This is the third in a three-part series on a unique Halley Pilgrimage made by Editor Joseph M. Laufer. The trip, made in September, 1984, took him to London, Greenwich and Lee, England to see first-hand the major “shrines” of Edmond Halley. From London he journeyed to Padua, Italy, to visit the famous “Adoration of the Magi” fresco painted by Giotto, commemorating the 1301 return of Halley’s Comet. The final stop on the Halley journey was the town of Bayeux, France, to view the famous tapestry which represents the 1066 return of Comet Halley on this pictorial record of the Battle of Hastings. This third installment deals with the visit to the historic locations in France.
Having completed two major objectives on my Halley Pilgrimage – a visit to the British landmarks associated with the second Royal Astronomer and the journey to Padua and Giotto’s artistic record of Comet Halley’s 1301 visit – I had one more destination: the city of Bayeux, France. My quest took me further back in history – this time to 1066.
I boarded the overnight train from Padua, Italy with my destination being Paris. The trip would take 14 hours and I would share my coachette with members of a British travel club returning from a week in Yugoslavia. Arriving in Paris at 8:30 a.m. on September 27, I decided to spend the day touring, having planned the trip to Bayeux for the following day.
On Friday morning, September 28, I took the two-hour train ride from Paris to Bayeux (about 150 miles). The French countryside was beautiful and, as we passed by Caen and Liseux, I secretly wished that I had more time to take in these historic and religious landmarks.
Because I had a dual objective on this day: to see the Bayeux Tapestry and to visit the Normandy landing beaches during this 40th anniversary year of D-Day, upon arriving in Bayeux at 9:30 a.m., I approached the bus station for information on how I might get to Omaha Beach later in the day. I was informed that since the tourist season was over, the regularly scheduled tour buses were discontinued. I would have to take a taxi.
While I could see the cathedral spires from the train station, I decided to take a taxi to the center of town to search out the tapestry. My cab driver agreed to return for me after lunch to take me to the landing beaches.
My first stop in Bayeux was the cathedral. It is a majestic edifice for such a small town. The reason I made this my first stop was to gain perspective on the tapestry. For it was in the cathedral that the tapestry was first hung – from pillar to pillar – to serve as a graphic instructional tool for the people of Bayeux. The first written mention of the “Bayeux Tapestry” known to us is in the “Inventory of the Cathedral Treasures”, dated 1476, where it is described as “a very long and narrow hanging made of material embroidered with pictures and inscriptions representing the conquest of England, which is stretched out around the nave of the church on feast days and on special occasions.”
Having seen where it was hung, and marveling at the fact that this restored cathedral had survived the bombardment of World War II, I departed for the Tapestry Museum, located a short distance down the road behind the cathedral.
The Tapestry Museum is an impressive building in its own right. At first it seemed strange to me that such a large building should be dedicated to a single relic. Once inside, however, I began to understand that the unusual dimensions of the tapestry demand an unusual setting.
The French authorities are to be commended for the manner in which they have laid out the museum. As you enter you are confronted with a multi-media introduction to the tapestry. Randomly placed flats on which flash slides depicting a bloody battle with quadraphonic amplification of the sounds of hoofs, artillery and the cries of attacking armies and wounded soldiers prepare you for a walk back through history to a period 1000 years ago. The events jump off the pages of history as all of your senses are engaged for this look back in time.
What I anticipated would be a simple look at a big tapestry was turned into a well-staged educational experience. After passing through the multi-media maze, you are introduced to an enlarged, annotated model of the tapestry. Here again, the museum curators are to be commended for attempting to make history come alive. Before you are ushered into the room which contains the authentic tapestry, you are taken step by step through an explanation – in your native language – of the characters, symbols, Latin text and historical background of the tapestry.
Up until this time, I had only seen one frame of the tapestry – the 32nd frame (I learned) – that depicts Halley’s Comet as a portent of doom for King Harold. So the first dramatic revelation for me dealt with the spectacular dimensions of the tapestry. Its width is only 19 ½ inches – my first surprise. When one thinks of a tapestry, the image of a large rectangular work comes to mind. In width, then, the Bayeux Tapestry is very narrow.
The second dramatic revelation has to do with the phenomenal length of the tapestry – it is just short of 77 yards! But when one recalls that it hung from pillar to pillar in the nave of the huge cathedral, it makes sense. Someone has called the Bayeux Tapestry the world’s first and longest comic strip! The tapestry is made up of eight pieces of cloth sewn together, the longest measuring 15 feet and the shortest (the deteriorated and apparently cut-off end piece) measuring almost 6 feet.
It can take from ½ hour to an hour, depending on your interest in the detail and the history, to go through this “orientation” version of the tapestry. You are taken from frame to frame with blown-up sections of the tapestry explained and illustrated.
There are 58 frames, beginning with King Edward the Confessor (in 1064) sending his brother-in-law, Harold, to Normandy to inform William that he was named his successor to the throne of England. The long story of Harold’s capture, ransom, dealings with William, his betrayal and ultimately his conquest by William at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, unfolds frame after frame until the last one where William’s victory makes him King. (It is believed that the end section of the tapestry is missing, as the story ends rather abruptly).
