Rising Seas and Falling Stars

By Sara Evans

Panel, Angevin Tapestries. Image courtesy of the French National Monument Center.

                                  Look at the troubles happening in our World.                                                                                        Anarchy—Discontent—upheavals!                                                                                                         Desperate fights over territory, water and food!                                                                                     Poisoned air!  Unhappiness!                                                                                                                       I fear we are lost.  We must do something!

                                 Farid Ud-Din Attar, 12thCentury Persian Poet,                                                                                   The Conference of the Birds

Apocalypse, contrary to popular belief, does not refer to the cataclysmic ending of the world.  Its meaning, in the original Greek, is the unveiling of truth, enlightenment.  There’s a jarring sense that we are living in apocalyptic times, and we hope and pray that all the turmoil—social, political, economic, and ecological—will somehow lead to a last minute save or revelation. Psychologically, we can bear the notion of apocalypse as long as we believe we can come out the other side, with a vision of the Promised Land or a New Jerusalem.

As I consider what it’s like to live at such a turning point,  I keep thinking back to one of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring treatments of this theme: The Book of Revelation, as depicted in a set of tapestries, made in 1382, for Louis I, the first Duke of Anjou. We encountered this astonishing work of art on one of our last trips to France, before the pandemic put an end to our European travels.

At nine o’clock sharp, on a crisp October morning, our guide met us at the gate of our inn and frog-marched us into Angers, the ancient seat to the Plantagenets.  About two hundred miles southwest of Paris, Angers is a thriving, modern city surrounded by rich, rolling countryside.  There are many historic Chateaux and vineyards here, where the River Maine meets the Loire.

We walked past the beautiful St. John’s Hospital, built on the orders of Henry II of England, an elegantly arched, cloistered medieval structure with leper houses, a poor house, an apothecary, herbarium and infirmary. Then we crossed a bridge over the River Maine, to the Old City, filled with half-timbered houses.  After climbing what seemed like a thousand steps, we came to the cathedral, with its soaring Gothic towers and impressive stained glass windows, on top of a Romanesque base. Finally, we reached the Chateau d’Angers, the imposing castle that is home to the Apocalypse Tapestry.

The structure reaches far back in time, with evidence that it was once a Neolithic site. Archaeologists confirm that it was a Roman fort.  In the 9th Century, it became the stronghold of the Kings of Anjou.

Rebuilt by Louis IX of  France (1214-1270), the castle boasts seventeen immense towers, striped in white stone and black slate.  This hulking chateau was inherited by another Louis, the first Duke of Anjou  (1339-1384),  who repurposed it as an armory.  It was also used as such during both world wars.

In the Middle Ages, tapestries served multiple purposes:  as interior décor, as insulation,  as means of educating and illuminating an illiterate public—and as an extravagant demonstration of power and conspicuous consumption.

The Apocalypse tapestry is the largest in the world, originally woven as six separate pieces, each 20 x 78 feet.  Their total length is 468 feet—longer than a football field, a size fitting for its staggering theme.

By Kimon Berlin, user:Gribeco - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=921694

One walks into the vast galleries where the tapestry is displayed, and is struck speechless by the beauty and the horror of this ancient textile, and its sheer immensity. This is verbal terrorism transformed into visual phantasmagoria.  It’s all there, the thunderous images of Revelation. Fetid rivers, raging fires, boiling seas. Torture, pestilence, beheadings. Winds howl, the earth cracks open; monsters vomit frogs, bodies are covered with oozing sores. The elegant Whore of Babylon admires herself in a mirror while battles rage.  There are no bowing unicorns, no elegant hunting parties, no barking greyhounds.  Death on a Pale Horse rides through it all.

During the French Revolution, the tapestry was hacked into pieces and used as floor coverings and horse blankets.  Today, 71 of the original 90 panels  remain.

Hervé Yannou, administrator of the Domaine National du Château d’Angers observes, “The 14th century, like ours, was marked by exceptional natural and political events: the plague was endemic. France experienced great periods of drought and famine. The Hundred Years War, an endless guerrilla war, brought the countryside to its knees and shook all of Europe. The Apocalypse, this war between Good and Evil, spoke to the people then. The message remains quite clear: if you make the right decisions by following the right leader, and not the wrong one, then the world will do well. Medieval society did not learn the lessons of that crisis, and neither have we, today.”

