I recently stumbled upon a rare treasure: the Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers, France. Displayed in a special wing of a local chateau, the 400 foot long, double-wide fourteenth-century tapestry depicts more than 70 scenes from the Book of Revelation, the New Testament’s last book.
Comprehensive depictions of the Apocalypse are not too common, so I was especially interested in the Angers tapestry. The more I thought about it, the more I found it paradoxical to find it in France.
Americans, strongly under Protestant influence, tend to treat the Book of Revelation as a kind of theological Rorschach test for their various theories about the end of the world. When coupled with a literalist reading, one comes upon a cramped interpretation that stands the real meaning of the text on its head. Take, for example, the scene of 144,000 saved, a combination of symbolic numbers [12 (perfection) x 12 (perfection) x 1,000 (infinity) = 144,000]. For the Biblical author, it testifies the universal salvific will of God; for the fundamentalist, it sees heaven as populated by maybe half of Staten Island.
Catholic scholars generally look upon the Book of Revelation not as an eschatological fright but as a consolation: it contains a philosophy of history, one that assumes that—suffering notwithstanding—the last word in human history belongs to God and good.
Which is why I found it paradoxical to discover this tapestry in France.
Republican, secular France prides itself, after all, as the heir of the Enlightenment, of the philosophes who sought to ecrasez l’infâme, i.e., to wipe out the infamy of the Church. One of those philosophes, whose influence on Western (and, therefore, American) thought was strong was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He, too, had a philosophy of history.
Rousseau, more than anybody else, is probably responsible for the callow notion encountered often in the Western world about the inevitability of progress: things get better. The past: byzantine, medieval, dark, bad. The future: enlightened, scientific, bright, good.
The problem is that the “arc of history” has to contend with human freedom and, therefore, with sinners.
For Rousseau, man is good. It is civilization that corrupts. Man in the state of nature would be ideal: Tarzan in the jungle, the “noble savage” Indian, etc. We know, of course, that this is not true. I write this essay on October 19, the Feast of Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf, and the other North American Martyrs, whose deaths at the hands of the Iroquois were hardly “noble.” But if Rousseau were alive today, he would probably be a leader in the campus political correctness movement.
For Christianity, man is good but flawed, damaged by sin. An anthropology that fails to take account of this is simply unrealistic: it expects things of man that, in his present condition and absent God’s grace, he just cannot deliver. To think, then, that history represents an ineluctable march towards progress is naïve at best and absurd at worst—and in all cases, dangerous. The most cursory survey of the twentieth century should disabuse anybody of notions of inevitable progress: genocide as a systematic element of state policy really made its most “scientific” advent in twentieth century Germany and the USSR.
The Angers Tapestry reminds us of how Christianity has shaped European history, even if Europe wants to forget about its Christian roots. Two philosophies of history are in competition in France, each claiming roots in the European heritage. One assumes man’s problems lie in society; the other assumes his problems lie in himself.
One would hope that the French—the Church’s “eldest daughter”—might remember their even older patrimony, their Christian roots hanging from the rafters of Angers Chateau. Because while the Apocalypse also believes in good, it warns that suffering will accompany the quest for the good. Even if, in the end, good triumphs, it will not be without cost, without “blood, sweat, and tears.” And while, in the end, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” they can’t be dried unless they first are cried.
Examining the images on the Angers tapestry, one sees the confrontation today’s Christians (indeed, all Christians) face—between adhering to the good and worshipping the rulers of this world along with their current idols, and paying the price, even with one’s life, for one’s choice. False gods are indeed jealous, more so than Yahweh: not bending the knee before Baal or Mammon will get you ostracized, taxed, or beheaded. All it gets you from Yahweh is a nagging call to amend your ways.
A sober view of history is what you’ll find in Angers. Like Julian of Norwich, the Angers Tapestry assures that “all will be good,” not in some Pollyanna sense that everything will be fine if we just “get along” and sing “Kumbaya” together, but only because, although things can be bad at human (and hellish) hands, fixing them takes God, who will set them right. As the liturgical year winds down with a focus on eschatology, that consolation should be reassuring.