Thursday, 7 August 2014

THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY....which is not a tapestry. BY Adèle Geras

Most people know the main facts about the Bayeux Tapestry. First, that it isn't a tapestry at all but an embroidery. It was made, probably near Canterbury in the years between 1066 and 1077 when Odo, William the Conqueror's half brother and bishop of the Cathedral in Bayeux, released it (I use the word advisedly) as a magnificent piece of Norman propaganda.  The spin (again advisedly used) he put on the story of Harold's death and the subsequent triumph of his half-brother was a firmly pro-Norman one.  During the Middle Ages, it was unveiled once a year to the congregation in  July on the day known as the Fête des Réliques.

Scholars think it was made in England, but no one knows exactly who stitched it. It is made up of 58 scenes (the last few scenes are missing) and is about 70  metres long. It's composed of  nine linen bands sewn together.   The story it tells runs from left to right, like a long, long comic book strip. It is, if you like, a graphic novel in wool.

There are eight different shades of the woollen yarn, dyed naturally by madder, woad and the like. 

The pictures I've put up here show some of the action, and action from beginning to end is what this story is. There are sea voyages, equipping and providing for an army on the march, funeral rites, cooking and much else. There is feasting, and fighting and dying.  There are ships, buildings and landscapes. There are soldiers, priests, women, men in every imaginable position and some of these can not be reproduced in a family blog. All Human Life is There, the News of the World used to proclaim and it's as true of this embroidery as it is of the now-defunct  newspaper. 

The natural world is here too: the sea, animals both real and imaginary, and many trees. The ones shown in the picture above are typical. The intertwined branches of the tree appear over and over again:  a  stylised and extremely beautiful shorthand that says TREE. I am not sure when the municipality of Bayeux chose this image as a kind of symbol, but you see it everywhere in the town  on round  brass plaques set into the pavement. There's a motto that goes with it, too:  La qualité a ses racines.   I'd translate this roughly as : Class doesn't come out of nowhere, and in Bayeux it's true: there has clearly been beauty here from the moment the town was laid out,  centuries ago, and the embroidery is a huge part of that. The Museum is a World Heritage site.

I've chosen two photos, above and below this paragraph, to show off the horses. They are a  striking feature of the whole 70 metres and are seen in such wonderful detail that there is a difference between how they look when they're trotting, walking and, as above, galloping into battle. In the picture below this paragraph, they are falling down in the midst of the battle and the detail throughout is such that in another scene, there's a horse getting out of a Viking ship....leaving one of his legs behind till the last moment. In the 11th century, perspective isn't yet fully there, but still the things and people further away are shown as smaller.  I also noticed that the borders were used in all kinds of modern ways....the dead shown along the bottom of the battle scenes reminded me of  scrolling headlines on television news channels.

Two things struck me as I walked past it twice, very slowly. The first was simply what an enormous undertaking this was for the women ( or maybe men too...monks, perhaps) who made it. It must have involved large numbers of people, each working on a section. That's clear, but something that I also thought was that this was a work of art that had an overriding artist, or designer behind it. Someone. ONE person. An organising intelligence worked everything out in advance. Then, the vision was transferred (by whom? Might it have been Odo?)  into drawings on linen, which was then stitched by the needles of many, many anonymous embroiderers on to its écru background. The writer Sarah Bower has written a  novel called THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD which is a wonderful imagining of what might have happened and I will have to read it again because I have forgotten the details, though I remember liking it a lot. There is also a book by Carola Hicks called THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY: history of a masterpiece, which I have only just started reading. She seems to propose  a very convincing argument for the role in the creation of the embroidery of Edith Godwinson, widow of King Edward, sister of Harold and friend of King William of Normandy.  I was very glad to read about Edith, and the other highborn women of the time, because what  I felt most strongly as I walked around was that there was  one person behind the whole thing.  One artist, before the many makers came along, who saw the embroidery whole in her head, (and for the moment I've fixed on Edith)  and who could then supervise the putting of this picture on to the linen for others to bring to life. 

It is worth saying that England (and Scotland too. Queen Margaret was also  a very skilled embroiderer) was famous for its embroiderers and stitchers at this period. Then there must have been those who undertook to deal with  the uniformity of the stitching and the colours: medieval continuity girls who saw to it that what Odo was wearing in one scene matched the clothes in another. That Norman hair was cut short at the back and that the English had mustaches, etc. That the horses were the right colour. And those trees....that they were always depicted in similar fashion. Here they are, below in one of the brass plaques I mentioned. They are supremely beautiful. Someone more recently saw them and created a kind of 'brand' for Bayeux, apart from anything else. Gold star to whoever that's a perfect symbol.

So in conclusion, what can I say? I would urge anyone interested to go to Bayeux and see this masterpiece (not so much a work of art - more a Wonder of the World) for themselves. The Museum that contains it has many fascinating accompanying exhibitions and a film to make a visit even more interesting. It's a model of efficiency and comfort and how to display a real treasure.

This is the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame where the embroidery was first unveiled by Odo. It's most beautiful. I would like to have been in the congregation that day.

And this is the entrance to the Museum. A lovely bank of hydrangeas to welcome you if you decide to go. 

The story of the Bayeux Tapestry continues. On our way out, I picked up a handout about The Alderney Bayeux Tapestry finale, which described how Kate Russell of  Alderney oversaw the making of an embroidery of Jan Messent's Finale to the Bayeux tapestry. She organised the whole community to help to do this and there's even a photo of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall having a go at stitching themselves. It's a wonderful idea, I think and a fitting ps to the story.

I could go on at great length. To say I was bowled over is putting it mildly. The other phrase that came into my mind as I looked at it, and imagined that congregation of 1077 seeing it for the first time was: rolling news.  All I can say is: BBC, eat your heart out!


catdownunder said...

This makes me wonder what people will make of that other "tapestry" - The Great Tapestry of Scotland - a thousand years from now.

Sally Prue said...

Isn't the battle scene like Picasso's Guernica?

Mary Hoffman said...

I absolutely adored seeing it just over a week ago and you make very good points, Adèle.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Enjoyed reading the post! I love the way the passage of time is shown in King Edward's death. In one scene the priest is clean-shaven, in another he's got stubble!
I do think there is a great deal still to be discovered in the work that requires in depth cultural knowledge of that period. There is definitely something going on with the sudden 'rude nudes' in the lower borders of the embroidery who are anything but random. And Harold heading off with his hawks and dogs. Were they for his own pleasure, or as gifts for someone of a higher order? One could spend a lifetime studying this embroidery...

Unknown said...

It is a very wonderful thing indeed Adele. Was in the town very recently during the D Day celebrations week. Bayeux was central to that conflict and was very much En Fete which all seemed very apt somehow.

adele said...

Thank you so much for all the comments....I'm looking forward to reading more about it!

adele said...

And yes! Battle seven very much like Guernica!

adele said...

I see I have spelled MOUSTACHE wrongly! Or is mustache permissible? Apologies for this!

Lisbeth Ekelof said...

I saw this last year. It is absolutely fantastic. The work is so skilled and beautifully done. One of the most beautiful historical peaces I have seen.