Kerrie comes face to face with Halley's Comet at Bayeux, France

Kerrie comes face to face with Halley's Comet at Bayeux, France

Published by Nick Lomb on March 13, 2008 No Comments

Halley’s Comet as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry_image Kerrie Dougherty

Halley’s Comet as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. The image was taken only with ambient light, as flash is not allowed for obvious reasons and hence there is a spot of reflected light visible directly above the comet. Image Kerrie Dougherty

Kerrie Dougherty, the Powerhouse Museum’s highly knowledgeable and internationally known Curator of Space Technology, is currently working on the refurbishment of the Museum’s Space Exhibition. Due to open in a few weeks, the refurbished exhibition will include a Micro-Gravity Simulator! Kerrie recently visited the town of Bayeux and saw the famous Bayeux Tapestry. Here is her report:

One of the earliest depictions of Comet Halley is its appearance on the so-called “Bayeux Tapestry”, an image well-known from its frequent reproduction in astronomy books. What is not so well known is that the Bayeux Tapestry is on public display in the town of Bayeux in northern France and can be easily visited by anyone with an interest in seeing the original for themselves.

An embroidered linen strip some 70 metres long and 50cm wide, depicting the events leading up to the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066, the “tapestry” is believed to have been made around 1077. Comet Halley appeared around the time of the coronation of King Harold of England and was seen as a bad omen for the king, who was shortly after defeated at the Battle of Hastings by the Norman, William the Conqueror, who assumed the throne of England. In the tapestry Harold’s courtiers are shown pointing up at the comet (depicted as a sun-like ball with a trailing three-pronged tail) with the Latin legend “isti mirant stella” (they wondered at the star).

During a recent visit to France I took a day trip to see the tapestry. Bayeux, located in northern Normandy close to the area of the D-Day landings in World War 2, is easily reached by train from Paris: just a two and a half hour journey. Although originally designed for display in the Bayeux Cathedral, the tapestry is today housed in its own museum, located within a 17th century building that was formerly a seminary. The focal point of the museum is the low-light level gallery in which the complete 70 metres of cloth is displayed behind a protective glass screen. An audio guide (available in a number of languages, including English) leads the visitor along the full length of the tapestry, explaining the meaning of each scene.

It was very exciting to be able to see, close up, the scene I had seen so many time in astronomy books. The vividness of the woollen thread used in the embroidery is astounding after more than 900 years, and the quality of the needlework is exquisite: characteristics that no photograph can truly convey. Seeing the tapestry in its entirety also makes one realise that the “comet scene” is only a very small part of a much larger story being told.

For anyone with an interest in the history of astronomy or comets, I highly recommend a visit to Bayeux if you are visiting France.

Kerrie Dougherty, Curator, Space Technology

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