Do we really appreciate the Bayeux Tapestry?

posted in: Chris | 2

Do we really appreciate the Bayeux Tapestry? I know I didn’t until we decided to pay it a visit. This tapestry, which is actually a 230 foot linen cloth embroidered with wool thread like needlepoint rather than a tapestry, is a brilliant work of art, a wonderful example of medieval storytelling, and a clever piece of propaganda.

The Tapestry was created a few years after a famous event in European history, William’s Norman conquest of Great Britain in 1066. The work of art is huge, with two friezes framing an elaborately detailed story of the battle through mostly pictures. For a two dimensional object the artists used differing colors of wool thread to create the illusion of three dimensions. They also captured action scenes like horses riding and violent hand to hand combat using only thread, you get a real sense of being in the middle of the action.

After seeing some of the scenes that were done with needle and thread nearly 1000 years ago, you can appreciate the craftsmanship that went into its creation.

The story starts with England’s beloved King, Edward the Confessor, who had no legitimate heir to the throne, reportedly stating that he wanted William to become the King of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. William was an illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy who had risen up to be the current Duke of Normandy, a region in France just across the English Channel. Harold was a brother in law of Edward, and he decided he was the closest heir and he was crowned the King of England.

So William did not like this too much, so it’s basically Harold vs. William. The tapestry shows William building up a huge army with boats, weaponry and calvary and heading across the sea to England. The battle of Hastings is depicted and heads are chopped off and limbs lost. William is victorious and later would be dubbed William the Conqueror.

We also checked out the Bayeux Cathedral, which dates from 1077. This is the site where William forced Harold to pledge the oath.

The cathedral was built in the gothic style later including characteristic gargoyles.

Bayeux was a quaint little town. While we were there, the weather was a bit chilly and blustery, but the signs of spring were becoming apparent.

Now back to the tapestry…

I snapped some of the more interesting scenes and will give you a few ideas of what you are seeing. If you have the time to look carefully, you will find interesting little bits here and there. The artists’ use of color is also of note, as you can see how they generate perspective. Look at the legs below in the top left corner. Foreground is cream colored and background legs are black.

Also look for motion. The hair flows back, the horses lean forward in various states of speed. It’s fascinating stuff.

I found this lower frieze interesting showing common day life–plowing fields and sowing crops.

Notice the Saxon spy listening in to the conversation.

William’s army prepares for battle by getting the weapons and armor.

Building the boats.

I liked the skewers of meat grilled over the fire to feed the armies.

Huge pots over the open fires to feed the huge army preparing for battle.

They set sail across the English Channel.

The well armored Norman troops with archers and their characteristic helmets with nose pieces.

Large calvary assembling.

You can feel the speed in the horses as their hair blows back even though it is a piece of cloth.

The battle ensues and is gory. Limbs are chopped off.

In a dramatic moment, William pulls back his helmet revealing he himself is fighting along side, risking it all. This suddenly motivates the troops to fight even harder.

Harold dies from a arrow to the eye.

Headless corpse.

So remember that William wanted to show the people what he had done. I’m sure he knew the phrase “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”. Therefore, you can suspect there were some dramatic embellishments which would suit William and help him solidify his power. Nevertheless, conquering England was certainly a consequential point in history.

The museum is extremely well done. Admission gives you an audioguide with which you can walk along the 70 odd meter tapestry as it guides you through the storyline.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a fascinating bit of history–part propaganda, partly an amazing example of medieval storytelling and partly simply a stunning work of art.

2 Responses

  1. Grangoo

    Alison had the Tapestry on the itinerary. I’m wondering what is so special about a tapestry. Then I saw it and it is overwhelming. It has so much detail and it goes on & on. I can not imagine sitting and doing this detail work. It is unbelieveable that it is still intact and in such good shape. The Tapestry should not be missed on a trip to France.

  2. Laura

    Enjoying the pictures. A tapestry does not sound exciting but an obviously a must see in real life thing.

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