The Bayeux Tapestry

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By WALNICE NOGUEIRA GALVÃO*

A document of feudalism recognized as a heritage of humanity

One of the most spectacular works of art in existence is the Bayeux tapestry (France), a document of feudalism that has the seal of Unesco as a World Heritage Site. It records the Battle of Hastings and the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066. The miracle of its survival is a thousand years: it must have faded, but little is noticed.

A strip of fabric 70 meters long and half a meter wide forms the basis. The word tapestry is inappropriate, because it is not made on a loom, nor are the figures interwoven in the game of weft and warp. Here, it is rather an embroidery, in a technique called appliqué, with figures cut out of other fabrics and topstitched with a needle on the base fabric. Afterwards, the figures are embroidered with features, clothes, weapons or, in the case of horses, manes and jaezes. And to think that until the invention of the sewing machine in the Industrial Revolution, everything, really everything, was hand sewn with these little stitches by women. That is, literally for millennia.

There are no less than 70 meters of illustrations. A figure can contain several pieces. The horses are not uniform in terms of coat, the palette is variegated: bays, sorrels, blacks. Legends in Latin, which call the Saxons “Angles”, are arranged along the upper edge, explaining scenes, commenting on stories.

Warriors are, like everything else, neatly treated. We see those with the pointed helm and the round-headed ones, with their armor layered and their chain mail clearly visible. The knights carry long spears and swords, the infantry are armed with bows and arrows, all with oval shields with a tapered lower end. You rarely see anyone with a war ax or a hawk in their fist. There is no shortage of castles and churches.

The battle of Hastings is the fulcrum of the narrative, which begins much earlier between feudal lords, when the Saxon Harold pays homage to William of Normandy, in France. But later, in an act of felony, he usurps the throne of England, crowning himself king. In reaction, Guilherme orders the manufacture of a fleet of 700 boats, according to the ancestral model of the viking drakar (Normans = men of the North). Trees are felled and planks planed; supplies are taken care of – oddly enough, only in weapons and wine. Sails unfurled, comes the crossing of the English Channel, followed by day-to-day life in the camp.

In the skirmish, we see the riders in formation, the horses at a walk, and then taking off at a gallop. The death of King Harald, pierced by an arrow in the eye, is a horrifying realistic detail. The tapestry ends with William's coronation as King of England.

Two friezes border the band, with effigies of birds and animals, forming a whole bestiary. In battle, they give way to corpses littering the ground, with verist detail: sometimes decapitated or with amputated limbs, head and arm placed at a short distance, amidst shields and weapons littering the ground. Bodies fall as horses are catapulted upside down and feet in the air.

Tradition holds that the artists were the maids of Queen Matilda, William's wife. It doesn't hurt to imagine them in endless circles of sewing and conversation in the icy rooms of the castle, when the sun is falling early, while the snow is falling outside and the fire is crackling in the fireplace.

They bring to mind other works. A few years ago, the work of the burlap from Chile, with figures applied and embroidered on jute bags. This was clearly political and denounced the violations of human rights perpetrated by the Pinochet dictatorship.

or the show women's stories, which had one of its sectors dedicated to embroidery (Masp, 2019). Or even the instigating and provocative Overflowing: transgressions of embroidery in art (Sesc, 2021). It is a trend that erupts with force, still not entirely satisfactory, still timid, claiming a status, like someone who arrives late to the feast of the arts.

When traveling, don't miss a trip to Bayeux. It's just over two hours from Paris, on a high-speed train, the TGV, with time to go and return on the same day, including lunch at a Norman bistro. And come back tired but elated.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reading and rereading (Senac\Gold over Blue).

 

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