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Essay: The Narratives of the Bayeux Tapestry: Unveiling the Varying Layers of Interpretations and Meaning.

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Gothic Art and Architecture


The Bayeux Tapestry: The Multiple Narratives That Have Come Forth

Throughout the past century, many different pieces of Medieval art have been analyzed in order to understand fragments of the past that still seem unclear. The multiple forms of art that were produced during this time frame has given the platform for researchers to further delve into the limited texts of the time to answer questions, such as, where did this piece originate from? When was it made? Who made it? Was it religious, or was it a secular piece? Who commissioned it? Who was it for? All of these questions are ones that can be applied to the Bayeux Tapestry, which is one piece of Medieval art that still stumps art historians today. This is due to the lack of documentation written about it and the hidden messages that lie within the piece itself. Within the Bayeux Tapestry, there are multiple narratives and meanings that are intertwined with this large piece of art that researchers have no concrete answers to state whether something is right or wrong. I use this research paper as a platform to examine the bayeux tapestry’s basic history and materiality, followed by, the three different layers of narratives and meanings that are in the piece itself; the surface-level narrative for average visitors, the narrative of the artist, and the narrative of religious visitors.

Background on the Tapestry

One of the pieces of information regarding the Bayeux Tapestry that historians know for certain take place in the center of the artwork. Historians are sure that the tapestry provides a “pictorial narrative” of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (Introduction, pg 2). In particular, the story that is being told is when Harold and William the Conqueror battled for the throne (Wilson, pg. 201). This has raised a lot of dispute because researchers are still not even sure where the piece originated from, which has lead a few different historical contexts for the tapestry have been proposed. These include the Norman version of the story stating William is the rightful heir of the throne and saying that Harold was attempting to steal that title. The second is that the English version of the story viewed Harold as the rightful heir, with William being depicted as an invader. Finally, the last context of the tapestry merges these contexts together (Chapter 2, pg. 49). By providing this information, those who see this piece, are given an indepth look at what events lead up to the Battle of Hastings. This is important because the viewers of the piece are able to look at the tapestry and “read” about how the battle was initiated between the two kings at the time. A design detail that is important to mention is that the figures were embroidered in ways that allowed the move the story to progress. For example, figures would be looking “in one direction while pointing in the other” (Introduction, pg. 1-2). By involving this design choice, the viewer could see the direction of the hands of those being depicted and know to move forward with the story. This is important because it allowed the story to flow as seamlessly as the piece itself.

This kind of tapestry, in terms of scale and story, as far as researchers know, is the first of its kind. This tapestry is two-hundred twenty-four feet (Introduction, pg. 1) and is thought to have taken over two years to produce (cite). Even though this idea is subjected to a lot of dispute, researchers know based on precedents, that this must be the reality. One precedent, which was a tapestry telling the events of the Battle of Pavia, has lead researchers to believe that the Bayeux tapestry took a long time to construct. The creator of the piece, known as Bernaert van Orley, was known for having a large team of designers, such as “apprentices, journeymen, and subcontractors” in order to design the cartoons included in the tapestry, and then had “the workshop of Willem and Jan Dermoyen in Brussels” create the piece (Chapter 1, 18). Considering that it tooks about twelve months to create the cartoons and eighteen months to actually fabricate the cartoons out of materials, it is clear that a lot of time went into this particular piece (Chapter 1, 18). What this timeline of fabrication points out that even with a large team of people constructing a tapestry, creation of large pieces still take a large amount of time.

According to another precedent created in 1885, a group of forty women assembled from the Leek School of Art-Embroidery in order to recreate the Bayeux Tapestry (Chapter 1, pg. 19). It took this group over eighteen months to recreate from pictures of the original piece, so they had a precedent to refer to (Chapter 1, pg. 19). This is important to mention because as researchers have pointed out, each of the materials used in the original were hand-made (cite), where as, the women making the replica of this tapestry had access to the materials needed (Chapter 1, 19). This would mean that those making the original tapestry would need additional time on top of the eighteen months in order to create the materials necessary. Another quality of the replica worth mentioning is that equal amounts were given to the women to work on (Chapter 1, 19). Since we know that there were unequal portions of material sewn together to make the whole composition of the original (fff), this would mean that the division of labor on each panel of the Bayeux Tapestry was unequally distributed. Because researchers do not even know who was involved in the original design team of the tapestry, it is unknown how long this piece even took to create. Some researchers believe that the tapestry took only two years to make (Chapter 1, 19), but most researchers, using the precedent from the women of the Leek school, are in agreement that there must have had to be “at least one year devoted to the preparation of materials and two for the embroidering” (Chapter 1, 19).

