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Sacred Threads: The Bayeux Tapestry as a Religious Object
Richard M. Koch
Peregrinations: International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Art, Vol.2:4 (2009)
There is a duality to the Bayeux Tapestry. The first half is seemingly sympathetic towards Harold Godwin (c.1022-1066), with the second part strikingly pro-Norman. There is a double narrative, one running through the frieze itself and another among the animals and creatures in the borders. We see clerics and knights, churches and palaces, with the sacred blending in with the secular. The interpretation of the Tapestry‟s narrative has leaned heavily towards the secular nature of the narrative. With its vivid depiction of aristocratic life, of hunting and war, it has been argued that the Tapestry was originally meant to hang along the wall of a castle or a manor house, its embroidered tale of war and conquest depicting in wool and linen the songs and stories of knightly deeds.2 Attractive and ingenious as some of theories suggesting a secular venue for the Tapestry are, no evidence exists to prove or substantiate any of them. If an embroidery as long and as costly as the Bayeux Tapestry had been displayed as a background to feasting and storytelling in one of the great halls of England, then surely one of the monastic chroniclers would have heard about it and made reference to it. To display a monument to a Norman triumph” in an English hall would surely have aroused comment, and the monastic chroniclers adept at collecting gossip would surely have made mention of it.
True to its dualistic nature, the Bayeux Tapestry has had two lives: one religious, the other secular. From what little evidence is available we can see that the Tapestry was made for a clerical patron who had sufficient resources to commission such lengthy embroidery. As for the Tapestry itself, it was most likely embroidered by nuns sewing in a monastic workshop. The Tapestry is worked on linen, a fabric long associated with the clergy. Also, only monastic houses would have had enough sheep to produce the huge quantities of wool required for the embroidery. Many of the designs and images in the Tapestry derive from sacred texts and manuscripts that may well have been found in the libraries of the monasteries of St. Augustine‟s and Christ Church, Canterbury. Mingling with images that derive from Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia are those that show the influence of that most hieratic of societies, Byzantium. The Bayeux Tapestry has always been associated with clerical buildings, first the Cathedral and now the museum, a former seminary. It can be said that the “secular” phase of the Tapestry began with its near-demise during the French Revolution and the use made of it by Napoleon, English and French nationalists of the nineteenth-century, and then the Nazi occupying power.