All quotations which follow are from the King James Version of the Bible.
The Cross is the most widely-used symbol of Christianity. since Jesus Christ was crucified ('put to death on a cross') but rose again to redeem mankind, and it is a cross which dominates the design of this tapestry. Yet the artist has achieved a trompe d'oeil or 'deceiving of the eye' effect, for many people looking at the tapestry do not immediately see the cross. Once recognised. the cross cannot be ignored, and remains in the foreground of one's vision. (Like faith itself.) The shape of cross used here is the traditional, Celtic. equal-armed cross with expanded terminals, popular in northern England since Anglo-Saxon times. (The seventh-century, pectoral cross of St. Cuthbert. now in Durham Cathedral, is this shape).
At the centre of the tapestry is a plain. narrow cross, in bold purple. Purple is the liturgical colour associated with Lent and the crucifixion. The purple cross divides the central field into quadrants and forms the middle of the wide-armed Celtic cross, which is woven in alternating panels of dark blue and sandy brown, and is edged with a double border of bright blue and gold. The blue and gold also alternate between quadrants, the broad stripe of the inner border and the narrower outer border reversing colours. The bright edges give the dark cross a three-dimensional effect.
Seen from a distance, the cross might appear to be floating against a background of sky, but in fact, the oblique ovals between the arms contain scenes from the life of Christ, which only gradually become apparent to the observer.
1. The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel (Top left)
...the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women?" And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end?"
Then said Mary unto the angel, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" And the angel answered and said unto her, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible."
And Mary said, "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
2. The Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, with Saint Elisabeth (Top right)
The infant is not depicted in the manger, as in conventional Nativity scenes, but on His mother's knee, as she shares her joy with her cousin Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist. This scene does not relate to any specific passage in the Bible.
3. The Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist (bottom left)
And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, "Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Mark 1:9-11)
The account may also be found in Matthew 3:13-17, Luke 3:21-2 and John 1 :29-34.
4. The Sermon on the Mount (bottom right)
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you..." (Matthew 5: 1-12)
The Sermon continues to Matthew 7:27, and includes the Lord's Prayer (6:9-13), the parable of the houses built on sand and rock (7:24-27) and many other sayings which have become well-known, such as "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (5:39), "lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth" (6:19), "the mote that is in thy brother's eye" (7:3), "neither cast ye your pearls before swine" (7:6), "strait is the gate" (7:14) and "beware of false prophets. which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves" (7:15).
The depiction, in the ovals of the tapestry, of these events in the life of Christ brings together the beginning of the Christian story - the Annunciation and Nativity - and the beginning of Christ's ministry - His Baptism and the Sermon on the Mount - in juxtaposition with the climax of His life - the crucifixion, symbolised by the great central cross.
Figures, background and light are depicted by means of geometric blocks of colour. At first the observer will find it hard to distinguish the listening disciples from the surrounding mountains (scene 4) but after repeated viewing the figures seem perfectly clear. There is little that is naturalistic: there are no specific walls or floors, seats or river bank. The garments of the figures merge with the background and are of similar colours. The exceptions to this abstraction are faces and hands. the dove in the Baptism scene and the vase of flowers (lilies, symbolic of Mary's purity) in the Annunciation. The gestures of the figures are also natural. Mary cups a hand beneath her baby's head as she gazes down into His face, Elisabeth touching her affectionately (scene 2); Jesus's arm extends in a gesture typical of teachers and orators as they explain a point (scene 4).
The pale yellow border which forms an unobtrusive background to the cross, seems. at the corners, to become a source of light which streams onto the figures in the four scenes. The pale yellows give way to other pale shades, blue. lilac and white, as the figures and their immediate surroundings are depicted. As the observer's eye moves further in, there is an effect of shadow closest to the cross, as the colour tones echo the darker blue, brown and purple of the cross itself.