Several years ago, while working at Watkins College of Art in Nashville, I took a group of students and professors on a 10 day trip to France. We started in Paris and ended in Nice. In between we saw many great parts of France including Normandy and Brittany. One of my very favorite parts of the trip was when we stopped in Bayeux to see the famous and historical Bayeux Tapestry. I had heard of it before, studied it a bit in school, and always been fascinated with it. It was definnitely worth the visit. When we returned to Nashville I did some further research on the tapestry and wrote this for a class I was taking.
[more info after photo gallery]
Throughout the ages art has served many purposes, not all of which were originally intended by the creators. Countless pieces of art have been produced to serve religion, mythology or other forms of ceremonial rituals. Art has often been used for political purposes, to persuade viewers to accept particular beliefs and ideas or to follow specific leaders. Various forms of art have frequently been used to commemorate important events in the course of history. Many works, especially those created before the Renaissance, have also come to be regarded today as historical documents, especially when little or no written accounts of the events depicted have survived (or even existed in the first place). Such is the case of the Bayeux Tapestry, a two-hundred and twenty-four foot long piece of embroidered wool and linen that, in addition to being one of the most famous and recognized pieces of art from medieval times, is also the most important historical document we have from this fascinating period of history.
What is truly remarkable is that the tapestry was almost certainly never meant to be simply a “commemorative work” or an “historical document.” The tapestry tells the story of William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex (later the King of England), and the Norman invasion of England, culminating with the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The fact that the events depicted in the tapestry begin in 1064, several years before the actual conquest and battle, tells us that something more than just a simple recounting of history is taking place. It’s also important to remember that the tapestry was displayed in the Bayeux Cathedral from the very beginning of its existence. A simple “commemorative” recounting of a battle would have had no place in a house of worship. The tapestry was commissioned for a much greater, and in fact religious, not historical, purpose. It tells the story of an oath, taken over religious relics. An oath made by Harold, who swore over precious relics housed at the Bayeux Cathedral, not to oppose William’s claim to the throne of England. An oath that was later betrayed, causing the downfall, destruction and ruin of not only the main character but his family as well. It is, quite simply, a morality play before and above all else. A tale of deception, betrayal and treason and a reminder that one’s oath should never be broken, especially when taken in a cathedral over holy religious relics.
The work of art today referred to as the Bayeux Tapestry is not, in fact, even a tapestry in the true sense of the word. Rather, it is an embroidered cloth, consisting of fifty individual scenes with Latin captions embroidered on linen with colored woolen yarns that stand out in bold relief against the tan backdrop. Very little in the way of background scenery or landscape is depicted in the tapestry, however a sense of perspective and depth is displayed through the use of contrast in colors. There are eight major sections of fine linen, each of which was embroidered separately and then sewn together to produce the final piece. The canvas is divided into three horizontal sections, a wide central section where all of the major action takes place, separated by continuous lines from narrow sections at both the top and the bottom. The mostly decorative upper and lower sections contain many figures (some of which are clearly mythological) which are unrelated to the main theme, and whose meaning, even to this date, remains unclear. There has been some speculation that they illustrate scenes from various stories in Aesop’s Fables, keeping with the overall “morality” theme of the tapestry. (Alchin). Occasionally, some of the main action does overlap into the upper or lower sections, either to provide some dramatic effect, or simply because more room was needed to convey the activity. A running commentary (in Latin) on the events depicted in the main timeline is embroidered across the top of the central section. In addition to describing the actions taking place it also names some of the main characters.
Though the tapestry is displayed today in the town of Bayeux, in northern France, it was undoubtedly designed and constructed in England, by English artists (though it was probably commissioned by the Bishop of the Bayeux Cathedral, who just happened to be William’s half-brother and who is depicted in a positive light several times throughout the story).
