Apocalypse, Unfurled

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Beast.

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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.

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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?

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49 thoughts on “Apocalypse, Unfurled

  1. Interesting take on Apocalypse, Julie….To be frank with you, the Book of Revelation is one portion of the Bible, in addition to the Old Testament, that I think is devoid of any spiritual dimension. It was probably added as a scary story, a contrived doomsday picture calculated to put fear in people and use it as an instrument for moral instruction and informing. This feature is not exclusive to the Bible; the fear element is part of the eschatology in scriptures of mostly all other religions, some of them more ancient than Christianity. I am sure you are not allowing these thoughts to cast a shadow over your festive and holiday mood. Wishing you every happiness of the season and all the best for the days ahead…Raj .

    • Hi Raj – When I was writing this post, I actually wondered if other religions, particularly the Eastern ones, had a similar story in their scriptures. Interesting, but not surprising, to know that this is the case. I’ve heard that there’s a lot of controversy about Revelation being included in the Bible period. This could be why Catholicism doesn’t place any emphasis on it. I know this is a strange post for the holiday season, but I can assure you that it is not darkening my spirits at all. 🙂 All the best to you for the holidays and for 2015!

  2. Dreams inside of dreams, perhaps nightmares, for what is a vision when it is not a mirage upon land, air, fire and water. Took a look at the French calendar you mentioned, which lasted only 12 years and the rural calendar of days (for the rural economy) rather than the one of saints, interesting days. Incredible how they managed to recover over 7/9’s of the tapestry after some 50 years separation/neglect. But it’s your reflection upon your younger days, how young minds can be transformed from one way of thinking and interacting with their peers, to something completely different over a short period of time. What shapes us then, is that what makes us now? The artistry of the tapestry, must of taken sometime to complete. Dreams inside of dreams, maybe that’s who we are, tumbling on history’s perpetual gimbals.

    • Hi Sean – I’ve been thinking about thse boys since I wrote this. Their transformation was so dramatic, and most likely permanent. I have no idea where they are today, but I’m almost certain they still adhere to those beliefs. I’m not necessarily anti-religion, but the way it suffocated their personalities is very frightening. The French Republican calendar is impressive. A lot of effort went into it. But when you impose something at the point of a gun, it doesn’t exactly win hearts and minds.

      • Perhaps it has been permanent for them, maybe. Nor am I anti-religion, given it’s indoctrination and assimilation that aid in the domination and normalisation of peoples minds and personalities/culture. It’s a choice, but young minds, like in the case above rarely get to choose. The French Republican calendar, perhaps the way they tried to break centuries of indoctrination and assimilation in the form of Christianity through absolute fear in the form of death, certainly a error in judgement by the French Republic at the time. Perhaps an implied fear, the sort that many religions and governments use today and have also done in the past on many counts, would of been a better choice. Although today, absolute force/fear seems to be getting resorted to more and more often across all spectrum to life.

        • Tyrannies…we see the same thing over and over. Broken promises of freedom. One oppression is replaced by another, often worse, one. Though the people who led the French Republic may have had good intentions at the beginning, their regime ended up being called “the reign of terror”. The guillotine worked around the clock. Yet more proof that absolute power corrupts.

  3. Revelations was, and still is, a favourite of mine, simply because of its grandeur and immensity, its ability to look beyond our mortal existence, to hold time to a different measurement. Not that I understand what is written, but I rather like it that way. I’m certain there was a great deal of controversy surrounding its inclusion within the canonized scripture. And I certainly agree with you that this post does not darken my spirits; rather, it reminds me that there are things that cannot be known for certain. Mythology, in any form, is not just exciting stories. They are a part of the human experience. Consider how many movies reflect our desire to use mythology as a way to find relevance. In 2014 alone we had “The Hunger Games, X-Men Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hobbit, Exodus: God & Kings.” and the list goes on.

    Another wonderful post!!! Happy New Year. I am looking forward to the adventures that are waiting for us in 2015! 🙂

    • All those movies this year? Hahaha. I’m really out of it.

      I’m fascinated by the language of the unconscious. Symbols instead of words. I read Revelation just yesterday, after I posted this. I was surprised how short it is. Exile and isolation can take the mind on a terrifying ride. Speaking of movies – I rarely see newer movies, music videos, television, etc. When I happen to see clips, it seems like the entertainment industry is totally feeding into this fear of Apocalypse. It’s an effective marketing strategy.

      A fabulous 2015 to you, too!

  4. Interesting read, and if nothing else, a wonderful tapestry.

    Believe it or not, but I know little of ‘The Book of Revelations’

    Have never believed in a god or gods, having always preferred to believe in people, science and reason 🙂

    • Thanks, Chris. The themes from the book have permeated our culture, so even if you don’t know the book you’d probably recognize certain things.

      As far as I’m concerned, people can believe whatever they want as long as they don’t hurt anyone and/or force it on others. Other ideas are not a threat to my own. Over the years, I’ve heard some pretty far out theories about the universe. God is an alien, etc. The important thing is to be individuals and make a conscious decision about what you believe.

  5. Interesting post – and comments. The Apocalypse is always upon us – somewhere in the world. What was said about movies is true, of course, and we will go on forever using this theme. It’s what we are, what has been, where we are, what is coming.
    I go on showing my students Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” I believe no other movie ,ever, has shown the true face of the madness of mankind.

