Comet: Good Omen or Bad Omen?

Prof. Roy DeVille
Prof. Roy DeVille

I have been intrigued with the news reports of the comet ISON. Astronomers followed the journey of the comet from the farthest points of the solar system on its way toward the sun. Then, the comet disappeared! It is presumed to have plunged into the sun’s corona.


Comets fascinate me. Of course, the best known is Halley’s Comet, last seen here on earth in 1986.  It is visible approximately every 75 to 76 years, and has been recorded since 240 BCE. The ancient Hebrew Talmud contains a passage recounting, “a star which appears once in 70 years…”  Medieval thought labeled the appearance of a comet as a bad omen. Elmer of Malmsbury saw Halley’s Comet as a child in 989 CE, and wrote of its return late in his life. In Book 9 of Virgil’s Aeneid, Claudianus says, “A comet was never seen without a disaster.”  The first pictorial representation of Halley’s Comet can be found in Scenes 32-33 of the Bayeux Tapestry. Even Giotto included Halley’s Comet in his fresco, Adoration of the Magi, for the Scrovegna Chapel at Padua. The comet had appeared in 1301, four years prior to Giotto’s commission for the Chapel.


The Bayeux Tapestry is actually not a tapestry, but an embroidery of woolen thread on linen, 70 metres long (230’ x 20”). It recounts the conquest of William of Normandy on 14 October 1066 at the Battle of Hastings in a quest narrative format. The tapestry was commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William. Although probably completed before 1080, the first written record of the tapestry is in a 1476 Inventory of Treasures housed in the Church of Notre Dame at Bayeux.  The Tapestry Master, who remains unknown, possessed a high intellect, as evidenced by the sophistication of his insight into medieval thought and the events being chronicled.  He was, no doubt, English—probably a monk at the monastery of St. Augustine in Canterbury, the chief town and ecclesiastical center of Bishop Odo.  It is apparent that he worked from various sources of information, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.


The Bayeux Tapestry is a quest narrative, the quest being for the throne of England. In many ways, it is a visual chanson de geste, paralleling the style of the great troubadour/trouvère epics. The medieval chanson de geste typically relates the progression of a questing hero through a series of episodes toward a climactic event. In his progress, the hero often encounters a time of grave danger before reaching his final victory.


The Bayeux Tapestry relates this quest narrative in vivid detail. The major events of the Battle of Hastings are stitched into the center of the cloth with Latin tituli (captions) above each scene. The upper and lower borders form a glossing of the main events. Stem stitch was used for outlines and lettering while couching stitch fills in the figures.


In Scenes 32-33, we find Halley’s Comet. The main panel of Scene 32 shows men pointing upward toward the border. There we see Halley’s Comet, a fiery star with its characteristic long tail. The Latin caption reads Isti mirant stellam, “They marvel at the star.” The lower border shows the Zodiacal sign of Pisces. In 1066, Halley’s Comet appeared in Pisces.


Scene 33 shows Harold, who has usurped the throne from William and taken the English crown. Harold is being informed of the appearance of the comet.  This is a disturbing scene, full of expressionistic detail. Harold is out of sync. The throne on which he sits leans to the viewer’s left, the only throne in the entire tapestry so distorted. The backrest is surmounted with the heads of two howling beasts, rather than the standard regal lions. His footstool is an unsteady stack of rough blocks, appearing about to topple. All serves to produce a strong sense of uneasiness. The lower border depicts a group of phantom ships, foretelling the Norman invasion. Harold is, of course, killed at the Battle of Hastings, being shot through the eye with an arrow. William of Normandy takes the throne, ending Anglo-Saxon rule in England.


These tapestry borders play a significant role in the quest narrative. They form an extended decorative scheme, often seen in Romanesque visual art such as on the capitals of the cloister columns at Moissac and Arles, and in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. The borders provide three aspects of relationship to the main panel narrative.  First, analogy connects the border to the event of the main panel. For example, in Scene 39, the Norman ships land on the English coast as two birds in the upper border spread wings and feet for landing. Genre scenes, such as farming, hunting, and bear baiting, tie the events of Hastings to English life. Finally, linkage unites the event of the main panel to the border. In Scene 33, as Harold hears of the comet, phantom ships in the lower border link the Norman invasion, shown five scenes later, to the omen of the comet.


The Bayeux Tapestry cannot be interpreted in 20th-century terms. The ostrich, featured often in the borders, is currently aligned to sticking one’s head in the sand to avoid all reality. But in medieval symbolism, the ostrich, who fed on iron, represented military prowess. It is a fitting symbol for William, the first of a long line of Norman kings. Time moves in the same direction as the figures in the tapestry. Sometimes the story moves from right to left and, at other times, left to right. Until recently, the Tapestry Master was faulted for putting events out of consecutive order, but we now know that this was not the case. In fact, he displays an acute grasp on both the events of 1066 and the medieval philosophical world view.


Halley’s Comet has long been associated with the foretelling of portentous omens. Nowhere is this better seen than in the Bayeux Tapestry. If you missed the comet in 1986, you have a long wait. Halley’s Comet will next be visible from earth in 2061!