Before written language existed many cultures used a process known as “narrative art” to detail a sequence of events occurring over time. In short, the artists used pictures to tell stories. Pictures themselves do not lend themselves well to telling stories, as a picture is seen all at once and stories occur over a period of time (“Narrative Art”). To effectively recount an actual story, some sort of method is needed to convey the passage of time. Very early cultures simply placed many separate images together with little or no organization or order. This often made the actual story difficult to comprehend because the action would unfold in many directions at once with no clear timeline. As written language began to develop the pictures began to be placed in a distinctive sequence, just as written words are placed one after another and on separate lines. Over the centuries this process was developed and refined, often employing some type of “register line” to help clarify the timeline of the story. Eventually, separate and distinctive scenes or episodes were linked together through the use of “panels” to provide an even greater organization of the events and to clarify the chronological order.
There are many different categories into which narrative art can be placed, including: simultaneous (very little visual organization), monoscenic (representing one single scene), continuous (multiple actions and scenes), synoptic (single scene with multiple actions), panoptic (multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters), progressive (a single scene with no repeating characters but with the passage of time) and sequential (similar to continuous where each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment). (“Narrative Art”). The Bayeux Tapestry is an example of a continuous narrative. One episode after another unfolds along a horizontal axis. A variety of scenes and actions are depicted in one long visual field. A sequence of events is established mostly through the reuse of main characters. The viewer recognizes that each change in placement or movement of the characters represents a new scene, a passing of time. (Dehejia, 386).
By the time the Bayeux tapestry was designed many, many works of art, utilizing a vast number of materials, had been created which employed this method of storytelling. It is thought that the Sumerians were among the first to use pictures to tell stories. The Standard of Ur, created with wood, lapis lazuli, shell and red limestone during the 3rd century BCE in Iraq, tells the story of war and peace in ancient times. While the Standard of Ur employed horizontal bands to help move the action of the story in one direction, there are no “panels” to separate one event from another. Such is also the case with the Column of Trajan, constructed of marble in Rome during the 2nd century BCE, which tells the story of the Dacian Wars in one long, continuous frieze.
The use of narrative art as a vehicle for telling stories was by no means restricted to “Western” art. Many spectacular examples can be found in Chinese, Japanese, Indian and other Southeast Asian art, including the friezes found on the terraces of the great stupa at Borobudur in central Java, built around 800 BCE, which tell the story of the life of the Buddha. Many years later, in fact very close to the time of the Bayeux Tapestry, we can see the same method employed on the bronze doors of Saint Michael’s in Hildesheim, Germany, except now the various parts of the story have been broken up into separate panels, albeit vertical ones. The tapestry was clearly not the first work of art to employ this process of telling a story over time via the use of successive images, but in many ways it is one of the most unique and magnificent examples we have, a culmination of all that came before it, unparalleled in both its detail and its depth.
While the tapestry may remain unknown to the average person, its influence and importance has been reflected many times in modern popular culture. In his book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud refers to the tapestry as a classic example of “early narrative art.” (McCloud, 11-14). Another British comic book artist, Bryan Talbot, has even called it “the first known British comic strip.” (Talbot, 5). There’s no mistaking the similarity between the tapestry and what we refer to today as “storyboards,” widely used in the movie and film industry. The tapestry uses a process of “repetitive juxtaposition” to express action, movement and crucial events, very much the same way modern animated motion pictures do. (Musset, 5).