The Book of Revelation has always been something of a Biblical outlier and its origin has long been in question.  Until recently, three New Testament Johns—the Disciple of Christ, the Evangelist, and John the Divine (now assumed to be the author of the book) were thought to be the same. The style of writing is unique.  Scholar Elaine Pagels views Revelation as a fever dream, “the strangest book in the Bible and the least understood. Take all of your nightmares about plague or destruction or war or torture or natural catastrophe, and wrap it into a huge, single nightmare” and “you get the Book of Revelations.” 

Here there are no comforting stories or parables,  no babes in mangers, no loaves and fishes to feed the poor.  Revelation is an amalgam of terrible dreams and visions, of portents and warnings,  and a fierce polemic to “the seven churches in Asia,”  that were not living up to institutional expectations.   John the Divine, an angry prophet, was exiled to the isle of Patmos from his beloved Jerusalem.  (His home had been razed as the Romans put down a Jewish rebellion against the Empire.)  It is an anguished vision, and a plea to conform to the new ideals of Christianity.

Scholars today believe the book stems from the author’s own experience.   “This is wartime literature,” Pagels insists. “It comes out of that war, and it comes out of people who have been destroyed by war.”  It often takes time for history to catch up with a collective trauma: Revelation was not incorporated into the New Testament until nearly 300 years after it was written. 

The enduring question Revelation poses is this: Can we avoid Apocalypse by living moral and ethical lives?

In Ingmar Bergman’s unforgettable film, “The Seventh Seal,” a knight returns to his plague–ridden homeland from the Crusades. After performing many good deeds, he meets Death on a desolate beach and they make a bargain. They shall play a game of chess with the knight  playing for his life.  There is no quarter given, and no acknowledgement of the man’s good works.  Later, Death comes for the knight while he is having supper with his wife. 

At the end of this film, the Seventh Seal of the Book of Revelation is  broken, and a half hour of silence falls upon the earth.  Like John of Patmos, Bergman (the son of a Calvinist minister) was obsessed with the idea of the silence of God at our hour of greatest need—and the theological debate over good deeds vs. grace as a pathway to heaven.  

Europeans have lived through the Black Death,  the Inquisition, the spread of cholera and endless wars.  Yet Americans have had their own apocalyptic visions, too. Christopher Columbus believed that the discovery of this continent would precede, by just a bit, the End of the World. Native American myths often speak of the final destruction of the earth by fire or flood.  

The witch burnings in Salem, Massachusetts were likely caused by a hallucinogenic fungus found in rye—an apocalyptic vision in a loaf of bread.  

In 1844, the Baptist preacher William Miller gathered the faithful for their last hour, on October 22.   When the end of the world did not occur, this date became knowns as “The Great Disappointment.”  One follower said, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a weeping cape over us as I have never experienced. We wept, and wept” until the next day dawned.  

In our secular age, our Apocalyptic images stem from the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and environmental destruction.  Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton notes that it’s important to differentiate between a natural revulsion toward historical events and paranoid delusion.  He reminds us that, as defined by Freud, narcissism is characterized by a sense of “falling apart.” The same terror can be found in those traumatized by war, and in the mentally ill.   Fear becomes pathological only when we get stuck there—when we lose the capacity to hope and the ability to comfort ourselves.

Still from Bergman's Seventh Seal, courtesty of Wikimedia Commons Images.

Even St. John gives us a respite on this tortuous  journey.  After beating us to a psychic pulp, he offers us a balm—a vision of a world made new, rinsed of sin, plague and death, and liberated from the Beast of Evil.  John meets his savior on a pristine earth, verdant and  graced with clear, flowing rivers, a place inhabited by sinless people. A vision of redemption for all Creation.

Apocalyptic. We toss the word around in conversation like a Frisbee. And it seems very apt, while vast tracts of land are in flames, the seas are rising, the air and rivers are polluted, and a deadly virus rages around the globe. But this probably isn’t it, we think. This is probably just a rehearsal.  

With images this stark, we give in to a kind of psychic numbing, or a cultivated nonchalance. As Buffy the Vampire Slayer puts it, “When the Apocalypse comes, beep me.”

Most of us aren’t quite sure what this larger story means.  But we do know, instinctively, that it has important clues to the fate of humankind.  As St. Jerome noted, “The Apocalypse of St. John has as many mysteries as words.”  

Sara Evans is a lifelong New Yorker and the East Coast editor of Reinventing Home.  She has written about culture, travel, and the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living.

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