The last castle we visited during our recent trip to the Loire valley was the castle of Angers, the ancient seat of the dukes of Anjou. This castle has an unusual appearance, as it is, in point of fact, striped. Le Château d’Angers is a stronghold at the historical western edge of the Crown Territory of the Kingdom of France. Owing to its location, Angers holds an important defense position versus la Bretagne, the powerful autonomous duchy of Brittany which worried the French kings no end. Since the 15th century, one of the mottos of the town has been Antique Clef de France, indicating that whoever owns Angers holds the key to the kingdom. Still today, the city’s coat of arms includes a big old key between the royal fleurs-de-lys.
Les Fossés-Jardins are the gardens we admired in the wide but relatively shallow moat alongside the ramparts. Let us consider, what the surroundings of La Porte des Champs, the gate to the fields, were like when the fortress was built. Currently, this area is smack in the middle of town. As a matter of fact, we parked our car right across from the gate in a parking space along the curb of a busy city street complete with a bicycle lane and bus stops. In the early 1900s, when the city had expanded to a degree that it fully surrounded the castle perimeter, it became necessary to dismantle the barbican attached to the Porte des Champs to make room for modern infrastructure. But if we cast our eye back toward the Middle Ages, this area wasn’t part of the town. There were fields, vineyards, farms, a hamlet or two, possibly a forge for the local farrier and maybe a pub. Close by was a Benedictine priory, Saint-Sauveur de l’Esvière, which would have been the reason that the gate was also called Porte de l’Esvière. Since the ancient town of Angers to the northeast of the castle was fortified, enemy armies, including those pesky Bretons, would most likely have favored a southern approach. The moat was a cleared area, an easy to patrol ditch separating the intimidating stronghold from pastoral lands, as well as potential adversaries. As part of the castle estate, it was the duke’s ditch, at times even a royal ditch, and the bosses got to decide how to use it, which, en fonction du patron actuel, ran the gamut from knightly tournaments to vegetable plots to a ménagerie of exotic animals.
The distinctive and unique bands of the fortress were created by alternating the two building materials of tuffeau stone and schist. The white tuffeau is the local Loire valley limestone, which differs from other chalky limestone varieties through its main ingredient of foraminifera rather than coccolithophores if you pardon the specifics – once a protozoologist, always a protozoologist. I’m having more difficulty identifying the geological properties of the black layers. The French text I consulted to research this detail, called it schiste ardoisier, slated schist. That is to some degree just a smidgen nonsensical because slate is a geological forerunner of schist. Thus, one might argue, the term was only used to identify the stone as the locally mined metamorphic schist versus schist derived from an igneous precursor.
The fortified castle of Angers encompasses an area of 25 000 m2 (6+ac). It occupies the highest point of the town, a promontory of schist bedrock rising 30 m (100ft) above the waters of the river Maine. Seventeen defense towers dot the roughly 650 m (2100ft) of ramparts enclosing the castle estate on three sides. The forth side, the riverfront cliff, was graded to be essentially vertical and didn’t need any additional fortification. An eighteenth tower called la Tour Guillon wasn’t contiguous with the ramparts, it sat right at the river and served mainly as a delivery conduit to bring supplies from river barges up to the castle. Over time it fell into disuse and was pulled down.
The immense construction project of this fortress was realized between 1230 – 1242 under the supervision of the dowager queen and Regent of France, Blanche de Castille, the mother of King Louis IX, a minor at the time. She was quite determined to fortify the royal castle after the Bretons had briefly occupied Angers in 1227 and she had to chase them back home. The Regent wasn’t shy about implementing her plans, including the eviction of both clergy and lay residents to make room for her fortress, nor did she hesitate to hijack funds earmarked for other projects to finance the works. I wonder if it was Queen Blanche who designed the funky tuffeau and schist striping?
