Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Apocalypse Tapestries (Part 1)

As the Church’s year draws to a close, the book of the Apocalypse becomes very prominent in the Roman liturgy. It is read at the Mass of both the vigil (5, 6-12) and feast of All Saints (7, 2-12), and at Matins of the latter (4, 2-8 and 5, 1-14); at the third Mass of All Souls’ day (a reading of single verse, 14, 3, borrowed from the daily Mass for the Dead); and at Matins of the two dedication feasts on the universal calendar, those of the Lateran basilica on November 9th (21, 9-18), and of Ss Peter and Paul today (21, 18-27). It also provides the epistle for the Mass of a dedication generally (21, 2-5), and the Introit and Magnificat antiphon of Second Vespers of Christ the King. In the Mass lectionary of the post-Conciliar rite, it is read on the ferial days of the last two weeks of even-numbered years.

Introitus Dignus est Agnus, qui occísus est, accípere virtútem, et divinitátem, et sapientiam, et fortitúdinem, et honórem. Ipsi gloria et imperium in saecula saeculórum. Ps. 71 Deus, judicium tuum Regi da, et justitiam tuam Filio Regis. Gloria Patri... Dignus est Agnus...

Introit, Apoc. 5,12 & 1, 6 Worthy is the Lamb Who was slain to receive power, and divinity, and wisdom, and strength, and honor. To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Ps 71 O God, give Thy judgment to the King, and Thy justice to the King’s son. Glory be... Worthy is the Lamb...

One of the most magnificent artistic representations of the Apocalypse is a set of six enormous tapestries (20 feet high by almost 79 long) woven in Paris between 1377 and 1382. Each of them begins on the left with a man sitting under a Gothic baldachin, reading the Apocalypse from a book on a stand in front of him. There follow 14 scenes of St John’s visions arranged in the order of the book, running from left to right, first above and then below, making for 15 panels per tapestry, a total of 90 scenes between the six.

Part of the tapestries in their modern display space within the Château d’Angers. Image from Wikimedia Commons by c6L, CC BY-SA 2.0.
These tapestries were commissioned by Louis I (1339-84), the second son of King Jean II of France, and first Duke of Anjou. In 1480, his grandson and third successor to his title, René, donated them to the cathedral of Angers, the capital of the duchy, where they remained until the French Revolution. France’s artistic treasures perished by the millions in that hideous debauch of barbarism, and the tapestries were cut into pieces and used for various purposes, such as covering crops for winter storage in barns. The surviving were recovered in 1848, but fourteen of the scenes from the book and two of the readers were lost; the sixth tapestry is the most badly damaged (five scenes and the reader lost, and the last scene in fragments), but the third and fourth are intact. In 2020, a group of 30 more fragments were discovered in a Parisian art gallery, and have been donated to the museum of the castle in Angers where the tapestries are now housed.
The images are taken from this page of Wikimedia Commons, which shows the arrangement of the panels divided by tapestry (by PMR Maeyaert, CC BY-SA 4.0.) I will present them in three posts, two tapestries per.
The first reader.
The first panel, which represented the opening of the Apocalypse, with St John on the island of Patmos, is lost. The second represents the first mention of the seven churches to which he is ordered to write, chapter 1, verse 11.
The vision of the Son of Man in the midst of the seven candlesticks (1, 12-20)
Chapters 2 and 3, the letters which John writes to the seven churches, are passed over; the next panel is his vision of the throne of God in chapter 4.
The twenty-four elders present their crowns to Christ (4, 10).
The angel opens the book (5, 1-8)
The Adoration of the Lamb that was slain (5, 9-14).
The first panel of the lower register, which showed the Lamb receiving the book, is lost. The second panel shows the first horseman, who rides a white horse, and has a crown and bow (6, 2).
The second horseman is also lost; the third rides a black horse, and has a scale in his hands (6, 5).
The fourth horseman, Death, riding a pale horse (6, 8).
The vision of the souls of the martyrs underneath the altar (6, 9)
The reader of the second tapestry and the first panel of the upper register are both lost. The second panel shows the 144,000 signed, 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel (7, 1-8). Since this is read as the Epistle of the Mass of All Saints, they are symbolic represented by Saints of various classes: clergy, royalty, religious and laymen.
The angels receive the seven trumpets (8, 2).
The angel receives the incense which represents the prayers of the Saints (8, 3).
The angel pours the incense upon the earth (8, 5), and the first trumpet is blown (8, 7), bringing with it hail and fire.
A panel showing the effects of the first trumpet (8, 7) is lost; with the second trumpet (8, 8-9), a great mountain burning with first is cast into the sea, and a third part of the ships are destroyed.
The first panel of the lower register, the descent of the star called Wormwood (8, 10-11).
The fourth trumpet (8, 12-13): the darkening of the sun, moon and stars, and the coming of the great eagle that cries out “Woe, woe to those that dwell upon the earth.”
The fifth trumpet (9, 1-12): the locusts ascend from the pit.
The sixth trumpet (9, 13 etc.): the release of the four angels.
The riders on fire-breathing horses (9, 16 etc.)
The angel with seven thunders (10, 1-4)
St John eats the book (10, 8-10)

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