Decades ago when I became interested in the art of the stitch, embroidery, I learned of and became intrigued by the medieval stitchery known as the Bayeux Tapestry. Of course it isn’t a weaving, it is a stitched wall hanging in today’s terms, telling the story of the Norman duke William’s conquest over the English king, Harold at Hastings in 1066. As it is a textile, and from what we know of its peripatetic history, it is a miracle it has survived so long, but the exact details of who commissioned it and exactly where it was made are no longer clear. It was probably commissioned by a bishop half brother of William,and was completed by about 15 years after the event. Stitched in wool on a narrow band of linen fabric, the figures of men and animals in a cartoon-like sequence tell how the battle came about and graphically portray the preparations and aftermath. One of my favourite scenes records the presence in the skies of Halley’s Comet during April, 1066 – isti mirant – latin, presumably they are looking, stella, star. It has just occurred to me I could get an on-line translation of that and will re-write that bit if I am way out. Anyway I love the comet image, upper right hand corner.
So, on our last day in France we hopped on a train out to Bayeux and spent the greater portion of the day viewing the Tapestry and enjoying the rest of the small city of 15,000. The exhibiton gallery for the tapestry is in an old seminary building near the cathedral, and in a dimly lit almost dark gallery, the piece of work is displayed at something between hip and shoulder height, lit from behind. We used the recorded commentary devices and were just entralled. The stitches are simple, there are only 5 colours I think, and all the background is left plain. It is amazing the details that have been achieved with simple stem or outline stitch and the couching technique styled in what has become known as Bauyeux stitch. In just this scene alone, wonderful little details are included: the rays of the comet, the cobblestones underfoot, the different tiles on roofs of buildings, the upturned admiring or anxious faces -( is this a portent?) and hands pointing to the comet, there are some hair details and some of the men even sport horizontally striped stockings. It’s beautiful, it’s lively and it’s over 950 years old. Just the enormous age of this fragile thing gave me an attack of going weak at the knees. I was quite overcome with the the awsome way this textile speaks to us down the ages since it was made. I didn’t vote and I don’t know if it was on the recent list of what people voted for as a Wonder of The Modern World – but it should be up there. DH, who knew almost nothing about it before I started campaigning for going to Normandy to see it , was visibly very impressed once he understood its history and importance as a historic textile and as a record of an event that changed the then known world and its subsequent history.
I have already seen the Overlord Embroidery, a 1970’s applique work commemorating the Allies’ D-Day Landing on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. It’s now on show in a purpose built museum gallery in Portsmouth UK. The idea of course came from the Bayeux Tapestry – and it is utterly magnificent – textile enthusiasts continue to visit from all over the world, and rightly so, the whole work is charged with the emotion and memory laden images of that epic battle.
In the gift shop at Bayeux Tapestry Museum you can buy a scaled down kit of the tapestry, presumably the images are printed onto fabric and you can stitch your own – I must confess I din’t examine that too closely. Since our visit I have heard though, that a well known textile artist has the Bayeux Tapestry in her sights as her next project, I believe to scale. Leaving aside any discussion of whether this is to be ‘a copy’ or ‘a reproduction’ , and whether the many mends and patches now on the genuine article are to form part of this contemporary work – my only question is ‘What on earth is she going to do with it, and how will it be displayed without the benefit of a purpose built museum or gallery?’ I guess I am actually wondering why someone would sew a replica, even to a smaller scale the dimensions are impressive – if all it can do is sit in a cupboard and be unrolled every now and then on show? And yet, this is the exact purpose of the actual Bayeux Tapestry nearly 1000 years ago: most people were totally illiterate, and this work was to tell the story of this hugely important historic event in images that all could ‘read’ and understand, and for the first half of its life it was displayed for a couple of weeks each year in the Cathedral Notre Dame de Bayeux, and the rest of the time was rolled and stored there.
Dr. David M Wilson, writing in his book “The Bayeux Tapestry” 1985 (p.13) says in this introduction:
“During the French Revolution the tapestry had many adventures: on one occasion it was taken from the Cathedral and used as a wagon cover; it was saved in dramatic fashion by a lawyer, Lambert Leonard -Leforestier. Later it was nearly cut up to make a float (for the goddess of Reason) for a carnival. It survived, however, and in 1803 was transferred to Paris at the request of Napoleon, where it was exhibited in the museum which bore his name. This exhibition was mounted as propoganda in relation to the prepartions for the invasion of England, and as such was an enormous success, politically and artistically, but with the striking of Napoleon’s Boulogne camp and the abandonment of the invasion plans the Tapestry was returned to Bayeux.” It was stored in Bayeux and another rural town during WWII and in 1944 went into the basement at the Louvre, and after one or two temporary exhibition sites since the end of that war, it is now permanently housed in a converted seminary near the town’s Cathedral, back pretty well to where it started its journey.