The Bayeux Tapestry
Textile artwork is a unique and beautiful form of art that has existed for millennia. One of the most renowned textile masterpieces is the Bayeux Tapestry. This stunning piece is called a tapestry due being a fiber based image, but technically, it is embroidery. Unlike traditional tapestries that are woven as one single piece, the Bayeux Tapestry uses wool yarn to embroider / sew an image onto a pre-woven piece of cloth.
In addition to being a valuable form of artwork, the Bayeux Tapestry also provides helpful historical insight. It depicts the Norman Conquest of England, a landmark historical event. Historians believe the tapestry dates back to medieval times, with many theorizing that it was made in 1077 to commemorate Bayeux’s cathedral consecration. Since at least 1476 CE, the tapestry has resided in Bayeux France.
What Is The Antique Bayeux Tapestry?
The Bayeux Tapestry is a massive linen rectangle that is roughly 231 feet long and 19.5 inches wide. The supportive linen background and the colored wool yarn embroidery has browned with age, but it remains vibrant and beautiful.
What Does The Bayeux Tapestry Depict?
The vivid and descriptive imagery makes the Bayeux Tapestry a hallmark representation of 11th century Romanesque artistic culture. It depicts 70 different historical events that took place during the Norman Conquest. Latin text provides commentary on the different scenes, and the decorative top and bottom borders provide a visual motif to unite and perfectly frame the imagery. Most of them feature the Duke of Normandy, William, and the King of England, Harold.
The beginning imagery sets the stage by depicting King Harold visiting France while the last visible scene shows English soldiers running off the Hastings Battlefield. The five feet containing the tapestry’s final scene, which many speculate showed William being crowned, only exist in historical record as the actual segments of the tapestry were lost several centuries ago.
How Was The Bayeux Tapestry Made?
As previously mentioned, the Bayeux tapestry is constructed as a wool embroidery. The pattern is embroidered / sewn onto over 9 woven linen sections that were sewn together.
There are two primary methods of stitching used in the tapestry:
- Stem stitch: used for outlines and lettering.
- Couching stitch: used to fill in the figures.
*Couching is a technique that involves laying yarn across the linen and then using tiny stitches to fasten the long strands in place.
Primarily, the tapestry’s imagery is created using soft gold, blue, red / orange, olive green and some dark blue, deep green and black colors are also included mostly as outlines. The linen pieces were embroidered individually before being joined together. Most of the embroidery focuses on the middle section where King Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson, and the Duke of Normandy (later called William the Conqueror) interact. However, even the decorative borders are intricately designed with animals, rural scenes, astronomical events and hunting scenes worked into the bands along the top and bottom.
There have been some changes since its initial construction. Repairs and re-stitching were done with yellows, oranges, and light greens. A backing cloth was sewn onto the linen in the mid 1720’s to support the delicate and aging fabric.
The final words of the tapestry are an inscription saying: “Et fuga verterunt Angli,” (“And the English fled”). These words were added a few decades later as an attempt at masking the missing end.
What is the Origin and History of the Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry stands out from much of Northern European medieval embroidery. This is because it is historical instead of religious in nature. The first time it is referenced is in 1476 – the year when it was included in a Bayeux Cathedral inventory (but it is most likely much older). Historians believe that it was most likely commissioned by Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, in the late eleventh century. As the Bishop of Bayeux in Normandy, he governed the cathedral where the tapestry was first found. Odo was made the Earl of Kent and moved to England following the conquest, so it is likely the tapestry was made in England.
The workshops around Canterbury and Winchester were especially renowned for their embroidery works. The theory that the tapestry was made in England is supported by the vegetable dyes used in the tapestry yarn. These specific dyes were popular with Anglo-Saxon embroiderers and the Latin inscriptions which use Anglo-Saxon techniques.
However, there are other theories about the Bayeux tapestry origin:
Bayeux oral legend claims that the tapestry was commissioned by Queen Matilda, the wife of William the Conqueror. In France, it is still often called “La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde” (“The Tapestry of Queen Matilda”).
The Bayeux Tapestry Today
The tapestry was proudly displayed in the first few centuries after its construction, but eventually it was lost to time. After a mention of the tapestry in 1476, it is not referenced again in any historical record until 1724. In 1724, Antoine Lancelot wrote to the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres about a drawing he had received depicting scenes from the tapestry.
However, he did not know if the source of the drawing was a tapestry, painting, or even sculpture. Scholar Bernard de Montfaucon then made investigations and found the tapestry in Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry was displayed annually on a feast day for St. John the Baptist. But Bayeux residents were not aware of its historic significance. Montfaucon made an extensive study of it, copied and documented all parts of the tapestry and published a comprehensive study on the tapestry.
The Bayeux tapestry then managed to survive several decades of political upheaval in France. During the French Revolution, it was almost destroyed, before officials decided to use the fabric as a covering on military wagons. A local Bayeux lawyer then rescued it and returned it to the city after the Revolution.
The Fine Arts Commission then took control of the Bayeux tapestry in 1803 as part of a national program to safeguard French art. It was briefly moved to Paris before being returned to Bayeux after Napoleon’s plans failed. Bayeux built a room just to house the tapestry in 1842 and to ensure it would be preserved.
The Nazis captured the tapestry when they occupied France during World War II. It was supposed to be shipped to Berlin, where a lot of priceless art was lost. But luckily, France took back control of Paris just three days before it was scheduled to be removed.
The Bayeux tapestry was displayed in the Louvre for a year before being returned to Bayeux, where it has resided ever since.
Reproductions of the Bayeux Tapestry
Those interested in examining the scenes of the Bayeux Tapestry have several reproduction options to choose from:
- William Morris, renowned English artist, poet, author, carpenter and textile designer, made a full sized copy of the Bayeux tapestry in the 1880’s. This copy of the tapestry can be viewed in Berkshire, England. Morris worked with textile manufacturer Thomas Wardle, Elixabeth Wardle and thirty other English embroiders to create this stunning hand embroidered copy.
- Professor Ray Dugan also made a full-size, stitched replica of the Bayeux tapestry in 1996 that is on display throughout Canada and the USA.
- Dr. E.D. Wheeler commissioned a hand-painted, full size version of the tapestry in 1997.
- There is also a mosaic, half-sized version made by Michael Linton. This mosaic took 20 years to create from 1979 to 1999, and it depicts a hypothetical version of the missing piece of the tapestry.
These replicas of the Bayeux tapestry are a valuable historical record. They reveal details on the tapestry that may be lost as the material degrades over the years. They also exemplify just how much the Bayeux tapestry has permeated public consciousness and infected future generations of artists.