An iconographic masterpiece
The Bayeux Tapestry is an iconographic masterpiece.
Visitors are immediately taken by the beauty and the originality of the illustrations on this historical cloth. The complexity of it soon stands out and the embroidery is often compared to a comic strip or a sequence from a movie.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a historical account, which unfolds in a succession of scenes of various lengths. Each scene is easily identified by Latin inscriptions - often starting with the word hic ("here"), or ubi ("it is here") - and by markers at the beginning and end of the scene (stylised trees or monuments). Scenes are depicted in three forms : still scenes (Harold sitting on his throne), scenes of movement (characters travelling from one place to another) and scene where people meet either to talk or to fight.
The essential difference between a comic strip and the Bayeux Tapestry is that the same character can be depicted more than once in the same scene. It is the case when Harold crosses the Channel: he is seen firstly in his home, then boarding the boat, then holding the helm and finally being taken prisoner by Guy of Ponthieu (scenes 4-5-6). It is why an analogy with a movie is justified.
The representation of several phases of a same action in one single scene is a question of aesthetics and economy of space. The taking of Dinan is told without the use of three scenes. One is enough to show the three phases of the city capture (scenes 19-20): the assault (on the left), the Normans threatening to set fire (in the centre), and the surrender (on the right).
The artist has added depth of field to the composition with two simple methods. He has drawn, above the principal scene, a background (smaller) such as the homes of the English in the looting scene (scenes 41-42). He has superimposed several objects that mask one another, like the horses partially hiding those next to them: only heads and hinds appear behind the animal pictured on the foreground.
The succession of certain scenes sometimes does not seem to follow the chronological order of events. The artist has in fact chosen a complex structure which incorporates several scenes. Not having noticed these complex structures, certain critics have wrongly spoken of an inversion of cartoons. Scenes 10, 11 and 12 should be regarded as a coherent ensemble: the scene depicts the meeting between Guy and William’s emissaries, sent by the Duke as soon as he was informed of Harold’s imprisonment. The same complex structure is found in scenes 25 to 28.
Pierre Bouet and François Neveux
International experts on the Bayeux tapestry
Further reading:The Bayeux Tapestry by Pierre Bouet and François Neveux
Hardback due out in October 2013, éditions Ouest France