Looking at the materiality of the tapestry, these are the details that are the clearest to decypher. Throughout the whole piece, only ten different colors are used, all created from plant extract (Chapter 1, 11) Most likely, this was done in order to ensure that attention was not being put on the thread work, but instead, the focus is put on the historical event being displayed. This is clear too by the choice in stitch-work that the creators decided to use. The creators of the tapestry used two different forms of stitching; couched and stem (Ch. 1, pg. 16). The couched stitch allowed the creators of the tapestry to embroider large portions of the tapestry efficiently without wasting thread on the back (Ch. 1, pg. 16). This ultimately allowed production to go faster. Stem stitching, on the other hand, helped establish contour lines (Ch. 1, pg. 16), which allowed the subject being displayed to have depth.

Stitch craft —-a couched stitch used for covering large areas efficiently, and the stem stitch, which establishes the contour lines. By laying the wool yarn in closely packed parallel rows on the surface of the textile and anchoring the rows of yarn with little “couching” stitches at right angles to the main direction of the wool, the couched stitch – or couch-and-laid stitch as it is sometimes called – minimized wasted thread on the back of the textile. (16

The final detail worth mentioning about materiality is how they made the cloth. Although not explicitly documented anywhere, researchers have an idea of how the fabric for the tapestry was created. The answer lies in the tapestry margins, which has been the center of a dispute regarding whether or not the margins play a role in the story being conveyed. I talk about the significance of these margins later in the paper, but the margins depict a story of a farmer planting seeds that will eventually grow into the flax plants that will be harvested to be turned into man-made goods (Ch. 1, pg. 10).

Materiality- the linseed the farmer sows will grow into flax plants that, when harvested, will be turned into man-made goods (such as linen cloth), (10)

Providing this story in the margins of the tapestry have lead researchers to believe that this is ultimately how the materials were fabricated in order to create the tapestry (Ch. 1, pg. 10). For an average tourist visiting this piece, this detail would most likely not be evident because they would need to know the both the religious visitor’s interpretations of the tapestry in order to understand this story. One would also need to know about craft in order to understand the materiality of the piece as a whole. The different advantages of having an understanding of these various knowledges are all ideas that are explored in the sections below.

Surface-Level Narrative for Average Visitors

Tourists throughout the year come to the Bayeux in France to see the Bayeux Tapestry on display. They come primarily, as most tourists do, to see the this piece in person because they were recommended they come see it. Regardless if they come having a knowledge of its context under their belt or not, all visitors have one thing in common; they want to see the piece they have heard so much about.

When visitors come to the Bayeux, there are many details that an average visitor can pick up from just looking at the surface of this piece of artwork. They can tell that this tapestry is broken up into multiple “episodes” that tell the story (Sekules, 149). They also will be able to pick up that the story is discussing a battle because of all of its references to armor and weapons (cite big book). The problem with this is that the tapestry “bears little relation to the actual events of the real battle” (green book, 14). Without background knowledge on the tapestry before visiting this piece, it is safe to say that there are not many clues to knowing who is depicted or what is being fought over. The knowledge of the average visitor when they come in to the Bayeux to see this piece lends very little help in providing a substantial analysis of this piece as a whole. The other narratives present in the tapestry provide a much better understanding of what the piece stands for.

Narrative of the Artist

One of these narratives that provides much more context of the tapestry is the narrative of the maker. Throughout the whole entire tapestry, it is noted that there are only four mentions of women throughout the whole entire piece (Gibbs-Smith, pg. 8). This has lead historians to too propose that the creators of the the tapestry were perhaps misogynistic due to this lack of women (Gibbs-Smith, pg. 9). Anyone in today’s world looking at the tapestry would probably agree with this argument, but by knowing background on who the makers of this tapestry most likely were, the chances of this claim being are slim.

