Stylistic Variation and Roman Influence in the Bayeux Tapestry

William's ships - The Bayeaux Tapestry

William’s ships – The Bayeaux Tapestry

Stylistic Variation and Roman Influence in the Bayeux Tapestry

Gale R. Owen-Crocker

Peregrinations: International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Art, Vol.2:4 (2009)


It is generally assumed that the Bayeux Tapestry is to be read as a continuous, historical narrative and that it is the work of a single artist, consistently executed. The subject-matter is largely heroic: it deals with kingship and battle, oath and betrayal; it includes scenes of courage and carnage, a rallying eve-of-battle speech and two grand feasts; its chief actors are men of the ruling class, supported by their attendants and knights. The visual effect of the frieze (a point not previously, as far as I know, observed by scholars) exhibits, in general, a rhythmic alternation of the horizontal and the vertical: scenes of motion, in which long-bodied horses and dogs, ships, even King Edward’s funeral cortège, are juxtaposed with static scenes where the protagonists confront one another, or where the forward impetus of the frieze is stopped by a building, a tree, or a hill.

However, there are a number of places in the Tapestry where the graphics of the main register are different in both subject matter and style. The men pictured at these points are workers, engaged in practical, mundane (distinctly non-heroic) tasks. They are depicted in a stiff, stylised manner, yet the drawing is not incompetent and individual “stage props,” such as tools and foodstuffs, which occur in plenty here, are executed with striking attention to detail. Whereas the Tapestry in general is serious in tone, in three instances the areas under discussion show clownish behaviour which is probably intended to be humorous. At some points in these sections the images are uncharacteristically spread out and in another rather compressed; the layout is crude; there seem to be some attempts at perspective, naively realised; and the buildings or trees, which elsewhere act as divisions between scenes, are sometimes omitted entirely, botched or incorporated into the main action.

In this paper the following sections of the Tapestry and their probable sources will be analysed in detail: Scene 35 (DW 35-36), felling trees and building ships for the Norman invasion; Scenes 40-43 (DW 45-48), pillaging, preparation of food and serving of the Norman feast at Hastings; Scenes 45-47 (DW 49-51), constructing Hastings Castle and arson, alternating with Duke William interacting with a messenger and a groom. Individual figures from adjacent scenes will be included in the discussion; and Scenes 43-44 (DW 48), the Hastings feast and the council of Norman brothers which follows it, which I consider to be pivotal images in the overall Tapestry design, will be examined.

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