Medieval Mystique: The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries
by David Burr
Of all medieval tapestry collections, perhaps none is more mysterious and thought-provoking than the Lady and the Unicorn series. Very little is known about the origins of the original tapestry set, which is currently on display at Cluny Museum in Paris, France. Throughout the ages, many different interpretations have been extracted from these complex tapestries. Yet no one can seem to agree on the precise breadth and depth of their meaning.
Striking Medieval Art
Each one of these artistic wonders offers a striking portrayal of a unicorn interacting with a woman. In medieval times, a unicorn was often seen as a representation of Christ, with the horn being a symbol of the unity between Christ and God. In each of the six tapestries in the Lady and the Unicorn series, unicorns are used to aide in the representation of human senses. These are defined as sight, smell, touch, sound, taste and love.
Unicorns have been a mysterious and fascinating force throughout history. While the actual existence of these creatures has never been conclusively proven in modern times, many people still believe in these mythical creatures.
In fact, the faithful have looked to other mammals, such as the giraffe and the ostrich, as proof that unicorns could have existed at one point in time. In essence, true believers are not at all hesitant to embrace the unicorn as something of divine significance that existed at some point in time. Some even believe unicorns may still exist in remote regions of the world.
The Myth of the Unicorn
The unicorn was said to have possessed magical powers. The horn, in particular, was widely regarded in ancient cultures as having the ability to recognize and extinguish poisons. The horn was often depicted as a perfect spiral. If a piece of the horn was placed in poisoned water, the water would bubble up. And if bits of the horn were sprinkled on food that was believed to be poisoned, the horn would act as an antidote to the poison.
The ancient Chinese believed that unicorns were a good omen that only made their presence known to humans in rare cases. It was thought that these appearances were a positive sign of the times, of good things to come.
In medieval times, the unicorn became a symbol of Christianity. The popular belief was that a unicorn could never be lured or tamed, except by the scent of a pure virgin.
The Lady: Putting the Pieces Together
The purity and spiritual invincibility of Christ meant that only the purity of a sweet virgin could attract a creature representing these attributes. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries have frequently been interpreted as symbolic of a woman renouncing everything in the physical world (i.e. physical human senses) for the greater significance of the spiritual world. Some believe the tapestries allude to a woman's seduction of the unicorn. Some even believe these tapestries depict the Virgin Mary with Christ.
Perhaps this purity of spirit and the tranquility that the tapestries represent explains the widespread appeal of these classic art works. People have a strong desire to believe in that which is good and righteous in our world. We have a deep need to be reassured that there is a greater purpose to our existence: the notion that ultimately good and peace will prevail. When we embrace the visual aspects of these tapestries, perhaps we are embracing the symbolic concepts within each of our hearts.
Where Did the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries Come From?
Symbolism aside, what also remains a bit of a mystery is exactly how these tapestries came into existence. What we do know is that the set was made for the family of Jean Le Viste, a wealthy aristocrat who was a member of the French nobility during the 15th century. The family's coat of arms can be seen throughout the tapestry series, although it is unclear for which family member the tapestries were made.
Based on the style of the clothing worn by the ladies in the tapestries and a number of other artistic indicators, many experts believe the tapestries were designed around the end of the 15th century. They may have possibly been designed for Jean Le Viste himself in recognition of his promotion to the French Court in 1489. However, we do not know specifically who designed the tapestries.
The tapestries were likely passed on through the family after Jean Le Viste's death, although their exact whereabouts were unknown for nearly 200 years. They reappeared in 1841 when they were discovered by a French government inspector of historical monuments. Noting the relatively poor condition of the tapestries at that time, the inspector recommended that the government purchase the works and attempt to restore them. Eventually, the French government purchased them in 1882 and donated them to the Cluny Museum.
The Mystery Continues.
Very few historical records exist that explain the origins of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series. At best, scholars have been only able to offer speculation based on the limited information and clues within the tapestries themselves. Perhaps it is this mystique that ultimately adds to the appeal of the pieces. Regardless, the original tapestries are open to viewings by the public in a specially-designed oval chamber within the Cluny Museum. They have undergone restorative processes several times since the 19th century and can now be seen as their original artists intended.
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About the Author
David Burr writes on a number of subjects for the Tapestry House including unicorn art.
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