Earthquakes… floods…. a seven-headed beast from the bottomless pit. No, it’s not the latest Hollywood blockbuster, it’s the Bible, specifically, the Apocalypse of Saint John the Apostle from the Book of Revelation. And you can see it depicted in all its gory details in the 14th century Apocalypse Tapestry, housed in the remains of the magnificent Chateau d’Angers in France’s Loire Valley.
The silk and wool Apocalpyse Tapestry is the oldest surviving French medieval tapestry. Commissioned by Louis I of Anjou (brother of King Charles V of France) and produced between 1377 and 1382, it originally consisted of 105 individual panels with alternating backgrounds of blue and red. Its overall length was 551 feet (by 19 feet high), and would have taken between 50 and 84 years of man-labor to weave. By way of comparison, the Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Conquest of England, is just 230 feet long (not to mention that it isn’t actually a tapestry — it’s embroidery.)
The panels of the Apocalypse Tapestry are hung in six double-rowed sections, with seven meditative figures to the sides of the sections. Its primary colors are once-vibrant blues and reds, accented by orange and green as well as silver threads. Particularly notable is the tapestry’s depiction of Death as a decaying corpse, rather than as a living person as was more common in France during the 14th century.
During the French Revolution, much religious art was destroyed. Had the tapestry contained gold threads, the tapestry would have been burned to extract the metal. Instead, the panels were wrapped around orange trees to protect them from frost. Although they were returned to the bishopric of Anjou in 1806, the panels were used as bedside rugs and horse harness covers, as well as to conceal holes in the cathedral walls.
Today, 67 panels and 9 fragments — totaling 353 feet in length — have been recovered and restored and now hang in a purpose-built exhibition hall on the chateau grounds. They show the final confrontation between good and evil, complete with burning cities, seven-headed dragons, and death and destruction galore. The story has a happy ending, however, with good eventually triumphing over the powers of Satan.
The chateau itself belonged to the Plantagenet kings of England in the 12th century, and later to the French crown. Its most recognizable features are its 17 black and white-banded towers, which once stood over 130 feet tall. During the late 16th-century French Wars of Religion, the conical “pepper pot” roofs of the towers were razed and the towers’ height reduced. Though still a magnificent sight, the star attraction of the chateau is the Tapestry. And at only 1 hour 45 minutes from Paris by TGV, and less than ½ hour from Saumur, it is well worth the trip.