It has been proposed that a group of women may have been the original creators of the tapestry(green book). More specifically, these women were nuns the nuns of St. Augustine’s monastery (sdfdsf(. This argument holds a lot of truth for a few different reasons. The first was that women were not usually involved in stories involving “charges of treachery and perjury” and scenes of “battle and death” (Ch 1, pg 12?). This would make sense because women were not fighting in battles like the Battle of Hastings, so they typically would have no reason to be depicted within stories pertaining to these battles. It is also believed that thee embroidery was created by the monastery of St. Augustine’s (Introduction, 1-2). The “creation of extensive pictorial narratives” was practiced by the artists in the monastery of St. Augustine (Ch1, pg 12) and they were generally the ones “preparing the visual design, or cartoon, for the narrative, and drawing up the text of its inscription” Ch 1, pg 13). If this true, then it seems feasible that the women who lived at the monastery could have been the ones designing the cartoons depicted in the tapestry.

There is also the claim that multiple hands had to have been involved in a piece of art as large as this one. More specifically, because there was so much stitchwork needed in order to design and sew the nice panels of the tapestry together (Ch 1, pg. 9), it is thought that multiple people would have been needed in order to pull this off successfully (Ch 1, 12). This would make sense because if there were a lot of women that were a the monastery, they could all lend a hand in fabricating the tapestry. Referring back to precedents like the Battle of Pavia and the Leek School of Art-Embroidery’s recreation of the tapestry, there is no possible way that one person could have created this tapestry by themselves. Even though French researchers have concluded that this piece was “embroidered in a single operation” (Ch 1, 12), knowing that the reproduction of the tapestry alone took multiple years to produce, this claim has been subjected to criticism.

Another idea worth mentioning that the art of making fabric was typically considered “women’s work in the Middle Ages (Ch 1, pg 13). This would make sense then why the women of the monastery were the ones creating it because this was simply what they were talented in. This idea would also play into the fact that people who were part of the monastery during this time were expected to offer there “his God-given artistic talents in the service of the Lord” (Ch. 1, 16). If the women of the monastery were expected to make the Bayeux Tapestry because they were expected to lend their talents to large projects such as this one, it would make sense why nothing was said about women barely being depicted in the tapestry. Regardless of whether or not the women of the monstarery were mad about this, they ultimately had no choice in the matter. Although these religious women may have not had a choice in the creation of this tapestry, they were able to lend their knowledge of the bible and the production of cartoons and text in order to create one last narrative that is present within this large piece of artwork.

Narrative of Religious Visitors

The third narrative that receives the least amount of attention in this Medieval piece is the religious narrative. This narrative, can only be picked up by limited audience because many of the scenes resembled that of “Old Testament images in Bible manuscripts illuminated at Canterbury” (Sekules, 150). Only those with a religious background would have an easy time reading this tapestry as having parallels to the bible because of the different imagery involved. Throughout the whole tapestry, it is widely agreed upon that the marginalia depicts different animals and people that resemble the “canonical” eight (Ch. 7, 155). These eight fables come straight from biblical stories and offer a new lens to look at the tapestry with.

There are two different views on what these fables in the margins could actually mean. Some researchers believe that they are just for ornament and do not relate to the scenes in the center of the tapestry at all (Ch. 7, 157). Since the different parts of the margins depict details, such as crows and foxes, it is understandable why researchers would believe that they have nothing to do with telling the story of the Battle of Hastings. For those with a religious background though, iit is evident that this might not be the case. Depending on a person’s interpretation of the margins, the different animals could be resembling the different figures in the tapestry. More specifically, they could be referencing the actions of William or Harold. For example, it is thought that animals were used to depict Harold because of how he went behind his brother’s back, which was very animalistic (Ch. 7, 157). If this was true, this would provide another layer of the story, and especially one that supported William (Ch. 7, 157). The only way that one would be able to read this would be if they had a knowledge of the fables to know what the animals did wrong in their stories. Being able to make these parallels between a historical account and stories from the bibles allowed for a brand new interpretation of the bible to be formed.

After researching the possible narratives woven into the tapestry, it is clear that multiple forms of knowledges are what ultimately make this piece what it is today. Although there is limited documentation on the piece itself, what has become clear through research is that there are multiple interpretations of this piece regarding how long it took to construct, who made it, and what the piece actually meant. Since these interpretations are subjected to such disputes, continuing to rely on precedents from the time in order to decipher the answers to all these questions will hopefully begin to answer all of the hidden meanings of the piece. Until concrete evidence is found concerning this piece’s origins, researchers can only propose hypotheses in order to set out and begin to look for more historical background on this piece.

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