03 July 2013

The Bayeux Tapestry

 A detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, with the Norman cavalry ready for battle.
Courtesy, Web Gallery of Art

I've long been fascinated by historical needlework and am an avid practitioner: after all, there is no better way to understand and appreciate an artistic process than to physically do it. There is also something very satisfying in having physical proof of a winter's evenings spent stitching by the fire. As I work, my mind often wanders, and I imagine the long line of people who for thousands of years have sat near a light, needle and thread in hand. Here we have a rare cultural relic, a process which has changed very little-- the linen, needles, silks and wools may be machine made now, but the techniques are the same. The stitches I learned from a beloved teacher are the descendants of those recorded as early as the 5th century BC in China, where they were developed as mending and reinforcing stitches for garments. 

A detail of a needlework project I did a few cold winters ago for my husband. 
Many of the stitches are identical to those in the Bayeux Tapestry.
Image copyright, Parvum Opus.



Scene 43a, depicting the Normans' battle preparations: HIC FECERUN[T] PRANDIUM.
"Here they made breakfast." Courtesy Wikipedia.

You're surely familiar with the Bayeux Tapestry, but I hope you'll enjoy revisiting it as its one of those objects that never fails to amaze. A brief bit of history, from Wikipedia: The Bayeux tapestry "is an embroidered cloth- not an actual tapestry- nearly 70 meters (230 ft) long, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings."


Scene 54, HIC ODO EP[ISCOPU]S BACULU[M] TENENS CONFORTAT PUEROS:
"Here, Bishop Odo, holding a club, gives strength to the boys."
Courtesy Wikipedia.


"According to Sylvette Lemagnen, conservator of the tapestry, The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the supreme achievements of the Norman Romanesque... Its survival almost intact over nine centuries is little short of miraculous... Its exceptional length, the harmony and freshness of its colors, its exquisite workmanship, and the genius of its guiding spirit combine to make it endlessly fascinating."


William, Duke of Normandy
Image courtesy BBC



In this scene, Harold is struck in the eye by an arrow and dies. 
HIC HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST, "Here King Harold is slain."
Courtesy Wikipedia.


The tapestry includes about fifty scenes embroidered on linen with Latin tituli or captions. 
No one knows for sure who commissioned or fabricated it, but it's possible that William's half-brother, Bishop Odo had it made in England sometime in the 1070s. After a long and complicated journey, the tapestry has found a permanent home in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France.

A view of a section of the Bayeux Tapestry inside the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.
From the UNESCO homepage, courtesy of the French State.


One of my favorite scenes in the tapestry depicts Halley's comet, which appeared in March of 1066.  The comet was considered to be a bad omen for Harold, who would die in the battle of Hastings later that year. In 1066, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Eilmer of Malmesbury wrote of Halley's comet: " You've come, have you? You've come, you source of tears to many mothers, you evil. I hate you! It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country. I hate you!"  

Scene 32 from the tapestry, with the tituli: "ISTI MIRANT[UR] STELLA[M]",
or "the people marvel at the star". The comet is visible at the top right.
Image courtesy Wikipedia.

If you have the opportunity, I heartily recommend a visit to the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.  It's nearly impossible to get a feel for the scale and texture of the actual piece which is truly magnificent in person. Until then, I do hope you'll enjoy the following video, which cleverly animates a section of the tapestry, and perhaps, even pick up a needle and thread and continue the conversation with the talented embroiderers who created this beautiful piece almost a thousand years ago.






13 comments:

  1. Dear Erika, Thank you for posting these wonderful photographs of the Bayeux Tapestries. We were in Bayeux last September but were not able to see them.
    Thank you also for including the animated version...it is a brilliantly executed and very enjoyable to watch. ox, Gina

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    1. Dear Gina,

      Thank you for your message--I think, obviously, that you must go back to France to see the tapestry...! It's the only possible remedy, don't you agree?! I'm so glad that you enjoyed that animation-- it was a wonderful find...

