The Apocalypse Tapestry

Angers in Western France, is a place I ended up almost accidentally. I was staying nearby in Saumur, due to its proximity to Fontevraud Abbey, which I’ve written about in detail here. I was looking for places in visit in the vicinity to which I could do day trips by train. I came across Angers, and some quick research revealed that not only did it have a castle that had been home to the Dukes of Anjou, it also had a cathedral with a surviving 12th century nave. You can see both below

I have written in more detail about Angers Castle before, and you can find that post here.

A little more digging and I discovered the Apocalypse Tapestry, which will be the feature of this post.

The Tapestry is surprisingly not that well known, and in the current climate it felt like an appropriate topic to write about.

The Tapestry was commissioned by Louis I Duke of Anjou in 1375. It was woven in the workshops of Nicholas Bataille, a famous Paris weaver, from drawings undertaken by Hennequin of Bruges, who was a court painter for Charles V of France. Charles V of France was Louis’ older brother. The Tapestry depicts the story of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation by Saint John. Though it is most likely that the images were taken from traditional apocalypse iconography, they still narrate the main points of the narrative of the Book of the Revelation.

It is the largest medieval tapestry known to exist, measuring 140 m when completed and consisting of 90 individual panels (not all have survived). Its subject was an indication of the volatile world of late 14th century France. The Hundred Years War was ravaging the country, in fact parts of the Tapestry can be read as depictions of the physical brutality of The Hundred Years War, which saw mercenary bands as well as organised armies swarming across France. The black death was also rampant, killing millions across Europe. It was a time of immense change and upheaval, which might be why Louis decided on the unusual subject of the Book of Revelation for his commissioned piece. There are a number ways it could be read, either as a concept of the end of the world, or because, although it is bleak, ultimately the Book of Revelation depicts a black and white certainty, and in an odd way it has a happy ending with the faithful rising to Heaven. Essentially it provides certainty in unpredictable times.

The Tapestry certainly depicts the apocalypse in visceral detail. I didn’t photograph the entirety of the Tapestry, but you can get an idea of the intricacy of the work and just how evocative the images are.

The Fourth Horseman: Death

The Tapestry was also about promoting Louis’ family. Anjou heraldry can be seen throughout as well as the fleur-de-lis of France. This tapestry was definitely a status symbol as well as an attempt to bring some meaning to an uncertain world.

The Tapestry was probably completed in 1382, meaning it took 7 years to create. It’s completely woven from wool. With a tapestry this complex one master weaver working dawn to dusk everyday (except for Sunday of course) could weave just under a square metre a month. The Tapestry had six sections measuring almost 24 metres by 6 metres. The width comes from the width of the looms on which they were woven. Each section depicted 14 scenes with a final section finishing off with 6 scenes. This gives you an idea of the immensity of the Tapestry.

No one is entirely sure how the Tapestry was meant to be displayed, but it was probably made to be viewed from both sides and may have been hung from moveable panels, placing the viewer in the centre.

Regardless of how it was supposed to be hung originally it is likely that it didn’t see much use for Duke Louis because he died in 1384, only two years after the Tapestry was most likely finished. It stayed in the Anjou family, coming out for special occasions, such as the wedding of Louis’ son Louis II to Yolande of Aragon at Arles in 1400, but most likely it was not generally on display. It was given to Angers Cathedral at the end of the 15th century.

Today the surviving tapestry is displayed in a gallery that was purpose built in 1954 in the grounds of Angers Castle. The fact that any of it survives at all is somewhat of a miracle, as during the French Revolution the panels were cut up and used for floor mats and blankets for horses. This wasn’t uncommon as during this period medieval tapestries were even sometimes melted down for any gold thread they contained. The Bayeux Tapestry came close to a similarly ignominious fate, you can find out more about the Bayeux Tapestry here.

Thankfully canons rescued the pieces and 75 panels were able to restored.

The Tapestry is a truly remarkable survival from the medieval period and is a really interesting insight into a time of incredible, fear, uncertainty and upheaval, as well as the medieval mindset a bit more generally. If nothing else it is a beautiful artefact that tells a fascinating story.

