The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are among the most beautiful and captivating masterpieces of Medieval times. And almost as captivating as the tapestries themselves is their wonderfully chequered history.
These works of art were undiscovered until 1844 when they were found by French dramatist and historian Proper Merimee in Boussac Castle. The novelist Georges Sands brought them to public attention in her novels . Badly damaged by damp, they were bought by the Cluny Museum in Paris in 1853 and restored. They are now displayed in their own circular room at the museum.
The designer and weavers of the Lady and the Unicorn series are unknown but experts estimate they were woven in the late 15th century. It is thought that the series were commissioned by the Le Viste family, of which the head was Jean Le Viste, a nobleman in the court of King Charles VII, as the coat of arms on the standards, including the lion and the unicorn, represented the family.
The decorative floral background of each tapestry is the same. The Mille Fleurs pattern, meaning the thousand flowers” is a style most associated with the Bruges and Brussels areas of Flanders in Belgium so it is widely thought that the tapestries were made there.
The beautifully woven tapestries use the L’halluin weaving techniques with bold colors and intricate detailing. Each tapestry features the same subjects, a beautiful lady and a mythical creature, a unicorn. A lion also appears in each scene. However the theme for each is slightly different. The inclusion of other animals a rabbit, birds, a monkey adds to the world of fantasy and complement the enigmatic images.
The six tapestries are said to represent the five senses taste, hearing, sight, smell and touch with the sixth often interpreted as love”.
In the sight tapestry a woman is seen holding a mirror, the ubiquitous unicorn reflected in its glass. The tapestry representing hearing sees the woman playing a musical instrument, the lion and the unicorn standing at either side framing the scene. In the third tapestry the lady is seen taking a piece of candy as a celebration of taste. The lion and the unicorn once again feature, lying on their back. Representing touch, in the fourth tapestry the lady holds the unicorn’s horn as the lion looks on. In the fifth tapestry we see the lady making a wreath of fresh flowers. The lion and unicorn once again frame the scene whilst a monkey smells one of the flowers demonstrating the theme.
Adorned by the words A Mon Seul Desir” meaning to my soul desire”, the sixth tapestry in the series is larger than the rest and differs in theme. The tapestry depicts a lady holding a necklace whilst her maidservant holds an open chest. A tent in the image is said to represent the lady’s soul desire, which she is about to enter.
Some interpretations see the tapestries as representing virginity, based on an ancient myth that only a pure virgin could tame the unicorn. Others interpretation sees the lady putting the necklace into the chest as a denial of the passions aroused in the other tapestries. Yet another version sees this tapestry as representing a sixth sense of understanding or empathy. The latter explanation is taken from the sermons of Jean Gerson, a lecturer at the University of Paris around 1420.
The mystery surrounding the story of the tapestry has inspired works of literature. Best selling author of Tracy Chevalier, inspired by the layers of symbolic meanings in the series, decided the tapestries would make an ideal subject for a novel. Centering on a young artist man torn between Love and Duty, the story has all the passion and uncertainty of the images themselves. Her colorful and enchanting interpretation of how the tapestries came to be created did justice to the rich, vibrant tapestries.
The original Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are currently displayed in Paris’s Musee National du Moyen-Age Thermes de Cluny but reproductions are still being bought today to compliment home dcor. The tapestries, rich in both beauty and history, make unique and creative wall hangings adding a touch of character to every home.