Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bayeux, notably in the lexicon because of an extraordinary wall hanging, is about an 18-minute train ride from Caen, where I have spent the last two days. It is a pretty little town imbued with history and no one should dare miss it when traveling about in Normandy. The really good thing about Bayeux is that it did not fall victim to falling bombs during World War II and, in fact was the first place liberated by the Allies. The reached it on the morning of June 7. So its narrow streets must look like they have looked for hundreds and hundreds of years. By the way, the skies were gray and with snow flurries today, underscoring how blessed yesterday’s sun shining on those Normandy beaches really was. The town’s most famous “resident” had been sent away for safekeeping as things heated up in Europe in the late 1930s, not just to prevent damage but also because the Germans had a proclivity to appropriate works of art which caught their eyes. And the Bayeux Tapestry would catch anyone’ eye. Two things most astounded me when I this morning paid a visit to the Great Seminary where the tapestry has been on permanent display since 1842, excepting a short stay in Paris at the Louvre and then during WWII. (Napoleon also had it brought to the Louvre for a while in 1803 when he was running things.) First it is much more gorgeous and colorful and well preserved than I had imagined. I should say that the pictures I took were without flash and the room is quite dim, so they do not begin to reflect the bright colors of the threads. I bought a little book about the tapestry with pictures that look like they were taken for the National Geographic. It is a two-dimensional work that sees to have almost a third dimension. That is because of the thickness of the embroidery against the linen background which gives it a bas relief look and also because of the way its artisan creators used colored threads. For instance, there would seem to be no obvious reason (note that I say obvious) why horses are presented side by side in different colors. But there they are and this trick has the subtle yet undeniable effect of creating depth. This is a gimmick used throughout the expanse of the tapestry and it is something to behold.
The other surprise for me was how thorough and orderly and logical and chronological the tapestry is. With a boost from one of the best audio guides ever (free with admission; such a good idea) following the tapestry narrative is a piece of cake. The music and dialogue begin when you enter the long tunneled room where the tapestry is on display. You don’t even have to punch a button as you move along.It plays automatically. Just hit “pause” if you are particularly fascinated with some part of the display. I hit the pause button a lot. Within the tapestry are handy woven numbers that correspond to the commentary and make it incredibly easy to follow. At the beginning we see King Edward (the Confessor, but that is not explained) conversing with his brother-in-law Harold (I wonder how many Jeopardy contestants know his last name—Godwinson). He wanted Harold to slip across the Channel and tell William the Bastard (Ah! But that moniker was soon to change in a mighty big way) of Normandy that Edward had chosen him, William, to become King of England on Edward’s death, which was imminent. Shenanigans galore work their way into the images as the story goes forward. Harold, after finally reaching William, tells him the good news and William, not one to take a fellow at his word, persuades Harold to take a sacred oath in the presence of a lot of witnesses. Harold thus swears on a stack of bibles that he will abide by the wishes of the King and not make any trouble. All of this is astonishingly clear as you move along before the tapestry with that handy auto guide. The maneuverings depicted in the early part of the tapestry—it is 70 meters long, about 130 feet) is prefatory, of course, to Harold’s renouncing his oath, William becoming furious about it and deciding to do something about it. He did. He had about 400 ships quickly built, hustled up about 10,000 Normans and neighbors looking for a fight, and headed off to straighten things out. Harold had named himself King Harold II the day Edward died while William was still Duke of Normandy. These two principals duked it out at Hastings in October 1066. Harold took a javelin in the eye and died, graphically depicted in the tapestry. The Normans won the day in an epic battle that lasted only a day. The Normans also won the kingdom and now they had a monarch with one the better titles anyone ever had—William the Conqueror.
The tapestry is said to have been completed within about 10 years after Hastings, in time for a really big art fair at the Bayeux Cathedral where William was a member of the congregation. Although it is not clear exactly who wove the thing, the provenance is pretty strong and there is almost unanimous agreement among scholars as to its whereabouts through the centuries since it first was displayed. Not a lot of “tapestry deniers” out there, thank goodness.
So this truly phenomenal work will this century see its 1000th birthday celebrated. It ought to be quite a party.

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