A Feast for the Eyes: Representing Odo at the Banquet in the Bayeux Embroidery
By Elizabeth Pastan
The Haskins Society Journal, Vol. 22 (2012)
Introduction: Odo is not just a subject in the medieval embroidery known as the Bayeux Tapestry; he is also generally taken to be its patron. For this reason, the way inwhich the embroidery depicts Odo of Conteville, who was half-brother to William the Conqueror, bishop of Bayeux (1049/50–1097), and earl of Kent (1067–82), has been of great scholarly interest. Not only have scholars detected evidence of his efforts at self-aggrandizement in certain episodes of the embroidery, but they have also assumed that his perspective on the Norman Conquest somehow influenced the portrayal of this event as a whole. In addition, his role as benefactor of the monastery of St Augustine’s in Canterbury, where both style and iconographic motifs suggest the work was created, is thought to increase the likelihood that he was involved in some way.
In trying to understand more fully Odo’s relationship to the Bayeux Embroidery, this study will focus on the episode in which he is shown officiating at a banquet held after the Normans had landed in England but before hostilities had begun. The feast has received a certain amount of scholarly attention; its pictorial sources, its representation of food and utensils, and the social significance of this kind of communal meal have all been discussed. At the same time, this scene, the first one of the embroidery in which Odo is identified by inscription, has been described as both ‘propaganda by visual association’, and – since Odo is supposedly represented in the guise of Jesus in the Last Supper – as ‘iconographic hyperbole that … borders on blasphemy’. Clearly, Odo’s role in this scene needs to be assessed carefully. This paper will therefore investigate Odo’s role in the banquet as a way to ask larger questions about how patronage has been portrayed in the literature on the Bayeux Embroidery as a whole.
Let us first examine the scene. The expanded framework in which the banquet is presented conveys its importance. It occupies the center of a series of three contiguous episodes that are linked through gesture, juxtaposition, and inscription. These representational techniques encourage a protracted viewing and offer one of the last pauses before the Battle of Hastings, which occupies the final portion of the textile. To the left, skewered and spitted fowl are handed over from cooking fires in the direction of two clearly differentiated and contrasting tables. At the first of these, a trestle table with two upturned shields serving as a tabletop, three standing figures clasp skewer and bowl, covered dish, and upraised oliphant, respectively; meanwhile a fourth moves between this table and the next one, which is the focus of this study.