Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 3, 2010
Martin K. Foys, Karen Eileen Overbey, and Dan Terkla, eds. The Bayeux Tapestry: New Interpretations Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2009. 248 pp.; 34 color ills.; 11 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (9781843834700)
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This compilation of essays comprises the most recent scholarly publication devoted to the eleventh-century embroidery housed in Bayeux and reveals new interpretations and innovative approaches. The essays address, often through a theoretical scope, issues pertaining to gender, authority, materiality, patronage, performativity, and the senses. Before continuing, however, a critical statement must be made concerning semantics and the ascribed title of this celebrated work of art. The editors note in the introduction that some of the contributors to the volume maintain the usage of the term “Bayeux Tapestry,” while other authors, namely Madeline Caviness and Karen Eileen Overbey, have opted to use the more accurate “Bayeux Embroidery” (xiv). While there is no discussion as to why the editors sanction the use of the term “tapestry,” the decision runs counter to one of the primary objectives of the volume: “revisionary accuracy” (xiv). Obviously, an etymological schism has occurred among scholars; the disagreement turns on both technical and ideological issues.

First, the usage of “tapestry” wrongly propagates Bernard de Montfaucon’s eighteenth-century description of the textile as a “tapisserie.” In its broadest meaning, “tapestry” in English is the equivalent of “upholstery,” whereas for textile scholars, the term “tapestry” means a specific type of weave—a tabby weave that is made with discontinuous weft threads and is created on a loom. Technically, the textile housed in Bayeux is not a tabby weave; rather, it is an embroidered textile. While most scholars are fully aware of this technical difference, the term “tapestry” nevertheless is still used.

Second, the debate is gender-b(i)ased. The continued misuse of the term tapestry is intimately tied to the enduring patriarchal and, even more, hierarchical approach that the academy typically takes toward textiles and other so-called “decorative/minor arts.” Even now, many scholars associate textiles, let alone embroidery, as a debased form of art. Caviness states that the term “embroidery” conjures up the image of women working with needle and thread (86–88)—a far cry from what is still believed to be the more respectable medium of monumental, historiated tapestries that were woven by professional male weavers.

In addition to dealing with the issue of the textile’s nomenclature, Caviness’s essay explores the consequences of the virtual exclusion, or non-presence, of women in the embroidery and how this lack “reconfigures the masculinity of Normans and Anglo-Saxons” (89). While Caviness weaves the reader through the imagery of the textile, offering insightful interpretations of the mere six female figures included (compared to the 282 male figures shown), she ultimately argues that although the “hyper-virility” of the Normans is apparent the Anglo-Saxons are actually cast as the “third sex.” This casting thereby disrupts “the naturalized gender polarity by forming a third point of reference that is opposed to both virile masculinity and to femininity, not simply aligned between them as effeminate male” (109). Caviness’s postmodern reading—stemming from queer theory that undermined sexual roles as binary opposites—aligns the Anglo-Saxons as the Other because of the omission of the female sex. Whereas the Anglo-Saxons are stereotyped as weak, penetrable, hermaphrodite-like, the Normans are powerful, virile, and dominant men. The construction of difference between these cultures, in which the Normans are placed on top, exudes sexual domination over the Anglo-Saxons, but even more, Norman hegemony.

The constructed representation of the Normans, the Normanni, is also explored in Dan Terkla’s essay, which situates the Bayeux Embroidery as an object that records a single event, the Battle of Hastings, but also pictorially represents the expansive history of Norman conquests—one that reaches back to warring Viking descendants, such as Rollo and Hastingus, in addition to prefiguring future conquests, what Terkla calls “the inevitability topos.” The weaving, therefore, established and promoted “an apologia that images a kind of ducal foresight born of mediated hindsight” (143). He identifies three main themes in the textile: the will to power and legitimize; cultural assimilation and adaptation; and the role of the divine in Norman supremacy. These themes were later proudly exploited by Napoleon and the Third Reich by displaying the Bayeux Embroidery as evidence of their dominance “as inexorable, and, indeed, justifiably inevitable” (157).

There are two essays that actively engage the materiality of the Bayeux Embroidery. The first, by Gale Owen-Crocker, examines the backside of the embroidery, noting how little it has been mentioned by scholars over the decades. She outlines some of the main findings from the technical analysis that was done in 1982–83. In addition to discussing the specific types of stitches found (e.g., the stem stitch, chain stitch, among others), Owen-Crocker considers the order in which the textile was created and the use of outlines and infill. She concludes by commenting on how the textile is hung today—at a vertical angle instead of a slant, so that the backside is still not visible. She makes the case that in the future, ideally, the textile will be re-installed in a way that shows both the front and back sides, allowing scholars to pick up where the 1980s study ended.

The other essay devoted to materiality is by Michael Lewis; in it he examines a number of what he calls “errors” illustrating that the embroiderer either misunderstood the meaning of the design or made a careless mistake (135). Lewis proposes that his study sheds light onto how the Bayeux Embroidery was designed and executed. He isolates seven “significant errors” in the embroidery “that surely he [the designer or project manager] could not have ignored” (138). Certainly mistakes are to be expected in such a monumental project, as Lewis acknowledges; but the current reviewer questions the argument that the color of a horse’s legs or the somewhat misshaped shield are what Lewis describes as “significant” errors. A qualification could have been made as to what should be considered a major mistake—possibly one that is so grossly erroneous as to lead the viewer to misinterpret the scene would be a more meaningful definition. Placing this issue aside, Lewis concludes that in the end these errors reveal that the designer was not around during the embroidering process, thereby unable to correct the mistakes, since Lewis believes that corrections would have been insisted upon; however, the success of this argument is fundamentally linked to how one defines and classifies mistakes, something that Lewis does not adequately address.

