Corra, Diana’s familiar, was clinging to the minstrels’ gallery with her talons, chattering madly and clacking her tongue. She waved hello to Matthew with her barbed tail, piercing a priceless tapestry depicting a unicorn in a garden. Matthew winced.
– The Book of Life, chapter 2, page 17.
The Unicorn Tapestries are some of the most famous late medieval artworks in the world. (And some of my favourites!) The set in the Cloisters (part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC) depict the hunt & capture of the unicorn; the set in the Musée de Cluny in Paris represent an allegory of the senses. (The Lady & The Unicorn also grace the walls of the Gryffindor Common Room!)
Both cycles are known for their mille fiori, with many of the flowers and herbs depicted recognisable to the modern eye. The Cloisters tapestries alone feature 101 different plants, of which 85 have been positively identified. These include cherry, walnut, English daisy, strawberry, daffodil, orange, marigold, pansy, and oak. Rose (symbolic of the Virgin Mary), hawthorn (a reference to Christ’s crown of thorns), and pomegranate (symbolic of fertility and the Church) also appear alongside primrose, hazelnut, English bluebell, and carnation.
Barbara Freeman has argued that the designers of the Cloisters tapestries were likely either of Netherlandish heritage or familiar with Netherlandish traditions working in France. They date from c. 1500 based on the clothing and weapons depicted. Predominantly wool threads, silk and silver threads were also used to provide highlights throughout the series. Three plant dyes were used: weld (yellow, from the stalks and leaves of the plant), madder (red, from the roots of plants at least two years old), and woad (blue, from the leaves of the plants). All of the colours evident in the tapestry are made from a combination of the three base pigments and/or the use of different mordants (chemicals used to open the threads allowing for greater colour penetration), including zinc and aluminum. To make colours darker, for instant, zinc was used as the main mordant.
Anonymous. The Hunt of the Unicorn. The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Unicorns are a common mythical animal in medieval art, with some of the earliest images dating to the ninth century. The hunt has been interpreted as an allegory of Christ’s Passion and an allegory of the beloved. In the 9th century Physiologus, the unicorn is likened to Christ: as the unicorn can only be captured by a maiden, ‘Christ, the spiritual unicorn, descended into the womb of the Virgin and through her took on human flesh.’
In a 13th century bestiary, Guillaum le Clerc echoes a similar sentiment:
This wonderful beast, / Which has one horn on its head, / Signifies our Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour. / He is the spiritual unicorn, / Who took up in the virgin his abode. / Who is so worthy / In her he assumed his human form / In which he appeared to the world…
The unicorn as the beloved can be seen in the poetry of the Count of Champagne, Thibault, who draws connections between the unicorn and himself:
The unicorn and I are one. / He also passes in amaze / Before some maiden’s magic gaze, / And while he wonders, is undone. / On some dear breast he slumbers deep / And Treason slays him in that sleep. / Just so have ended my life’s days; / So love and my Lady lay me low. / My heart will not survive this blow.
Anonymous. The Lady and the Unicorn (Allegory of the Senses). Musée de Cluny.
The Lady and the Unicorn series, in the Musée de Cluny since 1882, depicts an allegory of the senses over the course of six tapestries. The tapestries have been connected to the Le Viste family, which rose to power and influence in the French court over the course of the late fourteenth century and throughout the fifteenth. Likely commissioned by Jean IV in order to celebrate a specific (unknown) moment, the tapestries passed down through the family until acquired for the nation in the 1880s. Prior to association with the Le Viste family, there was a desire to associate the tapestries with Zizim (or Cem), son of Mehemed II, arguing that they depicted his beloved and were commissioned by the would-be Ottoman ruler while he was in prison. However, this association is little more than early 19th century fantasy.
The tapestries’ depiction of the senses was contested due to the sixth tapestry, Mon Seul Desir. Mon Seul Desir, rather than belonging to a second set of tapestries, most likely represents the renunciation of worldly desires and possessions, temptations that lure the soul when the senses are allowed free reign, and thus is related to the other five tapestries in the series. The likelihood of the tapestries being an intended, cohesive group is also supported by their display in the château of Boussac together, as well as an inventory dated to 1653 describes an identical (if not this) set of tapestries. The artists and weavers are still unknown, but the tapestries have been dated to c. 1480 – 1500.
Sources & More Information:
Crocket, Lawrence. “The Identification of a Plant in the Unicorn Tapestries.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 17 (1982), 15-22.
Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain (Musée de Cluny). The Lady and the Unicorn. Paris: Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1989. (French edition 1978).
Freeman, Barbara. The Unicorn Tapestries. NYC: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976.
Low, Tiffany. “Why the Mystery of the Met’s Unicorn Tapestries Remains Unsolved.” Artsy. 27 July 2017. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-mystery-mets-unicorn-tapestries-remains-unsolved
Nickel, Helmut. “About the Sequence of the Tapestries in “The Hunt of the Unicorn” and “The Lady with the Unicorn.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 17 (1982), 9-14.
“The Collections (Tapestries, Cloths, Embroideries).” https://web.archive.org/web/20130425080946/http://www.musee-moyenage.fr/ang/pages/page_id18368_u1l2.htm
Stirling Castle undertook a recreation of the The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. Information can be found here. The tapestries are displayed in the castle, and an exhibition highlights the process of recreating the tapestries.