Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Apocalypse Tapestry of Angers & The Mystery of the Forgotten Murex Dye

This could have been a post about how not to treat a tapestry. Commissioned in 1373 by Louis I of Anjou, this staggering masterpiece is the longest wall hanging ever to be woven in Europe with a length of 140 metres (about 460 feet) and surface of 850 square metres (over 9,000 square feet).

Now there are only 104 metres remaining. The tapestry was bequeathed to Angers Cathedral where it was displayed for liturgical celebrations, though its huge size proved problematic. It was shortened to fit the walls and pieces were trimmed here and there. But the worst enemy was that of The Enlightenment, the paradigm of thought responsible amongst other vandalisms for the replacement of many precious medieval stained glass windows with plain glass - including Notre Dame de Paris. The age of reason and clarity loathed the Middle Ages and all the superstition with which it was attributed. In 1782, the tapestry was put up for sale at a virtually give away price - only to find no takers. It was then consigned to a depository of old discarded religious works.

It was a small step from that low position to being seen as a source for cloth which could be cut off for rubbing down horses, shoes or flooring! In 1848 when it was rediscovered in a pitiful state, it was decided to clean it by dunking it in the river which resulted in much colour loss to the front. And then it was put on display in front of windows. It was lucky in 1980 that someone thought to take the tapestry away from contact with the wall and while examined by professionals, it was found that the back was intact and beautifully coloured still. It was discovered that this was a true double-sided work with the back just as beautifully finished as the front with no hanging threads
When a register of dyes was compiled for the tapestry, it was found that four panels were apparently dyed with purples from Murex Brandaris and Murex Trunculus. This led the researcher to conclude that these 4 panels had been either restored or faked sometime during the 16th - 18th century, since the craft of using these dyes had been forgotten for a thousand years. However, Dr Kurt Heinisch, in an unpublished manuscript confirmed that the Angers tapestry weavers could have obtained these dyes from Sicily in the 14th century. In fact, the Jews and Muslims of Tunis, Algeria and Morocco continued to produce the dyes during the 'forgotten purple dye period' and the dyes could have reached Europe via itinerant Sephardic Jewish merchants to Europe. The tapestry is on show at Angers Castle - for more details of how to visit, click here.


  1. Wow! Thanks for this interesting bit of history!

  2. Gosh what a history- And sometimes hard to
    Believe such beautiful works made so long ago- tfs

  3. I saw this piece on a programme recently and stumbled on to your site. I think this blog is amazing, there is so much information on here!