventh century, middle Urnes style. There is no more talk of lions, but of a quadruped beast and similarities to the famous carvings on the Norwegian stave church.3

The Art of Fighting Urnes-style

You’ll probably call me crazy, but I have indeed followed the lines on this brooch with a software program. Just to understand how the lines work, how they represent the animals. There are two sets, a thin one and a thicker, scaled (or ribbon) one, curling intricately.

The Snake

The first part of the brooch that draws your eyes is that head, right in the middle. It has two penetrating eyes and a beak-like snout that bites into the scaled body. At first, I thought this was a bird until I discovered similar lines in other Urnes style snakes. From the top of its head, you will see how beautiful its body curls and twirls inside the upper half of the brooch.

The Quadruped Beast

The second prominent aspect of the brooch is the scaled body. A lion, the researcher thought in the 1930s. A dragon, I thought humbly, looking at the scales and talons. The Lingsberg runestone, for example, has a dragon with similar talons. It also has an almond-shaped eye and the S-shapes depicting the animal’s joints. The tail ends in the southwest corner, like a fleur-de-lys. Whatever I think, it’s better to remain safe and follow the consensus to call this a quadruped beast!

The Lingsberg Runestone (Wikipedia | Berig | CC-BY-SA 2.5)

The Fight

Back to the almond-shaped eye that tells us where the head of the beast is. And then it becomes clear the beast is curling backwards whilst the snake is biting its neck. Look at it long enough, and you’ll realise this is a rather magnificent scene and exquisitely executed by the artist.4

The dynamic of the scene strongly reminds of the Scandinavian Urnes style, where animals are dynamic and often engaged in combat. In its English counterpart, things are more static and the lines of the body do not always have a logical ending. An example is the Wisbech brooch (look here for a comparison between the two). That snake is short and ends up in the outer circle. The outline of that dragon is clear, and it looks rather fierce. Yet, there is little sense of these two animals engaging with each other. This is so different from the Pitney brooch, where the fight is active and each animal is visible from head to tail.5

The English Urnes Style

The artwork and combat scene distinctly belong to the Scandinavian Urnes style. So, too, does the open-worked aspect of the brooch. This type is mostly found in southern Scandinavia.6 Yet, despite all this, the Pitney brooch still classifies as English Urnes style. For in the end, its non-Scandinavian features set it apart. And remember that the Danelaw region also saw influences of Carolingian, Irish and Anglo-Saxon art:

“Certain details of the design, such as the scalloped edging, and the terminations of the intertwining tendrils, which frequently split into two or three sections, and give an impression of delicate foliage.”7

The Manufacturing of the Brooch

Here is a piece of gilded copper-alloy, front and back. That means this is a piece of metal with copper as the largest component, and with a thin layer of gold on top. At the back of the brooch, its hinge and catch-plate are missing. From the remains, it is clear they were there and that this truly was a brooch (and not a converted piece of jewellery). The lack of tool marks underlines the skill with which they made this object.

This really is a fine piece of artistry and considering the gilded and smooth finish probably designated for the clothes of a wealthy or elite person.8


  1. Reginald A. Smith, ‘The Pitney Brooch,’ in: The British Museum Quarterly Volume 6.2 (1931): 39–40. Accessed April 30, 2021. doi:10.2307/4421296.  ↩︎
  2. ‘Disc Brooch’ The British Museum. Last Accessed 11 May 2021.–1101–1. Reginald A. Smith, ‘The Pitney Brooch,’ in: The British Museum Quarterly Volume 6.2 (1931): 39–40. Accessed April 30, 2021. doi:10.2307/4421296.  ↩︎
  3. ‘Disc Brooch’ The British Museum. Last Accessed 11 May 2021.
    James Graham–Campbell, Viking Art. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2021), pp. 141.
    Rob Webley, ‘Still a Strange Beast? Observations on English metalwork in the Urnes style,’ Powerpoint 19 May 2014. Last Accessed 01 May 2021.  ↩︎
  4. ‘Disc Brooch’ The British Museum Last Accessed 11 May 2021.  ↩︎
  5. Olwyn Owen, ‘A catalogue and re–evaluation of the Urnes style in England,’ Durham University | Durham Theses 1979. Available at Durham E–Theses Online: Last Accessed 01 May 2021. Jane Kershaw, Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 119–120, 207.  ↩︎
  6. Owen, Olwyn, ‘The Strange Beast that is the English Urnes Style’, in: Vikings and the Danelaw: Selected Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress, Nottingham and York, 21–30 August 1997, edited by J. Graham–Campbell (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2001), pp. 203–22. Jane Kershaw, ‘Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo–Scandinavian Brooches,’ in: Viking and Medieval Scandinavia Volume 5 (2009), pp. 300 [pp. 295–325].  ↩︎
  7. Olwyn Owen (1979). Durham E–Theses Online.  ↩︎ Jane Kershaw, ‘Viking–Age Scandinavian art styles and their appearance in the British Isles Part 2: Late Viking–Age art styles,’ The Finds Research Group AD700–1700 | Datasheet 43, pp. 5–6. Jane Kershaw, Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 119–120, 207.  ↩︎
  8. J.A. Graham–Campbell and D. Kidd, D., The Vikings (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1980), pl. 106.

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