Angers, France – October 2014
After some deliberation, I finally decided not to read the Book. I prefer to observe the Apocalypse Tapestry with relatively naive eyes. In the Western world, it’s nearly impossible to be completely ignorant of the Book of Revelation. The Catholic education I received as a child devoted no time to it, but I was introduced to it by the neighbor boys. Their mother had transformed herself from neighborhood barfly to Bible thumper. She carried herself with lifted chin, lips pressed tightly together in a slight, smug smile. Bosom puffed up and raised high, as if perpetually clutching a Bible to it. Whenever she saw the boys talking to us, she would call them away. They would sneak to the border of our properties and speak through the hedge. They no longer spoke of kid stuff, but instead quoted the scripture they had memorized in Sunday school. My siblings and I would listen for a while, intrigued by the drama. We lived in a small town in Michigan. It was the late 1970s. The idea of Apocalypse was unfathomable. We would try to steer the conversation back to the things we used to talk about: building forts, catching spiders, KISS. They began to refer to their former favorite band as Knights In Satan’s Service. They spoke of hidden messages in the songs if they were played backwards. It didn’t take long for them to turn away from us of their own accord.
As these memories arise, I turn to my mother. She gazes at the scenes in silence. I stifle the urge to share the memory. It would break the spell. We share the darkened hall with only a couple of other visitors. The Apocalypse Tapestry is unfurled along the wall and illuminated in a soft golden glow. It is the oldest surviving French medieval tapestry and one of the largest in the world. It depicts scenes from the Book of Revelation. The author of the Book appears in every scene. He is John, an exile on the Greek island of Patmos. Over the years, I’ve come across various theories and debates about who the author may be. Some say that he is the Apostle John. Others say that he was possibly the Apostle’s disciple, who was also named John. Still others say it was an unknown John.
The Book chronicles John’s series of prophetic visions of the Apocalypse. Some interpret the Book literally. Others believe that it was written in symbols, the language of the subconscious. The latter seems to me the most profound, and no less significant for being intangible.
I can’t help but recognize the images and themes that have become omnipresent in our culture. Woven into the fabric of the collective Western unconscious. The Four Horsemen. A Pale Horse. The Mark. The Whore of Babylon.
During the French Revolution, all signs of religion were obliterated. Time itself was restructured and reinvented. Days and months were renamed with nature terms. The year began at the autumnal equinox. The period of time that was once part of September and October became the month of Vendémiaire. Weeks became ten days instead of seven. Church lands were confiscated. The Apocalypse Tapestry was cut up and used as floor mats, to protect trees from frost, and to insulate horse stables. The Cult of the Supreme Being replaced all other religions.
Did Christians of that era believe that the time had come? And that Robespierre, one of the leaders of the new regime and the man who invented this new religion for all, was the Antichrist? It is easy to understand why they might have thought so. However, it is said that Robespierre lacked charisma. And charisma is a necessary quality of an Antichrist. Upon his death, by guillotine, the religion quickly faded away into obscurity.
The surviving fragments of the Tapestry – seventy-one out of the original ninety – were recovered in 1848.
I rest my eyes on each scene, allowing thoughts to arise unimpeded. The same story over and over for centuries. Maybe if John hadn’t written it, someone else eventually would have. Cataclysm. Debauchery. The consolidation of religious and political power into one entity. A relentless degradation. It would be denial to insist that these things aren’t happening. Every era believed that the time was near, but how much worse can it possibly get?
Another thought arises, and my ears ring in the climate-controlled stillness. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. It is generally assumed that the Book was written as prophecy. John wrote about it because it is going to happen. But what if all of it is happening because the book was written?