The Tapestry of the Apocalypse
Even if you are not fond of superlatives, they all come to mind when you first encounter this wonderful artwork, the Tapestry of the Apocalypse at Angers, France. It is now being presented on the dark blue wall of a huge and long room built especially to house it. It is the largest tapestry ever woven in Europe: 140 meters long, 850 square meters. Originally it was formed by an ensemble of six pieces, each one 23 meters long and 6 meters high, each piece composed of 14 scenes presented on two levels. The outrages of the centuries and the stupidity of men amputated it by almost one third; many scenes have disappeared. We are left with “only” 104 meters.
By the thirteenth century, the art of tapestry reaches its summit in France. This brings us to the House of Anjou. The Duchy is a buffer between Brittany and France. Jean le Bon (1319-1364) had four sons who grew up in the cultivated and refined court of the Valois, surrounded by musicians, poets and painters. They love anything beautiful, collect precious jewels and rare manuscripts. Louis I, Duke of Anjou, is very ambitious, very careful of his image. He wants to show his power and astonish his peers. In 1373 he orders the weaving of a beautiful tapestry illustrating the last book of the Gospel, the Apocalypse according to St. John. The work is completed in 1382. Louis I will not have much time to admire his tapestry: he dies two years later. What did he intend to do with it? Nobody knows for sure, as there was no room big enough in the chateau to exhibit it.
Louis II of Anjou had it transported to Arles for his wedding to Yolanda of Aragon in 1400. Everyone, according to the commentaries and writings of the time, was amazed. Louis XI in 1474 takes Anjou for the crown of France. The son of Louis II decides to exhibit the tapestry when the king enters the City of Angers. Louis XI admires it so much that Louis, worried, decides to donate it to the Cathedral of Saint Maurice in Angers. The tapestry can be seen stretched in the sanctuary or hung along the nave. It is shortened, cut here and there. The canons complain that it smothers the sound of the choir and of the sermons. The eighteenth century hates anything medieval. The canons put the tapestry for sale in 1782, at a very low price: supreme humiliation, there is no buyer! It is then thrown in a junk room, cut to plug holes, protect from mud and rain, to wipe feet, bandage horses.”
The 19th century rehabilitates the Middle Ages. One of the canons discovers the tapestry and is horrified to see in what state it is. He cleans it in the river Maine. Colors have not survived well. But it is exhibited during the Universal Exposition of 1867 and is classified as a “Monument historique” in 1902. In 1905 it becomes the property of the government. It is returned to the Chateau d’Angers where it can be admired, but there is no room large enough to show all of the pieces that are left. The bright light makes it fade even more. In 1952, the decision is taken: a gallery will be built that will be large enough to show the whole thing. By 1954 the tapestry is put in its definite place, but the large windows allow too much sun to come in. In 1975, drapes are installed. In 1980 it is discovered by miracle that the back side of the tapestry has kept the beautiful and joyful colors which made its beauty. In other words, the back side is as beautiful as the front used to be. It is called a “tapisserie sans envers.” In 1996, the gallery is refitted: the walls are dark blue to show off the scenes. They are presented on two levels and the light is filtered.
What we see nowadays is six pieces, each piece composed of twelve tapestries. The first one explains how St. John was seized by the Spirit and heard a voice which proclaimed: “What you see, write it in a book.” The second one illustrates the events seen from heaven. The third one evokes the coming on earth of witnesses sent by Christ to preach His word. The fourth one is a warning: men who worship the Beast and cultivate evil will be punished. The fifth is more precise about the scourges of God announced by the seven trumpets of the beginning scene. The sixth and last tells the final victory of the Messiah and of the True Faith.
A Closer Look
Scene 35, The lady clothed with the sun. Apocalypse XII, 1, 3-4. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: and there appeared another wonder in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his head seven diadems and his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.
Mary shows the newborn child to the angel who takes Him toward heaven and a sheltered throne to take Him away from the seven-headed dragon with horns who wants to grab the Baby. The crown of Mary bears twelve stars. She is dressed in sunrays, her feet are on the moon. Satan has failed, but he takes with him stars that have fallen. Notice the angels do not have halos; they have crosses on their heads.
By this woman, interpreters commonly understand the Church of Christ, and the twelve stars with which she is crowned were the twelve apostles and their successors. And the dragon is of course Satan who tries to undermine the Church.
Scene 36, St. Michael fights the dragon. Apocalypse XII, 7-8. And there was a great battle in heaven: Michael and his Angels fought with the dragon: and the dragon fought and his angels: and they prevailed not.
The dragon is brought down by angels. The many spears show how ferocious the fight is. St. Michael’s spear ends with a cross, symbol of the triumphant Church. The angel with the phylactery claims victory. Exceptionally we have a geometrical design for the background.