Prior to becoming a French royal possession and being turned into a fortress, Angers had been the castle of the Counts of Anjou, who reigned independently of the French Crown. From the ninth to the 13th centuries a Palais Comtal, a ducal palace was gradually enlarged over the remains of Gallo-Roman structures in the western quadrant of the promontory. It consisted mainly of a Great Hall, residential housing, and a chapel. The outlines of the Aula or Great Hall are still visible in the ruins of La Grande Salle. Aside from its position high above the river and a few enclosing walls, the palace didn’t have any further defensive structures. At the peak of ducal power, Anjou had few enemies who dared to attack the palace. But after Angers passed into the control of the Plantagenets, it gradually lost its status as a seat of government. Finally, the French King Philippe II Auguste, the seventh ruler of the House of Capet, took the former Anjou capital away from the British King John Lackland and incorporated it into his own realm.
When the House of Valois succeeded the House of Capet as French rulers, Anjou became a duchy again as an appanage of a younger brother of the king. For the next hundred years, the dukes happily renovated, enlarged, and added new construction to their favorite castle in Angers. A new royal residence and a new chapel completed the private ducal courtyard which was protected by the addition of a new guardhouse, Le Châtelet. The last Lord in residence, Duke René d’Anjou, added a posh gallery to his home to exhibit his collections of art and artifacts and he started the formal gardens. But it wasn’t meant to last. He became involved in widespread, international intrigue which generated many serious problems and financial woes for him, his family, and the duchy at large. Ultimately, René got into a tiff with his nephew Louis, who happened to be the king of France, which forced the tired duke to surrender the duchy for a final time to the royal authority.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the architecture of the towers and ramparts was adjusted to the developing needs of modern warfare. Originally, wooden galleries ran atop the ramparts and around the spired towers acting as covered battlements for archers. The were razed to their current low and flat appearance to create platforms for artillery, even canons.
Over the centuries, the fortress was not only a military installation and a royal and ducal residence, but it was also used as a prison, and once even as a senior citizen home. During Nazi occupation, the castle became an enemy garrison and munitions depot which led to allied air raids in May of 1944 destroying parts of the chapel and royal residence. It’s a truly bad time when you have to bomb your own patrimony to drive out monsters. In this case, it was especially sad, because the Nazis, fearing just such an attack, had vacated the premises ten days prior.
The overview of the castle installations in the picture above was posted near the bridge leading to la Porte de la Ville, the gate to the formerly fortified town, which is currently the main entrance to the castle. The display is quite informative, it even gives the number of steps going from level to level and the degree of incline for the wheelchair ramps. A smart idea, I think, one can decide if the terrain is manageable before buying a ticket. I added a few more letters to point out locations.
We bought our tickets and walked between the formal gardens and the chapel toward the “little castle” le châtelet, the pretty renaissance guardhouse through which one enters the seigneurial courtyard and thus the inner sanctum of the ducal residential complex.
We crossed the seigneurial courtyard and descended a set of stairs toward the newest and most famous addition to the castle grounds, the Exhibition Hall of the Doomsday Tapestries, properly called the Apocalypse Tapestry. These fourteenth-century weavings depict the Apocalypse and Triumph as told in the Book of Revelation by St. John the Evangelist. They are one of the most glorious historical works of art in France today. It’s a miracle they survived more than six hundred years of disinterest, warfare, pestilence, famine, and revolts!
The Tenture de l’Apocalypse, the Apocalypse Tapestry, was originally 140 m (460ft) long. It is composed of six panels, each with the approximate dimension of 24 x 6 m (78x20ft). Each of the panels, in turn, consists of 14 tableaux or scenes interpreting St. John’s visions. The tableaux are arranged in an upper and a lower row of seven scenes per panel, preceded by a double-height tapestry of an important personage called the Reader, who introduces his chapter of the Book of Revelation to the listeners. In the Angers exhibition, the six wall-mounted panels are outlined in a white frame. Since the tapestries have suffered damage and even the loss of whole sections, the panels are no longer complete and the overall length of the work has shrunk to around 100 m (340ft).
The details in these weavings are simply mindboggling!
Wool dyed with vegetable extract was used for both warp and werf in the weavings, mixed with gold, silver, and silk threads. Neighboring tableaux were given alternating red and blue background colors.
