As the Church year winds down, the liturgy turns to eschatology — the “Last Things” — death, judgment, heaven and hell. Paradoxically, the Church does not start reading from the Book of Revelation. It saves the book for Eastertime; affirming its message is not so much gloom and doom as the final triumph of God (albeit not without struggle).
Still, the Apocalypse lends itself to the eschatological expectation of the last weeks of the Church year — and so does the “Apocalypse of Angers,” France, a beautiful 14th-century tapestry that is more than 400 feet long and double-wide, depicting 70-plus scenes from the New Testament’s last book.
Depictions of the Apocalypse are not so common: I can think of the roof of the Anglican cathedral in Norwich, England, and Malbork Castle in Poland. So it was with surprise that I stumbled upon this magnificent work on display in the Angers Chateau, about two hours west of Paris.
In the Middle Ages, the local duke had considerable power and wealth and commissioned a grand tapestry to depict the Book of Revelation. Completed in 1382, the work is in every sense grand: in theme, in detail, in size and in the number of scenes it depicts. Its sheer size probably caused it problems: The duke did not have the space big enough for the whole tapestry to be displayed, so it came out on special occasions. When the duchy of Anjou passed under French control, the family consigned the tapestry to St. Maurice Cathedral in Angers. (St. Maurice’s feast day is Sept. 22.)
By the 18th century, tapestry as an artistic genre was out of fashion, and it seems the cathedral even tried to get rid of it but could not find a buyer. It recaptured attention in the 1800s, when a cathedral priest attempted its restoration. When the French state in 1905 took over ecclesiastical art as part of “French patrimony,” it wound up in the Chateau of Angers. A special exhibition hall has now been built for its exhibit, now on full display in all its glory.
Many churches have Last Judgment scenes either over the main entrance door or the altar, but such a full-blown treatment as Angers’ is rare. The very size of the tapestry immediately strikes the viewer. It hangs in two rows along two long halls, so that two scenes appear, one above and one below the other. Approximately 75 scenes, arranged in six panels, are shown. Each panel starts with an enlarged figure of St. John, the traditional author of the Apocalypse, as if beckoning viewers to consider the “text.”
St. John also appears in most of the individual scenes, a witness to the image about which he wrote. (About 15 scenes, e.g., the red rider among the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are missing, the result of damage the tapestry suffered over the centuries.)
We live in an age with a strange interest in the grotesque: Vampires populate our popular culture, while even elementary-school reading books are written with a vulgar twist to prove their “realism.” Against that background, a visit to the Angers tapestry can have a corrective effect. The depictions are real: Beasts, monsters and devils populate many scenes, and if you know something about the times the tapestry originated (the Hundred Years’ War) you see contemporary allusions, e.g., the evil leopard strikes the same pose as the leopard on the seal of Great Britain, the then-mortal enemy.
But this tapestry shows something more. It shows the ongoing struggle between good and evil. It gives hope in assuring that God will have the last word in human history (as we see in the last scenes of the New Jerusalem). But it is also realistic, affirming that the path to God’s final word goes through suffering (depictions of the killing of the witnesses, of the martyrs beneath the altar, and the sleep of the just). History will turn out right, not because progress is inevitable, but because God is in charge.
But the path to victory is shown as lying through decisions and suffering, e.g., the depiction of those who worship the “image of the beast” versus those in the background being decapitated for refusing to do so.
The “Last Things” had great influence in this part of France. If you go to St. Maurice Cathedral — just up the road from the Angers tapestry — both rose windows display scenes from Revelation as well as the Last Judgment. Further north, in western Brittany, lie the famous “parish closes,” intricate depictions of Christ’s passion with a strong memento mori aspect to them, populating the cemeteries, chapels and churches of places like St. Thegonnec, Guimiliau, Commana, La Martyre, etc.
Angers is a very Catholic town, with many churches and a campus of the Catholic University of the West (l’Université Catholique de l’Ouest).And travelers to France should not overlook Angers’ inspiring tapestry of the Apocalypse.
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.