Scene 39, The dragon fights God’s servants. The background shows the initials of Louis I and his spouse. The fight between the dragon and the believers gives us a good idea of 14th-century costumes. The Franciscan friar wears the long robe with hood, his belt is a cord with three knots. The lay people wear shirts over their pants and long pointed shoes. Two of them have head covers, a turban and a hood. The seven heads of the monster are very visible, symbol of his scary intelligence, and the horns are signs of its power.
Scene 40, The Beast of the sea. Apocalypse XII, 1-2. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns and the beast which I saw was like to a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion.
It represents pagan power, the Antichrist who persecutes the Church. It comes out of the water and gives to Satan the scepter of royalty, thus asking him to fight the believers. The Beast has seven heads of lions, ten horns and ten diadems with a body that looks like that of a leopard and feet that resemble those of a bear. It shows the strength and power of evil. Notice that the Beasts have a kind of a parallel connection. Notice also the background full of flowers.
Commentators see the dragon as representing antichrist, the seven heads and ten horns signifying a great number of kings and princes who shall be overcome by antichrist and submit themselves to him. It could also be the whole company of infidels, enemies and persecutors of the people of God, from the beginning to the end of the world. The seven heads could be seven principal kingdoms or empires which have exercised or shall exercise tyrannical power over the people of God: of these, five were then fallen—the Egyptian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Persian and Grecian monarchies; the sixth one present Rome; and the seventh yet to come. According to Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux, the leopard represents Maximian, a changeable, restless and cruel prince. The bear figures Galerius Maximin, a man of cruel and brutal disposition and gigantic stature. We are told he took pleasure in feeding bears, which bore a great resemblance to him in size and brutality. The lion is the symbol of Diocletian, who was cruel and vehement against Christians.
Sixth piece. Scene 73, The Word of God charges the Beasts. Apocalypse XIX, 14. And the armies which are in Heaven followed him on white horses.
God’s armies charge the Antichrist. Three horsemen symbolize armies. At their head is Christ with a halo and a beautiful galloping horse, and armed with the sword of Faith. The Beasts of earth and sea and the men seduced by Satan run away and seem to take cover behind a large rock. The scene exalts divine victory, the triumph of God’s Word over Satan.
Scene 77, Satan besieges the city. Apocalypse XX, 9. And fire comes down from God out of heaven, and the devil was cast into the pool of fire where both the beast and the false prophet shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
It is a typical scene of a besieged city. The inhabitants take refuge in the castle, they look at the attackers. Soldiers posted in front of the portcullis defend the entrance. Satan pulls with him the unbelievers who will be defeated by the fire of heaven.
Scene 80, The new Jerusalem. Apocalypse XXI, 1. And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. And I, John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven.
Many details underline the perfection of the heavenly city. Suspended between heaven and earth, above the waves, the city is outlined on a blue background ornamented with branches of foliage. Christ with a cruciform halo addresses Himself to St. John from a cloud. St. John looks at, with admiration, the home of the Chosen Ones, rewarded for their faith.
Scene 82, River flowing from the throne of God. Apocalypse XX, 1. And he showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God, and of the Lamb.
Christ and the Lamb appear in majesty in a mandorla. From their throne flows pure water (baptismal water?). It brings water to the hills where flowers and trees full of fruit grow. This vision brings to mind the Garden of Eden before the fall of Adam and Eve. St. John seems ready to run to the Lord, and the believers are finally able to contemplate God.
To recapitulate: The tapestry is an allegory, and the numerous symbols are not always easy to understand. We can even say it carries a certain abstruseness. God is the central person. He appears eighteen times, either in the shape of a man or as a lamb with signs of His Power. The animals around, eagle, bull, lion, represent creation with its vitality. The lion incarnates nobility, the eagle swiftness, the bull strength. Many angels are scattered everywhere. They have a human appearance, chubby, blond, with short curly hair, blue-eyed, bare-footed. They have halos and, of course, wings. They wear a long robe, in general white, sometimes blue, usually covered by a coat. They are the messengers of God and ornament the borders of the tapestry where they play 14th-century instruments: harp, crecelle, cithara.
The tapestry shows divine persons, diabolical ones, a fantastic bestiary. Let us not forget that it presents not only religious but also political connotations. For instance, the leopard/devil looks exactly like the one on the English coat-of-arms. The Valois are fighting the Plantagenets for the throne of France. Times are tough. The black plague of 1348 has killed one-third of the European population. In 1356, the king of France, Jean le Bon, is prisoner of the English. Even if there were some kind of a cease-fire when the tapestry was woven, war was not far and started again. The tapestry is also a work which reflects the worries and dramas of the 14th-century men and women who wove it. Many scenes are coded and destined to a knowledgeable public. Let us keep in mind that there are several levels of readings and analyses. But there is one that deserves only one commentary, and that is the admirable realization of this exceptional work of art.