Through this wallhanging of a Reader, an illustrious and, I would guess, historical character, I first became aware of the not-so-subtle use of medieval self-promotion. The tapestries were commissioned in 1375 by Louis I, Duke of Anjou, a prominent member of the House of Valois, brother to King Charles V. And what do you find along the edges of the tapestry showing this important person?
Butterflies with the Valois fleurs-de-lys motive on their wings! Not to mention the angel who vigorously waves a fleurs-de-lys flag. I read that Hennequin de Bruges, the artist who drew the cartoons which were used as models by the weavers, did sneak some contemporary 14th-century satire into the apocalyptic scenario, for example, dressing bad guys in English-style helmets. More serious subjects, of course, outweighed the lighter moments.
Duke Louis’ commission was highly unusual in another aspect as well. According to experts, it was not at all customary in the Middle Ages to provide weavers with cartoons as models or blueprints. It was far more common to select a workshop based on its prior work and allow the artisans to weave in their familiar style. The uniformly executed scenes we see today in Angers, were woven by a number of exceptionally skilled artisans in several workshops, all meticulously adhering to Master Hennequin’s cartoons. To truly appreciate the remarkable level of expertise required to create such works of art, we have to realize that the tapestries are reversible, the obverse being identical to the reverse. They were meant to be viewed from both sides, possible as room dividers stretched in frames, or so some historians think since that was done often to cozify those drafty, medieval halls.
In the panel beginning at the left-hand side of the picture above, you can see the Reader, seated under a baldachin as he introduces the tableaux of his chapter. For more detailed information, please consult Tenture de l’Apocalypse.
It was a humbling experience to view the Doomsday Tapestries in this phenomenal setting. My friend Liesel made me aware of this unique piece of human heritage. Thank you! Leaving the tapestries behind, we spent a goodly amount of time in the gift shop, which is more a bookstore than the usual tchotchke stand, with a wide spectrum of unusual volumes on offer.
Immerging, still slightly dazed from the tapestry experience, we left the seigneurial court and loitered in the formal gardens. From there,
I climbed the 40 steps to the hanging gardens atop the ramparts,
looking back at intervals,
to enjoy the unique vista over the ducal estate before the top of the ramparts revealed itself. While it was once a merciless battleground, in the 21st century the ramparts have been transferred into a landscape of growth and sustainability.
The views over the town weren’t too shabby either. Walking west along the ramparts, I encountered vineyards and wildflowers.
Getting closer, the mill tower became a darkly looming presence. La Tour du Moulin is the only one of the 17 towers to have retained its original height of 40 meters. But like the others, it lost its wooden battlements and conical hat.
Before entering the tower, I caught a quick glimpse of the river Maine.
With a last glance across the interior courtyard and the Logis du Gouverneur behind the formal gardens,
I started my descent to terra firma through the mill tower staircase.
The basement of the mill tower was used as a prison in days past and it was there that I was abruptly confronted by an unusual sight.
It was a puzzling, actually quite shocking sight and my first gut reaction referenced Halloween in an unkind way, but then I had to grin noticing the real spiderwebs in the ceiling vault.
I eventually found something written about the exhibit in an alcove, but it was pretty much impossible to decipher the faint script under the discolored plexiglass.
Only back home at the computer did I learn more about the sculptor Péri and his vision. His œuvre includes the woven metal installation and the poem you see above. In the Vimeo link Les Aveux de la Pierre or “The Confessions of the Rock”, you’ll find the artist’s comments plus the full text of the poem in both French and English. It grows on you … maybe … almost.
All in all, I preferred to let the stones speak through the former prisoner’s graffiti.
After this otherworldly encounter, I hastened to find my buddies. The rain I had seen across the river when I was still on the rampart, had meanwhile reached us in the castle courtyard. We left hurriedly and rushed across the street to have a late lunch in dry comfort.
Before driving on, it was necessary to make a pitstop in the restaurant’s washroom, as the Canadians tend to say, where I encountered one of the more eccentric architectural expressions of our trip through the Loire Valley and the fabulous castles therein.