      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  2. Dear Erika,

    Of course I am familiar with the Bayeax Tapestry, but do you know that I've never seen it in its full length, as you've posted it?! I think that when we see only the details in the art history books, we lose sight of what a momumental project this was, and how truly amazing it is to have survived. It reminds me a little of the Roman columns erected to record military victories.

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    1. Dear Mark,
      I know this truly is one of those amazing pieces that becomes sort of diluted by overexposure...but I couldn't help myself-- I just love it. Last summer, I purchased an accordion book at the Cluny Museum in Paris that has a 30+ foot long continuous photo of the tapestry-- such fun! On Wikipedia there is also an image of the full tapestry, which is only a few pixels tall, but you can click on any scene and enlarge it-- also fun. I completely agree with you about the similarity between the tapestry and the Roman columns-- the notion of these very labor-intensive and decorative records of historical events is a fascinating one... further study is required, don't you think?!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

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  3. It is a miracle that this enchanting work has lasted so many years. When I viewed this work, it seemed impossible that it had aged so well! We should be so lucky! Thank you for reminding me of this creative endeavor and to provide the link so that I can share it with those who haven't yet seen it in person. Unfortunately, my daughter is one of those people: she was ill from riding in the car and slept while my husband and I went inside.

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  4. Dear Mary,
    Thank you for your message! It really is hard to imagine the people almost 1000 years ago, holding needle & thread, working on this amazing object... We are indeed so lucky that it has survived! I hope you get the opportunity to visit with your daughter again one of these days-- I'm sure she'll enjoy seeing it... Your story reminded me so much of my own summers spent travelling through the tiny villages of Europe--I shudder to think of the treasures I slept/complained through!

    Warm regards,
    Erika

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  5. Dear Erika - I do not know how I missed this post - sorry I am late.
    The Bayeux Tapestry must be the most important pictorial image of the 11th century depicting so clearly the events that took place.
    Really interested in your animated video which helps bring the story to life with the added movement. My youngest son was a student at Goldsmiths, London University where the video was made.
    A couple of weeks ago we past the turn for Bayeux whilst driving to Brittany, but having seen the tapestry a few years ago we did not call. Like many others I was really surprised when I discovered how long it is - the scale of it really does need to be seen to be believed.

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  6. Dear Rosemary,
    Thank you for your message-- you are always welcome at any time! I'm so glad you enjoyed that short video-- what a coincidence that your family has a connection to Goldsmiths! I thought it was a particularly interesting interpretation of the tapestry, as I imagine that to an 11th century eye, it must have seemed like a 'moving picture' itself... rather than advancing the image like we do (did?!) with film, I imagine young viewers running along the tapestry, creating the sense of movement that way... This is one of those cultural treasures that never ceases to inspire.
    Warm regards,
    Erika

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    1. It was my youngest son who did the hare linocut that went to Goldsmiths. I should have mentioned to you that the linocut transfer is not washable on the tote bag.

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  7. Hi, Erika -
    I have not seen the Bayeux Tapestry in person, and it really is high on my list. It is a piece with such historic, artistic and cultural importance. I'd love to see more of the needlework piece you did. Is that lion from the family crest?
    Cheers,
    Loi

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  8. Hello Loi! Thank you for your message-- I'm so sorry to be answering so late-- we lost power for 3 days here following a storm, and I'm still playing catch up on missed emails, etc... I think the next time you're in France, you'd really love to see the tapestry-- it really is awesome and beautiful! My own needlework is of a much more humble sort, done for pleasure in the winter. I'll send an email with the whole crest from this piece for you soon!
    Warm regards,
    Erika

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  9. Hello Erika, I can understand the idea of learning how to do something in order to appreciate the subject more. I learned how to play the cornet after discovering ad being inspired by the great turn-of-the-last-century soloists--Clarke, Levy, etc. The difference is that I am the world's most terrible brass player, while your needlework is as beautifully crafted as all your other projects that we admire on this blog.
    --Road to Parnassus

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  10. Dear Jim,
    You are too kind! I don't know, I'll bet you have more coronet talent than you give yourself credit for.... and needlework is really so much simpler than creating original music! perhaps in the future you might add a video of your music on your blog?!?

    Warm regards,
    Erika

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