The Middle Ages was a time of great discovery and political turmoil in Europe. The historical record of much of that period is incomplete, so a work of art that is essentially a documentary of the time is incredibly valuable. The Bayeux Tapestry is the most important surviving relic of the 11th century. Even so, the end of it is missing, leaving the coronation of William the Conqueror out of the record and a mystery about the contents of the panels’ last scenes.
Tapestry as Embroidery
The Bayeux Tapestry isn’t really a tapestry. Tapestries are woven entirely on looms – the images are woven right into the design. While the Bayeux Tapestry was created on hand-loomed fabric, the pictures on it are embroidered. The needlework was executed in wool threads. Nothing specific is known about who made the tapestry, although speculation includes a queen, a convent of nuns, a professional artisans’ guild or just a large number of women who worked non-stop to complete the work.
A Survivor for 900 Years
The tapestry is 230 feet long. However, it’s less than 20 inches high. This brings up an obvious question. Where would you hang such a long skinny shape? This one hung for at least 400 years in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Bayeux. The tapestry is like a giant embroidered scroll that tells a story when it is fully laid out. Yet, few castle walls could provide the gallery to view the scores of scenes depicted on its panels. The tapestry itself is the subject of repeated dramas throughout the years. It was rescued again and again from wars and uprisings, hidden from conquering armies, stolen (and returned) by Napoleon, and nearly destroyed more than once for its yards of cloth.
Art as Political Propaganda
The tapestry was commissioned a few years after the Battle of Hastings in 1066; in this battle, the Norman French conquered the English Saxons. It was probably commissioned in 1070 by Odo of Bayeux, a bishop and the half-brother of William the Conqueror, who defeated the Saxon King Harold to seize control of England in the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry may have been intended for the dedication of William’s cathedral. It was certainly a claim to victory and to the throne.
A Record of Men, Stitched by Women
The tapestry is on display today in Bayeux, France. The linen background is now a light brown color because of its extreme age. The original embroidery threads retain their eight colors, the dyes available when the tapestry was made. Historians who study the tapestry find it one of the clearest sources of information about medieval arms and warfare in existence. The story on it covers preparations, battles, defeats and triumphs and reveals a lot about life in the 11th century. The images include 626 people, but they only depict three women. The images also include nearly 200 horses, 35 dogs, more than 500 other animals and birds, 33 buildings, 37 ships, 37 trees and 57 Latin inscriptions.
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images