Elizabeth Carson Pastan and Stephen White consider the belief that the patron-cum-designer-cum-project manager functioned as a micro-manager in the production of the Bayeux Embroidery. Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, has long been credited (and “over-imagined”) as the patron of the textile. This model of patronage positions the patron, like Erwin Panofsky’s Abbot Suger, as an overbearing figure who conceived the artistic program, which included grandiosely self-referential imagery, and who personally oversaw the production of the project. In order to deconstruct Odo as such—particularly since images in the Bayeux Embroidery actually undercut his position in the grand narrative—he has been identified rather as the “benefactor.” Even though Odo likely instigated the commission and offered financial backing of the project, Pastan and White contend that the role of the monastic community of St. Augustine’s in Canterbury takes a more prominent position in understanding why there is a delicate blend of iconography that essentially does not take sides by promoting a pro-Norman or pro-English stance. This more neutralized reading corresponds with their argument that the monks at St. Augustine’s were the driving force, not Odo, of the iconographic program that included a variety of Anglo-Norman figures.

Turning now to the representation of authority in the Bayeux Embroidery, Overbey, Shirley Brown , and Valerie Allen explore how power is constructed and conveyed. Overbey explores the spatial and ideological meanings of the representation of two reliquaries in between which Harold is positioned, as he takes an oath before William. The “symbolic potency of relics” is discussed as well as the perceived miraculous power of saints’ relics: “Relics enabled negotiation [of saints] between heaven and earth, and these transactional loci sancti were marked and framed by their reliquaries” (38). Overbey makes a strong case that the inclusion of the sacred reliquaries in the Bayeux Embroidery creates a specific place of the event—she proposes Bayeux Cathedral with its relics of Saints Rasyphus and Ravennus, even though historically this is not accurate. Even more, the incorporation of the Bayeux relics in the oath scene divinely establishes that the Norman invasion, conquest, and occupation of the Anglo-Saxons was “the miracle that confirms the saints’ will and satisfaction” (46) and thereby functions to “to legitimize William’s claims to English kingship and territory” (49).

Brown also discusses how the authority of William of Normandy is communicated by the incorporation of specific imagery, such as hawking, the ceremonial axe, enthroned figures, and palatial structures. At the same time, however, Brown proposes that there are more subtle ways in which the values of royal and ducal power were expressed in the Bayeux Embroidery. These include auctoritas (the feudal oath), consilium (ducal consultation of vassals), and auxilium (reciprocal aid between duke and vassals). Ultimately, she contends that these three feudal principles, depicted in various scenes, reinforce the ducal authority of the Normans, as well as buttressing their legitimate rule over the conquered Anglo-Saxons.

Allen examines how the objects represented in the textile have a performative quality—one that is dynamic and even corporeal. The primary objective of her essay “locates the Tapestry’s objects in moments of ritualized and heightened reality” such as the giving of gifts, oath-taking, and death (52). Allen classifies objects into categories such as “epic objects” (military paraphernalia) and “feudal objects” (ritualized objects used in feudal rites such as knighting and investiture). Oath-taking is treated in the final section, as is the role of touch. Essentially, Allen examines how, “Touching commits the flesh . . . for touch is the fundamental act of connection” (68), and that by Harold taking an oath on a relic, he established “a direct material connection between the holy and the mundane” (67–68). The tactile actions recorded vis-à-vis objects represented in the textile, therefore, would have assumed great signification for the medieval spectator.

Another essay that deals with the senses is by Richard Brilliant, who explores how the Bayeux Embroidery is stitched with imagery that resonates sound. The pictorial synaesthesia, or “visible sound,” is observed in the narrative of the embroidery, which Brilliant claims, “adjusts its composition to accommodate a graphic rhetoric of sound amidst its registers of images and inscriptions” (74). Moreover, he suggests that even though the textile as an object is silent, it is quite possible that its imagery was supplemented by an actual narration conducted by an interlocutor who was prompted by the Latin, “hic,” that denotes the beginning of a scene. For some, this reading of the textile may evoke the prevalent pop-culture YouTube video by Potion Graphics in which the events of the embroidery are animated and accompanied by a spirited soundtrack—filled with sounds such as squawking seagulls, blazing fires, and belching men. Although this video is by no means “scholarly” in its approach, it certainly highlights the issue of ekphrasis (for medieval and contemporary viewers alike) that Brilliant describes in the embroidery’s imagery.

Although sight is not the main issue of Martin Foys essay, the story that Harold died by an arrow to his eye, as illustrated in the textile, is examined in detail. To understand the origin of this legend, Foys systematically looks at both the literary and material evidence of the Bayeux Embroidery. He convincingly argues that the idea of Harold dying on the battlefield post-dates the creation of the embroidery, as demonstrated by the extant literature. Moreover, Foys has meticulously examined the textile in its current state and compares it to Benoît’s drawings and Montfaucon’s engravings that illustrate what the textile looked like before the nineteenth-century restorers got their hands on it. Ultimately, Foys reveals that a total of seven arrows were added to the textile during the nineteenth-century restoration when compared to the pre-restoration images, which show none. Along this path, he argues that restorers were actually drawing their inspiration from the textual sources that post-date the creation of the Bayeux Embroidery, and that perhaps now the legend surrounding Harold’s death by an arrow can finally be laid to rest.

In the end, the essays in The Bayeux Tapestry: New Interpretations offer various, and at times differing, readings about the meaning of the imagery, how authority is established, and the possible roles and intentions of the patron, designer(s), and artist(s). Many of the authors grapple with the contradictions offered in the contemporary and post-conquest textual sources, providing groundbreaking interpretations of this marvelous embroidery that recorded and made history through each and every stitch.

Kate Dimitrova
Associate Professor, Art History, School of Art & Design, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.