The Bayeux Tapestry
One of the most beautiful works of medieval art is the Bayeux Tapestry. It is named for the Bayeux Cathedral in Bayeux, Normandy, where it was once displayed, but it is a work of English origin, dating back to the eleventh century.
The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry in the common sense of the word; that is, it is not a woven work of art. Rather, it is a tapestry in the sense that it served as a wall hanging—and a grand wall hanging it is. Measuring twenty inches tall and about 225 feet/70 meters long, it is a collection of several linen panels sewn together and embroidered with woolen yarn of various colors. French legend says the tapestry was created by William's queen, Mathilda, and her ladies in waiting, but most scholars now believe it was commissioned by William's brother, Bishop Odo. Anglo-Saxon women were renowned for their embroidery skills, and numerous theories abound as to who were the women who actually crafted the piece—queens, noblewomen, nuns, etc., but there is no evidence one way or the other. Regardless, it is one of the finest examples of Norman Romanesque art in existence.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a visual depiction of the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England that culminated in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, in which William, Duke of Normandy, defeated Harold, King of England. There are any number of fascinating scenes in the tapestry, but one of my favorites is the depiction of Halley's Comet nearly halfway through. As a child, I wanted to be an astronomer, and was excited when the comet came in 1986 (I still love all things astronomical, and if maternal genetics breed true and God is merciful, I will be around when it returns in 2061). Of course, the medieval world put a great deal of meaning into the appearance of astronomical phenomena, and in the tapestry, the comet garners attention. It was generally seen as a bad omen for Harold, and so it was—he was slain not long after.
Another fascinating find in the tapestry is the prominence of genitalia. There are ninety-three penises to be found there, both human and equine. I find this fascinating for a couple of reasons. First, as an undergraduate majoring in English literature and language, I wrote one of my major papers on the use and purpose of sex in modern drama. While the tapestry is not quite the same as literature, it still tells a story, and I'd be interested to do a comparative analysis with medieval literature and other sources. As it is, the specific topic of genitalia in the tapestry has been addressed.
I also find it fascinating in light of a recent, online discussion about historical views of sex. I generally observe more than comment in my online groups, but when someone posted that people in the medieval world thought sex was bad, I could not let that fallacy pass unremarked. The medieval world did not think sex was bad. They didn’t try to shield themselves or others from it, or try to hide it. Quite the opposite. They decorated their illuminated manuscripts with sexual images, and Christian pilgrims wore metal badges with anthropomorphic genitalia, to say nothing of how they named their streets. It was the Victorians, I pointed out, who were prudes.
A perfect example of this can be found at the Reading Museum in Reading, England, where hangs a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, created in 1885 by a group of nearly forty Victorian embroiderers. The Reading copy of the tapestry is a replica of the original—almost. When re-creating the tapestry, the Victorians removed or covered up the human male genitalia, and essentially turned many of the stallions into mares. Apparently, they considered the sight of even horse genitalia to be shocking and inappropriate. I’m fairly conservative and I find that ridiculous, but I'm not a Victorian. It’s understandable, however, and is as important a commentary on the historical period in which it was created as the anthropomorphic genitalia is to its era (though I far prefer medieval history).
The Victorians were not the only ones to recreate the Bayeux Tapestry. Currently, Mia Hansson, an extraordinarily talented English embroiderer, has taken it upon herself to singlehandedly create an exact replica of the tapestry. She started her project in July 2016, and has completed over 18 of the 70 meters to date. She has a Facebook page in which she has documented her progress since the start of her project. You can see her exceptional skill HERE in a photo of the reverse side of her tapestry (my feeble attempts at embroidery have reverses that look like a tornado’s aftermath), and HERE in a close up of her stitchery. Her artistry is simply beautiful, and has helped revive my love for the Anglo-Saxons.
In addition to her Facebook group, she is documenting her process for a book she hopes to publish when the tapestry is complete. Once complete, she hopes to sell the tapestry. "With a bit of luck," she states, "someone with deep pockets will be keen to take over ownership." Sadly, my pockets are far too shallow, but I feel blessed to be able to watch her journey.
The original Bayeux Tapestry is currently exhibited at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France, but in 2022, it will return to English shores for the first time in nearly 950 years as the Musée is lending it to the British Museum for public display. If, as I do, you live on the other side of the pond, and probably won't be able to see the tapestry for yourself, you can view it in its entirety HERE or below.