While we absorb last evening’s danse macabre between two monstrous Presidential candidates whom no one particularly likes, as well as the news that, perhaps all too appropriately, the leading contender for this year’s Turner Prize in Contemporary Art is a monstrously-sized sculpture of an arse, allow me to point to something rather more interesting, though equally monstrous and appropriate to the times: the “Apocalypse Tapestry”.
The oldest surviving set of French medieval tapestries to come down to us, the Apocalypse Tapestry is an enormous series of images depicting scenes from the Book of Revelation, and was woven in the 14th century to designs by the Franco-Flemish artist Jean de Bondol (c. 1340-1400). Originally composed of 90 scenes on 6 large panels, when it was completed it was probably between 430-470 feet long, which is taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza if laid on its side. Today 71 of the scenes and 328 feet of the Tapestry survive, and are on display at the Chateau d’Angers, itself the former principal residence of the Dukes of Anjou who commissioned it. The French Ministry of Culture has recently announced new conservation efforts, to determine whether it is safe to continue displaying the rather fragile and battered Tapestry as-is.
What is particularly interesting about the Tapestry is that it is both a spiritual and a political work of art, even though only the religious aspect of the imagery is familiar to most of us today. Below we see one of the scenes from the Tapestry, depicting the worship of the beast as described by St. John in his vision. The Evangelist himself appears as an observer on the left side of the panel, as he describes what is going on:
Then I saw a beast come out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads; on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard, but it had feet like a bear’s, and its mouth was like the mouth of a lion. To it the dragon gave its own power and throne, along with great authority…Fascinated, the whole world followed after the beast. They worshiped the dragon because it gave its authority to the beast; they also worshiped the beast and said, “Who can compare with the beast or who can fight against it?”
(Revelation 13: 1-4)
At the center of the image we see a group of people all kneeling in adoration of a large, feline-looking monster with seven heads and ten horns, and feet rather like a bear’s. He is depicted holding a scepter which bears a lily on top. Behind him stands the multi-headed dragon described earlier in Revelation, who represents Satan. The dragon is, in essence, backing up the monster that has come up out of the sea: he is the real power behind this infernal enthronement.
The persistence of war, plague, and famine was something which Medieval people thought heralded the imminent arrival of the end of the world, and works such as this no doubt reminded them to be vigilant against infernal monstrosities that would tempt them away from following Christ. However while the Tapestry seems like a fairly straightforward image of St. John’s vision, and a warning to the faithful to remain true to the Faith in times of trouble, all is not what it appears to be. For if you had lived in France in the 14th century, you would also have recognized that there was a subtle political message inserted into the depiction of this Biblical scene.
The Tapestry was created between 1377-1382, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France for control of the French throne. In 1376 Edward, the “Black Prince” of Wales, who had lead the English in many bloody battles against the French, died; the following year his father, King Edward III, also died. The Black Prince’s son, who became King Richard II, was a minor at the time, and a somewhat weak regency ruled on his behalf. Meanwhile, during the comparative lull in the hostilities, King Charles V was able to continue consolidating his holdings in France up until his death in 1380, and the subsequent ascent of his son Charles VI to the French throne. All of this was taking place during the creation of this work of art.
Keeping this political history in mind, you may know that the lion has long been used as a symbol for England, just as the lily (or “fleur de lis”) has long been used as a symbol for France. Look at this scene again in that light, and in light of the political machinations of the time, and we can see something more than an illustration of a Bible story. Here we have a lion-headed monster who – with the Devil’s backing – has come from the sea, and claimed a scepter that bears the heraldic symbol for France. In this light, it’s easy to see how this work of French religious art could also be understood as a political dig at the English.
To me, this is far more fascinating than either a sculpture of a giant behind, or watching two giant behinds farting at each other on a stage.