The Bayeux Tapestry Normandy: every kid learns about the Bayeux Tapestry at school – or at least they did when I was at school! Seeing it for the first time though – I was totally unprepared for the sheer scale and impressive but naive beauty of this vast piece of embroidery – it’s not really a tapestry at all – it is a huge and magnificent work of art and the word tapestry simply doesn’t do it justice.
In France it is known as La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde and it is on show in the town of Bayeux in Normandy at the 18th Century seminary Musée de la Tapisserie.
The tapestry is encased in glass with dim lighting to protect it but this doesn’t make it any less impressive to look at. The Bayeux Tapestry has a UNESCO world heritage ranking, created it is believed in the 11th Century and is 70 metres (230 feet) long – the colours of the wool used in the embroidery are barely faded after some 900 years and the whole thing has a very fresh, dynamic and spirited appeal that time has left undiminished.
The amazing embroidery depicts the conquest of England by William The Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and is thought to have been embroidered by monks or nuns in the South of England having been commissioned by Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother. The skill of the embroiderers and level of detail involved is stunning and if it was indeed commissioned for the inauguration of Bayeux Cathedral in 1077, just 11 years after the Norman Conquest in 1066, the embroiderers must have put in an enormous amount of work to get the piece finished in time. The facts are that we don’t really know for sure when it was started, finished or who carried out the work.
There is a myth that the embroidery was a labour of love undertaken by Queen Mathilde, the wife of William, the popular story is that she and her ladies-in-waiting sat sewing for thousands of hours to produce a tapestry picture to honour her husband but scholars agree that the style of the embroidery is English, the vegetable dye colours used are of English quality and it is well-known that England at that time was famed for its embroidery skills, the work of well-born women who had chosen to live in a convent and were acknowledged to be the best in the Europe.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts events leading to the Norman invasion and the Battle of Hastings in 1066, followed by preparations and the Norman Invasion fleet being led across the Channel by Duke William and finally the Battle itself. The final piece of the tapestry is missing and there is no record of what was on it, some scholars say they believe it would have been around 1.5 m longer with the last panel.
There are over 600 figures, 200 horses, fifty scenes with Latin captions and even Halley’s Comet is shown in one section – the first known depiction. The tapestry has amazing upper and lower borders in which are depicted wild animals, scenes of medieval life, hunting and agriculture, fables and mythical beasts – it is strangely three dimensional and has great impact when you see it for real instead of flat in a photo or on the web.
If you go to Normandy don’t miss out on this amazing exhibition, it really is one of those things that should be seen at least once in a lifetime. You could also do a day trip from Paris to Bayeux by train which takes about 2 hours each way.
The Musée de la Tapisserie official website has details of opening times and other useful information for travel options.