As I studied the story, I was urged on by my own personal objective to the 32nd frame – which I had seen so often in books and articles on Halley’s Comet. In the “orientation model”, the medieval comet is isolated. The explanatory text reads: “Those present in the palace divide into two groups; while some acclaim the new King (Harold), others, full of fear, point in the sky towards a great ball of fire with a flaming tail (Halley’s Comet, which was visible in England at the end of April, 1066).” The scene continues into the 33rd frame, where an armed man runs to warn Harold of this very bad omen. Overtaken by anguish he has a foreboding, a vision of a fleet (a phantom fleet just outlined in the bottom edging) – a Norman fleet. The Latin text reads, “Isti mirant stella” – “they wondered at a star”.
Click here to view this section of the tapestry
Still in the “ante-room”, I completed my self-instructional briefing through all 58 frames. I was now ready for the real thing. You enter into a darkened hallway where the actual tapestry snakes around in a glass-encased repository, illuminated by very soft light. The tourists react to the atmosphere with reverence and hushed commentary.
Despite the carefully orchestrated preparation, my confrontation with the actual tapestry had a breathtaking effect. Here it was, this masterpiece recognized as being absolutely unique in the world. The most revealing aspect of the initial viewing is its width. It seems so narrow. Because of the way it is displayed, one doesn’t get the perspective the faithful would have gotten when viewing the tapestry in its entirety while strung out around the cathedral.
On the cloth of fairly fine texture have been embroidered in different colored wools, pictures of people, horses, boats and all the familiar and fanciful animals. The different shades of color serve to highlight the astonishing relief obtained by two very simple stitches (the couching stitch and a stem stitch). Eight different colored wools: blues, greens, reds, and buff-yellow, blend together in more or less arbitrary fashion to produce an impression of perspective. The bare material in the background accentuates by its slightly dark hue the richness and originality of the colors.
The tapestry was probably created in a monastery or convent and perhaps under the direction of Queen Mathilda, the wife of King William. It was started shortly after the Battle of Hastings (October 14, 1066) and completed about 10 years later. It is believed that it was first hung on July 14, 1077 when it adorned the nave during the ceremonies surrounding the dedication of the cathedral of Bayeux. In 1025, the Council of Arras had decided that it was desirable to adorn churches with illustrated hangings in order to enlighten the faithful. The uneducated masses could thus learn “through pictures”, educated people and clergy would also find captions in them commenting on the pictures.
The religious message of the tapestry deals with keeping one’s word. Harold had sworn fealty to William – swearing on the relics of the saints. Ultimately, however, he breaks his oath and assumes the throne himself. His breach of his oath leads to his ultimate downfall as predicted by the “evil star” (Halley’s Comet).
Seeing the Halley’s Comet section on the actual tapestry was another highlight of my trip, ranking with my visit to Halley’s tomb and the “Adoration” fresco in the Arena Chapel in Padua. Here was another authentic record of a past visit of Halley’s Comet. But more than that, for me personally, my interest in Halley’s Comet was once again an occasion for gaining new insights into history. It had given me an opportunity to travel to a place that perhaps I would never otherwise have seen.
Upon leaving the tapestry room, I found myself in a large gift shop. Here again, I had to give credit to the museum staff for a tasteful and elegant array of souvenir items. The tapestry naturally lends itself to replication in many art forms. I discovered pottery, posters, postcards, wall hangings, and jewelry – everything imaginable. I purchased my own “miniature” of the tapestry (4 inches in width, it extends to 35 feet when laid out).
After I left the museum, I had time for a quick lunch in a small restaurant on the quaint main street of Bayeux. Bayeux was the first city in France to be liberated by the Allies after D-Day. There is a famous photograph of General DeGaul walking down the narrow main street being greeted by the cheering, smiling residents. As an American, I felt very welcome in Bayeux. There were American flags everywhere.
My cab driver met me, as promised, in front of the cathedral and took me to the Normandy landing beaches (lest than 20 miles from Bayeux) for the afternoon part of my schedule. This is not a Halley’s Comet story, but it, too, was a personal objective that had to be attained on this trip.
Halley’s Comet, having drawn me to this part of the world at this time in my life, gave me the opportunity to pay honor to the men who fought for my freedom 40 years earlier. The account of this part of the tirp may someday find its way into print, but with this, I’ll have to bring to a close the account of my Halley Odyssey. After returning to Bayeux late in the afternoon, I boarded the train for Paris and from Paris returned to the United States.
September, 1984, will long be remembered as my trip of a lifetime. A friend told me once that Edmond Halley, in some “cosmic way”, rewards those who honor his memory. The opportunity for this trip must have been my reward. It is said that you can never go back – but I have decided to do just that and to share this same pilgrimage with others. In conjunction with the British testimonial to Edmond Halley on October 29, 1985, I hope to retrace the path of the three-country Halley Odyssey with an entourage of Halley-buffs as his comet heads towards the Sun.
Halley’s Comet Watch Newsletter. Volume 4, Number 2 – April, 1985
Note: While this concludes my Halley Odyssey of 1984, I have since added two more segments recounting subsequent visits to England, so be sure to read Epilogue I and Epilogue II for more!