It was also the inspiration for another tapestry held in Angers. This one is displayed in the Hospital of Saint- Jean which is a well preserved 12th century hospital, about a half hour walk from the Castle, (which I know because I did it too fast, in hot weather, because I had a train to catch, and ended up with blisters and heatstroke)

I will probably write more about the hospital at a later date, but for now I wanted to touch on the Tapestry displayed here. It is the work of artist Jean Lurcat. The work was conceived as a modern version of the Apocalypse Tapestry, depicting a modern version of the apocalypse. Work began in 1957 and after the artist died in the late 1960s Angers acquired the tapestries from his wife. The photos I have give an overall view, but not of the individual ten panels. For not photographing the individual panels, I blame a mad rush to make the last train of the day, blisters and the beginning of heat stroke.

The panels depict:

The Grand Threat (the atomic bomb), The Man of Hiroshima, The Mass Grave, The End of Everything, Man in Glory and Peace, Water and Fire, Champagne and the Conquest of Space. You can see the panels in more detail here.

So that is the story of the Apocalypse Tapestry and its modern cousin both held in Angers, a city it is absolutely worth visiting. I want to finish this post with the souvenir I acquired from my visit. It’s a cushion from the Apocalypse Tapestry with the eternal fires of hell.

References

Site vist 2012

Angers Castle Brochures

Angers Cathedral Brochures

Le Chant du Monde Brochure

The Family Trees of the Kings of France- Jean-Paul Gisserot

Parks and Chateaux of France

http://www.chateau-angers.fr/en/Explore/History-of-the-monument

http://www.mheu.org/en/timeline/apocalypse-tapestry.htm

https://www.briottieres.com/en/activities/apocalypse-tapestry/

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/apr/17/the-forgotten-french-tapestry-with-lessons-for-our-apocalyptic-times

http://lotoisdumonde.fr/documents/lurcat/lurcat.html

The Bible

All the photos are mine

Advent Calendar of Castles: 22nd of December: Angers

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Angers is the first French castle on this list, it was the home of the Dukes of Anjou who went on to become the Plantagenet dynasty of England.

Angers sits on a rocky promontory which overlooks the River Maine, and there has been some sort of occupation of this site since Neolithic times. The first structure on this site dates to the 9th century when a lookout tower was established by the Counts of Anjou to help to counter the threat of the Normans. There was a castle here from the tenth to the twelfth centuries and it was the home of the Counts of Anjou, but almost nothing remains. The only remains of this original palace are the walls of the grand hall, the steam room and the chapel of St Lud.

The immense castle you see today dates to the 14th century and was built by Blanche of Castile, a granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, in her role as regent for her young son Louis the IX, who was later canonised as Saint Louis.

The ramparts of the original castle, which largely still stand today, measure approximately half a kilometre in length and boast 17 shale and limestone towers. The castle was very much built as a way to repel invading troops.  The walls were changed in the late 16th century with the towers being shorted drastically and pepper pot roofs added to the top. This was mainly to deal with changes in military technology, especially canons.

The Dukes of Anjou used the castle as a place for art and entertainment in the 14th and 15th centuries, in fact the moat you can see today was never intended to hold water and in the 1400s Rene of Anjou used the moat to house his menagerie. The moat, which was constructed in c.1232, has been used for grazing and a vegetable garden as well. It became very overgrown and in 1912 the Mayor of Anjou had it turned into flower beds.

Apart from being a spectacular castle in its own right, Angers also houses the 14th century apocalypse tapestry. It was commissioned in 1375 by Louis I of Anjou and illustrates the book of revelations of St. John, the final book of the old testament. It originally measured roughly 140m in length and 100 m are preserved and are now on display inside the castle.

Angers also served as a departmental prison in the 1800s and was used as a barracks until the mid 20th century. When the army left the castle, the apocalypse tapestry was returned from the cathedral and Angers was opened to the public.

References

Site visit 2012

Angers brochures

http://www.chateau-angers.fr/en/Explore/History-of-the-monument

The photos are all mine.