Inheriting the Epic: The Game of Thrones Tapestry and its Bayeux Ancestor

In 2017, Tourism Ireland - in partnership with HBO and Tourism Northern Ireland - commissioned the first instalment of what would later culminate in a mammoth 87-metre tapestry chronicling the entirety of HBO’s Game of Thrones series in unique splendour.

Five years later, with the Game of Thrones tapestry once again uncoiling to make its return to the Ulster Museum, we thought that we would take this opportunity to explore its connections to its eleventh-century ancestor and inspiration piece, the Bayeux Tapestry.

Both tapestries underwent a similar commissioning process, each involving several collaborators including the commissioner, designers, and artists who were responsible for composing the final piece. However, while the Game of Thrones tapestry was purposed to celebrate Northern Ireland’s intimate connection to HBO’s series and allow audiences to ‘relive every moment’ of the epic saga, the Bayeux Tapestry illustrates the history of the Norman conquest of England, concluding with the 1066 defeat of Harold Godwinson to his usurper, William the Conqueror. Shortly after the battle, the tapestry was composed to commemorate and justify the Norman conquest.

Despite very different motivations for these two prodigious projects, the tapestries share a similar feel in their composition and creative direction. In the Game of Thrones tapestry, we observe various visual motifs and design references which nod in homage to features of the Bayeux Tapestry, and for good reason. Indeed, in many ways the distinctive scenes of HBO’s Game of Thrones resonate with how events from the Norman Conquest of England are visually depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. For instance, the tremendously gory and violent battles of Game of Thrones echo the comparable scenes of carnage with which the artists of the Bayeux Tapestry illustrated - with or without embellishment - the Battle of Hastings.

Figure 1
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 2

The Bayeux Tapestry’s decorative lower and upper borders are often used to display specific visual cues from the unravelling centre-piece scene. In battle scenes such as seen in Figure 1 above, the lower border is utilised to show the sheer extents of death and destruction with dismembered, fallen soldiers enclosing the sequence. Similarly, the borders of the Game of Thrones tapestry’s ‘Battle of the Bastards’ representation (Figure 2) is lined with soldiers disembowelled or slain by many arrows. Confining the fallen soldiers to the borders both serves to preserve the space within centre-frame for action while also emphasising the brutality of these battles.

Figure 3
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 4

The ‘Battle of the Bastards’ design sequence draws inspiration from other aspects of the Bayeux tapestry’s battles too. In Figures 3 and 4 we can see how the charging horses rear up in a similar fashion. Moreover, while a volley of spears and arrows can be observed in the battle of Hastings scene in Figure 3, Figure 4 demonstrates how the Game of Thrones tapestry allowed some elements of the narrative such as Wun Wun the giant and the mesmerisingly dense arrow volley to climb from the centre frame into the top border in order to provide audiences with a sense of the combat’s scale. This visual device ensures that the momentous $11 million battle sequence is once again rendered memorable in a spectacular fashion.

Figure 5
Figure 5
Figure 6
Figure 6

The Game of Thrones tapestry designers were also inspired by the splendid sails of the many longships in the Bayeux Tapestry (Figure 5). In the Bayeux Tapestry, ships had varying numbers of strakes, colours and different hull and sail patterns to denote their passengers. In the Bayeux tapestry, each sail boasts a different cascade of marbled colours while in the Game of Thrones tapestry, the sails bellow in a similar shape to those of the Bayeux but are used to denote certain political factions with bold crests and colours (see the Lannister sail in Figure 6).

Distinct and consistent visual motifs like the ships were crucial for audiences of the Bayeux Tapestry to be able to follow the embroidery’s narrative. Strong, reoccurring visuals were particularly important because of the nature of tapestry’s audience. While the subject of the Bayeux Tapestry’s venue has garnered much debate amongst historians, it is conventionally believed because of its scale, it was intended for sizeable public audiences, most likely in a cathedral setting. At this time, church attendees of the English peasantry were vastly illiterate, and later, Pope Gregory would come to describe artwork in churches as ‘books for the illiterate.’ By the eleventh century, church walls were adorned with beautiful artworks to provide attendees with another means of appreciating the biblical stories that were preached by priests. It is very likely that the tapestry served a comparable purpose. In contrast, the Game of Thrones tapestry - with a modern adult viewership - often capitalises on longer, prominent quotes from the series in order to truly re-immerse its audiences in the show as they experience it once more on the gallery wall (Figure 7).

Image: Figure 7
Figure 7

Interestingly, both tapestries begin and (most likely!) conclude with analogous scenes. Both opening sequences show the royal protagonists debating and speculating on the future of their kingdoms from their castles (See Figures 8 and 9). Game of Thrones introduces two of the narrative’s soon-to-be warring families, the Lannisters and Starks, coolly greeting each other at Winterfell, and – with a similar inception introduction to political intrigue - the Bayeux tapestry’s opening shows the reigning king, Edward the Confessor, sending Harold Godwinson, his brother-in-law, to inform William, the duke of Normandy that he will be chosen as his successor to the throne of England.

Figure 8
Figure 8
Figure 9
Figure 9

Unfortunately, the final scenes of the Bayeux Tapestry are missing, and in its current state the concluding sequence shows the Normans chasing the defeated Anglo Saxons from the battlefield as the embroidery terminates in tattered suspense. However, there is consensus amongst historians that the tapestry would have concluded with William’s coronation, depicting the conqueror as King. In a symmetrical fashion, the Game of Thrones tapestry concludes with the coronation of our Stark protagonists; with Bran being hailed King of the Andals, and Sansa as Queen of the North.

 Both tapestries can be viewed and enjoyed in their entirety online:

Tourism Ireland: Game of Thrones Tapestry

Bayeux Museum: The Bayeux Tapestry Online

 

Can you spot any similarities between the tapestries? If you can, make sure to send us your thoughts on social media. Comment on any of our Game of Thrones posts our send us a direct message @Ulstermuseum.

Until 25th September 2022, the Game of Thrones tapestry will be on display at Ulster Museum. Booking is not necessary, and attendance is free of charge!

 Philip Magowan

Digital Media Executive

 

 

References

Bayeux Museum, The Bayeux Tapestry [https://www.bayeuxmuseum.com/en/the-bayeux-tapestry/discover-the-bayeux-tapestry/explore-online/].

Gameson, ‘Origins of the Bayeux Tapestry’, 157; R. Brilliant, ‘The Bayeux Tapestry, a Stripped Narrative for Their Eyes and Ears’ The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry ed. Gameson (Boydell, 1997) pp. 111-37.

Reiss, Athene, ‘Beyond ‘Books for the Illiterate’: Understanding English Medieval Wall Paintings.’ (The British Art Journal, vol. 9, no. 1, 2008) pp. 4–14.

Tourism Ireland, Game of Thrones Tapestry [https://www.ireland.com/en-gb/features/game-of-thrones-tapestry/].