Though the tapestry was clearly originally intended as a morality tale, its importance today reaches far beyond the story of an oath over religious relics betrayed and the dire consequences of such actions. While it is indeed a valuable historical accounting of the Battle of Hastings and the events leading up to it, we must always make provisions for historical recountings, especially one so old. History is, alas, written by the victors. Even more important than the actual historical events portrayed is the unparalleled depiction of almost all aspects of life in 11th century France and England which give us a remarkable window into a culture of which very little else has survived. There are in total 623 people, 202 horses, 55 dogs, 506 other birds and animals, 49 trees, 41 ships and 37 buildings depicted throughout the tapestry. A remarkable number of details abound in the images, including weapons, clothing, horse-riding, ship-building, hunting and even cooking. (Musset, 13). The tapestry has contributed immensely to our understanding of this time period. Everything from the size of keys used to the arched roofs of wooden buildings to the types of axes used in shipbuilding is known to us now mostly thanks to the depictions in the tapestry. Illustrations of harnesses, saddles, stirrups and spurs provide a unique depiction of the use of horses in battle. From a military standpoint, there are few others sources which provide such a visual understanding of the tactics and weaponry used during these years. Helmets, shields, coats of mail, swords, lances and axes are all displayed in minute detail, even down to the distinctive patterns and markings found on many shields and the decorations of pennants and standards borne by each side. Fortifications (such as castles built of wood on large man-made mounds) and military tactics (such as the use of archers to lead the charge, withdrawing as soon as others moved into battle) are all illustrated throughout the tapestry.
Perhaps the most important contribution to our knowledge of this era, and the one that has been most closely studied by scholars, is the depiction of the wooden ships used by the troops to cross the English Channel. Nothing of the rigging, sails and figureheads used on these ships has survived except for what is seen in the tapestry. Without the tapestry most of this would have remained unknown to this day.
While nothing similar from this time period which is even close to being as elaborate or impressive as the tapestry has survived, we do know that other works of art similar to the tapestry existed during these years, making it clear that this practice of embroidering stories on linen, as either a way of chronicling contemporary and/or historical themes or presenting important morality tales, was common. Smaller pieces and in most cases, simply fragments, do survive from England, France and Scandinavia.
The tapestry is also a remarkable example of how art can be underappreciated for decades, even centuries. The earliest historical reference we have to the tapestry is an inventory from Bayeux Cathedral in 1476. It was displayed annually in the Cathedral for hundreds of years and yet it wasn’t until 1729 that scholars began to take an interest in it. Today it is regarded as probably the most important piece of art which survives from this time period.
Even today, the influence of the Bayeux Tapestry is quite evident. In July of 1944 the New Yorker magazine featured a cover marking the D-Day invasion of France that replicated the tapestry, commonly referred to as “The Tapestry of Invasion.” The “Overlord Embroidery,” created over five years in the late 1960s by twenty embroiderers, tells the story of Operation Overlord from World War II. It is thirty-three feet longer than the Bayeux Tapestry. In 1973 George Gale, a renowned British political cartoonist, chronicled the events leading up to Britain’s entry into the EEC (European Economic Community) across six pages in the London Times, again done in the style of, and as a tribute to, the Bayeux Tapestry. Most recently the “Prestonpans Tapestry,” completed in 2010, deals with the events surrounding the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745 in Scotland. Over two hundred embroiderers worked on the piece for approximately two years. Measuring 341 feet long, it is about 98 feet longer than the Bayeux Tapestry. Many modern day films have used portions of the original Bayeux Tapestry in their opening or closing credits and titles, including Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks and the Kevin Costner vehicle, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
It’s remarkable that the Bayeux Tapestry has survived for almost one thousand years. A treasured artifact from early medieval times, it now provides us with so much more than a beautiful and impressive work of art. Without it our knowledge of 11th century France and England would be greatly diminished.
Musset, L. The Bayeux Tapestry. Nantes: Artaud Freres, 1998. Print.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: William Morrow, 1994. Print.
Dehejia, Vidya. “On Modes of Visual Narration in Early Buddhist Art.” The Art Bulletin Vol. 72, No. 3 Sep. 1990: 374–392. Print.
Talbot, Bryan. “History Of The British Comic, The.” The Guardian 8 Sep. 2007: 5. Print.
“Bayeux Tapestry.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 18 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
“Narrative Art.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 18 Sep. 2012.
Alchin, L.K. “Bayeux Tapestry.” Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Website. 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.
“Prestonpans Tapestry.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 14 Nov. 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.
“Overlord Embroidery.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 29 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.