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Architecture and Math Show the Bayeux Tapestry Was Designed to Decorate a Cathedral

A new study proposes a convincing explanation for the 11th-century tapestry’s creation

The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of William the Conqueror's invasion of England (Public domain)
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The Bayeux Tapestry, an epic embroidered cloth that recounts William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066, is perhaps the most exciting story ever committed to linen. But while the centuries-old artwork offers much illumination on the medieval period, details regarding the tapestry itself—including who embroidered it, where it was created and its original purpose—remain few and far between.

A new study published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association attempts to address some of these unanswered questions, outlining evidence that suggests the tapestry was designed for display in a specific section of Normandy’s Bayeux Cathedral.

As study author Christopher Norton, an art historian at the University of York, explains in a press release, scholars have long viewed the Bayeux Cathedral as the tapestry’s likeliest point of origin.

Norton says, “This general proposition can now be corroborated by the specific evidence that the physical and narrative structure of the tapestry are perfectly adapted to fit the [liturgical] nave of the 11th-century cathedral.”

The Bayeux Tapestry—not technically a tapestry, since it’s embroidered rather than woven—is one of Europe’s most renowned works of art. Dating to the 11th century, the monumental cloth features 58 scenes involving 626 characters. It illustrates the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings, in which William, Duke of Normandy, defeated Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. Historians suspect the tapestry originally included scenes, now lost, depicting William’s coronation.

The first recorded mention of the tapestry dates to 1476, when the work was reportedly hung in the nave, or central section, of the Bayeux Cathedral. Given the gap in time between the tapestry’s creation and this historical appearance, academics have long debated whether it was commissioned specifically for the cathedral or if it originated elsewhere—perhaps the English estate of a Norman nobleman—and was then moved. Today, the nearly 230-foot-long tapestry is on view at the Bayeux Museum in Normandy, where it is displayed in a U-shaped space that allows visitors to walk along and view the entire piece.

According to the study, Norton wanted to write an article on the tapestry some 20 years ago but was dissuaded by friends who warned him against wading into the heated academic debate. He decided to revisit the subject, however, after French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to loan the tapestry to the United Kingdom, allowing its departure from France for the first time in 950 years. As Norton explains, the news prompted him to examine how the tapestry could be best displayed.

To start, Norton gathered information on the original layout of Bayeux Cathedral, which has been changed and rebuilt over the centuries. He paid particular attention to the nave where the tapestry was once displayed. Additional avenues of exploration included an assessment of how missing sections and shrinkage over time affected the work’s dimensions and a survey of typical medieval cloth manufacturing practices.

“[Norton] was able to show that the so-called ‘tapestry’ was embroidered onto linen cloths of standard lengths, which enabled him to reconstruct its probable original length,” Tom Nickson, editor of the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou. “He was then able to show that it would have fitted perfectly into the nave of Bayeux cathedral as it was in the years after 1066.”

Norton concluded the tapestry was designed specifically for Bayeux Cathedral, where its narrative sequence, structured in relation with doorways and architectural elements, stretched across five bays of the nave. The researcher’s findings corroborate a popular origin story that posits the tapestry was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Bishop Odo, to decorate the newly constructed cathedral.

Based on his findings, Norton suggests the tapestry should be displayed along three walls of a rectangular space measuring about 102 feet long and 30 feet wide.

For now, the Bayeux Tapestry remains on view at the Bayeux Museum. Come 2022 or 2023, however, the 11th-century masterpiece will likely travel to the U.K., where it will stay while the French museum undergoes renovations.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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