July 03, 2015

A Day Trip to the Castle of Angers

Located about 200 miles southwest of Paris, in the Loire Valley, is the historic city of Angers (pronounced "ahn jay").  Once the capital city of the province of Anjou, it is the cradle of the Plantagenet dynasty, a major source of slate and hydrangeas, and the home of Cointreau liquor.  But Anger's biggest claim to fame is undoubtedly its massive fortress, the Château d'Angers, that is now the repository of the celebrated Apocalypse Tapestry.

I must admit that I knew nothing about Angers or its priceless treasures when some Parisian friends suggested that we spend a Sunday visiting the city.  In a leap of faith I agreed, trusting that Françoise and Alain wouldn't make me catch an early morning train if it wasn't worthwhile!

Under a glorious blue sky we arrived by TGV and walked the short distance to the Château that overhangs banks of the Maine River and dominates the skyline.  The original fortress was begun in the 9th century by the Counts of Anjou and thereafter it passed through various royal hands and was enlarged and adapted to its present day area of 220,000 square feet.  The protective outer wall is nearly ten feet thick and is spotted with seventeen perimeter towers, each 59 feet in diameter.  Not surprisingly, the fortress was never breached and remained a formidable garrison until World War II when a German ammunition storage facility inside the castle blew up.

Today the Château is owned by the City of Angers and it serves as a museum with gardens, a space for temporary art exhibitions, a charming café, an apiary and even a vineyard!  But what visitors come from far and wide to see is the world's oldest and largest collection of medieval tapestries and in particular the Apocalypse Tapestry.

I am not a connoisseur of tapestries but I have seen a few very impressive examples like the Unicorn Tapestries at The Cloisters, The Lady and the Unicorn at the Cluny, and The Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings.  Nothing could have prepared me for the impact of entering a darkened gallery with red and blue ground woven tapestries extending from floor to ceiling, as far as the eye could see.  And when we reached the end of the long hall, the tapestry continued on around the corner and down another stretch.

Commissioned circa 1375 by Louis I, the Duke of Anjou, the tapestry was designed by Hennequin de Bruges and woven in Paris by Nicolas Bataille and Robert Poincon between 1377 and 1382.  Originally comprising 90 different scenes and covering 436 linear feet, the intensely colored woven hangings tell the story of the Book of Revelations, the final chapter of the New Testament of Saint John.

"La femme recoit des ailes"

 "Une deuxième ange annonce la chute de Babylone"

The account of Christ's victory over Evil and the end of the world is told in six "chapters". each announced by a figure on a pulpit reading the "revelation" to follow.  In a fascinating parade of dragons, monsters, prostitutes and angels, the panels depict battles, destruction and death before God triumphs over all.

 "La prostituée sur la bête"

"St. Jean mange le livre"

Although the exact purpose of such an enormous tapestry is not known, it is thought to have been displayed outside of the castle on festival days as an allegory for the ongoing Hundred Years War being waged between France and England.  After being held by the Dukes of Anjou for over a century, the tapestry was gifted to the Angers Cathedral where it remained until the French Revolution when it was taken and cut up for use as floor mats, horse blankets and to protect the orange trees from frost.  Remarkably, all but sixteen of the original panels have been located and most of these have been returned to the City of Anger.

"Le sommeil des justes"

Today, visitors can view 71 of these panels, beautifully restored and hanging in a specially constructed gallery.  To walk the 100 meter length (longer than a football field), or sit on elevated benches to quietly contemplate this extraordinary legacy is an awe inspiring experience and one that I am most grateful to have had.

No comments: