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Bayeux Tapestry: A story told through art

The Bayeux Tapestry, also known as the Tapestry of Queen Matilda, is a large embroidered cloth in thread and wool, which was made around the year 1080. In its almost 230 ft., it depicts, through a series of images and inscriptions in Latin, the events prior to the Norman conquest of England by the troops of Duke William, and particularly the central event of that conquest, the Battle of Hastings. Indeed, the Bayeux tapestry tells a story through art.

Since 1980, the tapestry has been on display at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, in the city of Bayeux, in Normandy, and it is considered one of the most unique works of European Medieval art.

1. What exactly is the Bayeux Tapestry?

Although it is referred to as a “tapestry”, it is not a true tapestry or an antique carpet, but rather an embroidered linen cloth, where wool threads follow the previously designed decorations and figures outlines.

Regarding the composition, it is a linear embroidery, shaped like a frieze, divided into three stripes. The central zone, which is the widest and contains the story, is framed by two narrower stripes, full of animals and fantasy creatures, and some humans.

The central part, as we said, is where all the events take place in a continuous way, although on occasions there are some retrospective passages. Each and every scene is perfectly separated by dividing elements, as is the case in many comic books; that is why it has also been considered as the first historical “comic” in the world.

King Harold’s coronation

As for the subject matter, in general terms, the tapestry not only sought to describe the victory of William the Conqueror, but also his right to the crown of England, which was based on the fact that, in 1064, King Edward of England, who had no direct heir, named his cousin William of Normandy as his successor. To do so, he sent his brother-in-law, Harold the Saxon, to France to let him know. He took an oath on saintly relics and total loyalty to William. However, Harold the Saxon, on his return to England, was proclaimed king after Edward’s sudden death.

In response to such disloyalty, William organized a huge army and disembarked with his troops at Sussex, defeating Harold and his army at Hastings. Harold died in that battle, and precisely the tapestry ends with a scene of his death by an arrow in the eye.

Battle of Hastings in 1066

2. Who commissioned it? Who embroidered it? What inspired it?

French legend maintained that it was Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife, who was in charge of embroidering the tapestry, with the help of some of her court ladies. However, considering the magnificence and complexity of the work, some authors have concluded that it was Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-brother, who finally financed and commissioned the embroidery work to Anglo-Saxon craftsmen, probably related to the Canterbury scriptorium, between 1077 and 1082, in order to decorate the Bayeux Cathedral on the day of its dedication.

The homogeneous design seems to indicate that the tapestry was supervised by a clergyman, a person with knowledge of Latin, despite there are some Anglo-Saxon words, and manufactured either in Cantebury or Kent, since only these two cities had embroidery workshops at that time.

Finally, and even though there are no documents from that period which allow us to truly know the identity of the master author(s) or the person who inspired the work, some experts say that it was inspired by different sources which are recognisable in the work, especially the spiral stories on the Roman Trajan Column, since in both cases what was tried to be depicted was a successful military campaign.

Detail of stem stitching

  1.  Bayeux Tapestry’s artistic features

The tapestry clearly belongs to Romanesque art, and as such, we can find some descriptive features of the period. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Artists’ main purpose was not to depict reality, or seek an aesthetic canon, hence the figures have no proportion nor the beauty of Classical art. On the contrary, they sought the characters’ expression, and in order to attract even more attention, the most expressive parts, such as the eyes or the hands, are enlarged.
  • The composition did not attempt to obtain perspective, therefore all objects and figures represented lack volume, i.e., they are flat and overlapped.
  • Colours are also flat, as they were not interested in light in order to get more volume or to get closer to reality.
  • But they were really interested in transmitting a message to a largely illiterate population, who were informed about the events through images.

And finally, leaving behind the artistic features of the tapestry, if there is a reason why it has really achieved an unbelievable historical value, in terms of first class antiques, it is because it is an excellent documentary source about the lifestyle and customs, the agriculture, the military and civil architecture or the navigation of Norman and English society in the Middle Ages.