  6. I don’t know much about the Book of Revelation, there was no focus on it during my years of religious education. But I find your take on it very powerful and would now like to learn more! Very interesting post.

  7. Your thoughts run deep in me Julie ! I’ve experienced and seen how the creation of music , art , poetry and writings , manifest into our life and become our life … It is an awesome journey of spirit for sure …thank you always for your inspiration and your brightness ! Xx

  8. Despite the prophetic messages of the tapestry, its artwork is absolutely stunning. After all this time, its colors dance and the intricate details catch the eye. As I read your story and stared at the tapestry I wondered what the people who created it thought about its message.

    • I wondered the same thing. The images are so rich and alive. All of them from threads woven together; nothing is drawn on the fabric. It’s considered a masterpiece of French cultural heritage, and rightly so.

  9. A very Happy New Year Julie.
    This is a fascinating post with fabulous images – we were not that far from Angers when we were in France earlier in the year – I wish I had known about the tapestries, I really would like to have seen them.
    Bible thumpers are always a good literary topic, possibly because they always remind me of Constance Winterson – “the tyrant known as my mother” – I have probably mentioned Jeanette Winterson’s “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal” before (I am becoming forgetful 😦 ). Read the first page and you will be hooked – your writing has the same wonderful sharp edge.

    • Thank you, Robin. Same to you. 🙂
      Angers is a charming little city. The castle (where the tapestry is displayed) is quite unique. I’ve seen so many castles over the years that I’ve become blase, but Angers castle is special. You’ve mentioned Winterson, but not necessarily that book. Don’t worry about repeating yourself. I do it, too. I’ll keep my eyes open for that book. I’m overdue to discover a new favorite writer.

  10. I have never heard of ‘The Book of Revelations’ before, very interesting. Love the photo of your mom (if that is your mom). Everything is apocalypse now, especially in movies and media, and the sad thing the masses (like an uncle says) believe it all, it is crazy.

    Neighbors can be so creepy, my neighbor followed me the other day, and I just went to the library, it was so weird.

    • Hi Doris – that’s not my mother, just another lady who was there. She seemed absolutely mesmerized by the tapestry. She didn’t even notice that I took her photo.
      That is very creepy about your neighbor. You might want to keep an eye on him/her.

      • that’s why I like the photo

        About my neighbor, it is all about the gossip, I did tell my brother, I even joke with him that if something happens to me, he knows who did it :).

  11. Beautiful Julie … A great pictorIal approach on the apocalypse… But it might be also an epiphany!.
    Sending you all my best wishes for 2015!. Aquileana 😀

  12. Those tapestries are so beautiful, they take my breath even in photos through a computer screen. I wince when I think of all that work and beauty covering a horse or floor! It’s such a shame that we’ve lost so many of the old handmade arts – even though I myself would have to learn to have the patience to make something like that myself. I like to think of somebody ( or more) creating these in silence, the sound of the loom a part of the meditation of the mystery of the end, light from a small window illuminating the fabric.
    But who knows – maybe somebody was wrecking their eyesight with bad candlelight and getting ticked when the threads tangled 🙂

    • I didn’t realize how much work went into tapestries until I saw these. Every single thread is so important. Are tapestries even produced anymore? I love your description of the process. We tend to romanticize the artists of the past, but they definitely had their challenges. I imagine that using these as floor mats, etc, was a way to defile them as much as use them for practical purposes. It is remarkable that so many were recovered in good condition.

      • I can’t imagine many are made anymore. I’m a fan of William Morris, gorgeous tapestries in the pre-Raphaelite style. It always seem like such a juxtaposition to me that when survival was more difficult (food, warmth, clothes, etc) there was so much time devoted to making beautiful things.

  13. A fascinating read Julie! Strange isn’t it how selective the education and molding of young minds can be. The tapestry is an absolute work of art, a testament to the fact that man through the ages is compelled to create, to tell stories, to free from their overflowing minds such wild and rich imaginings. That some take it as gospel, well . . .

    • Yes, the education of young minds is a fascinating subject. So much of what we believe is what we were told to believe. Very few make the effort (or even know how to) to formulate their own opinions.

  14. Apocalyptic endings have been with us forever it seems. But how extraordinary that we want to make such awful tales into beautiful works of art. Does the beauty soften the tale or intensify it, I wonder? These days video games/violent films come with warnings and viewer restrictions; researchers tell us that too many violent video games/films/cartoons harm children? Children mistake art for life, it seems. When the Apocalypse tapestries were completed did mothers warn their children not to look at or use it as an instructional tool, much like the mother of your little friends used the Bible to control her children. Your post has raised many questions for me.

  15. I’ve always thought it was John the Apostle, the son of Zebeedee, the beloved disciple of Jesus. But oh well, I have not done a very detailed study on religion (Catholicism especially) even if I came from a Catholic country, in which Theology was a part of the college curriculum, but then I managed to drop out of that class . 😀

    • It may have been him. I’m not qualified to have an opinion. The article I read said that he would have been in his 90s, and this was at a time when life expectancy was around 30. Plus it is said that there were other things about the writing that indicated that it may have been another John.

  16. The destruction of some of the Tapestries is reminiscent of the Taliban blowing up the giant Buddha statues of Afghanistan. History repeats itself.

    Your last statement is worthy of contemplation. Mankind is a highly impressionable species.

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