Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Apocalypse of Angers, as told by John Spencer

First stop of the Loire extravaganza was Angers, a town about 80 km north of Nantes, where we spent the night after our arrival in Paris (we spent the night in a cruise-boat themed hotel, incidently, complete with ropes on the wall and an awkward portal to the bathroom. I’m still not sure if Amynah’s repeated cries of “Yaaargh” were an attempt to get into the nautical feel of things or because she whacked her head on the faux water resevoir in the bathroom).

In any case, the less said about it the better. After finding our way out of Nantes in our rental non-diesel vehicle, the drive to Angers was fairly quick, especially as I inadvertently took the toll highway.

We had selected Angers on the off chance that a monastery there still had a relic of St John the Baptist, mentioned in a Medieval source I found on the Internet. I got quite the reaction in the Angers Tourism Office when I asked about that in crappy French.

“Has Angers a head of Jean Baptist?”

“Jean Baptist who?” she said, eyes widening.

“Oh, right… Saint Jean Baptist.”

Turns out the answer was no. We wandered over to the Angers Cathedral which, as with every Cathedral I’ve seen since arriving in Strasbourg, was a bit of a disappointment. To satisfy my history geekery, it did have a two-fer memorial to a sainted religious martyr (Martin, I believe) and victims of the Terror. That the deaths memorialized occurred ten centuries apart didn’t seem to discomfit anyone and was probably intentional to make a political point that now eludes me.
Wood carving in Cathedral. I don't who she's supposed to be.

More delightful religon/politics analogies were in store for us (and therefore you, dear reader) in the Angers Chateau. This is a big ass castle right in the middle of downtown Angers (such as it is) overlooking the Maine river.

The castle was originally built by a nasty SOB by the name of Fulk Nerra (972-1040), also known as the Black Count who, among many other charming exploits left his first wife by the clever means of incinerating her. He was also responsible for a number of the other castles that litter the Loire Valley, I suspect possibly because his charming temperament earned him a mortal enemy or two in his lifetime. One contemporary eulogized him thusly: “Fulk of Anjou, plunderer, murderer, robber, and swearer of false oaths, a truly terrifying character of fiendish cruelty, founded not one but two large abbeys. This Fulk was filled with unbridled passion, a temper directed to extremes. Whenever he had the slightest difference with a neighbor he rushed upon his lands, ravaging, pillaging, raping, and killing; nothing could stop him, least of all the commandments of God.”

In any case, the big attraction at Angers is the Apocalypse Tapestry, which my guidebook describes as being based on “cartoons” by the painter Jean de Bandol. It dates from the 1300s, and is a stunning 140 metres long, detailing with horrific gusto the delights described in Revelations.

Note the sceptre

The 100 years war was in full swing during the making of the tapestry and it was inevitable, perhaps, that some current events would creep into the weaving. As the narrator on my audioguide (who sounded remarkably like the actor who played Leo from the West Wing, which now that I've followed that link is a even more unsettling than I initially thought) explained, one panel depicts two beasts battling over a scepter with which they will rule over all mankind. The scepter is crowned with a fleur de lys and one of the beasts – the particularly nasty one representing the Devil, is depicted as having come from the sea – any parallels to the English being purely accidental, of course.

This one was Amynah's favourite, called the overflowing well. There was nothing to explain why they focus on that and not that the Angel is clearly flouting zoo regulations by feeding the ogre grapes.

After Angers we didn’t have any specific plans, per se, so we made our way south east, more or less towards a place called Saumur, which has a particularly fairy-tale like castle sitting on a cliff overlooking the Loire. Reputedly Réné of Anjou (“The Poet King”) called it “the castle of love,” which, if I’m not mistaken, is also the name of a seedy looking bar on the highway just past Rimouski.
Saumur castle

The one in Saumur attracted a similar crowd. Though it was briefly used by King Réné and St Louis, it later fell on hard times, hosting a number of aristocratic prisoners like the Marquis de Sade and then, in a further slide, English sailors.

Today it holds two museums, neither of which was open when we arrived. Amynah and I had to content ourselves with a quick jaunt around those parts of the ramparts we could get to (renovation work blocked us from the river side).

Ok, that’s it for now. Tomorrow: Abbey Road!


Travis said...

I read A Distant Mirror in the last year and was particularly struck by the point that a lot of people then really DID think the world was ending: governments were powerless or useless, a mysterious and horrific disease was killing everyone, and rapacious hordes were rampaging all over the countryside.
So, I think the Apocalypse Tapestry is about the awesomest thing I've ever heard of.

Travis said...

Okay, sorry for the rapid multiple posting but perhaps you'll share my juvenile giggle that the word verification right now is, "qwuef".
I do come here for your blog, I swear.

Mark Reynolds said...

I picked that up "A Distant Mirror" on your recommendation actually - and quite enjoyed it. You should read the Guns of August, also by Tuchman - it's even better.
The tapestry is quite amazing. Though if people actually believe the end times were coming, one wonders why they'd decide that the most important thing to do woud be to weave about it....