Tag Archives: Unicorn Tapestries

Guest Post: The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries by The Joy of Museums

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Guest Post: The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries by The Joy of Museums

Thank you to The Joy of Museums for this wonderful exploration of one of my favorite topics–unicorn tapestries!

The lady and the unicorn Taste

The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, is over 500 years old, and has inspired books, songs and movies and have stirred debate amongst historians. “The Lady and the Unicorn” is regarded as the Mona Lisa of woven artworks due to its symbolism, history and mystery. The tapestry’s meaning is obscure but has been understood to represent “love or understanding”.

Woven in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium, from wool and silk, the “Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries” consist of six tapestries designed from drawings that originated from Paris. Five of the tapestries, illustrate the five senses using a woman to interact with a unicorn, a lion and a monkey. The sixth tapestry remains more of a mystery with the prominent wording “À Mon Seul Désir” (To my only desire) on the tent.

The Lady and the unicorn Touch

In the “Touch Tapestry”, the lady stands with one hand touching the unicorn’s horn, and the other holding up the pennant.

The Lady and the unicorn Sight

In the “Sight Tapestry”, the lady is seated, holding a mirror up to the unicorn.

The lady and the unicorn Taste

In the “Taste Tapestry”, the lady is taking sweets from a dish.

The Lady and the unicorn Smell

In the “Smell Tapestry”, the lady stands, making a wreath of flowers.

The Lady and the unicorn Hearing

In the “Hearing Tapestry” the lady plays the organ on top of a table.

In all the five tapestries, the unicorn is to the lady’s left and the lion to her right, a common theme to all the tapestries.

The sixth, “À Mon Seul Désir” Tapestry is wider than the others and has a different style. The lady stands in front of a tent, across the top of the entrance to the tent is written “À Mon Seul Désir”. An obscure motto, the unicorn and the lion stand in their standard positions framing the lady while holding onto the tent pennants.

Tapestry weavers use to create the design as they progressed using their imagination, from the fourteenth century onward they copied from a broad sheet of paper (cartone) or from a drawing or painting (cartoon). “The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries” are one of the most significant surviving examples of tapestry art from the Middle Ages.

Historians argue that in five of the six panels, the mysterious lady with the unicorn is Mary Tudor, third wife of Louis XII and sister of Henry VIII, who was Queen of France from August 1514 to 1 January 1515. This Middle Ages masterpiece was “rediscovered” in poor condition in 1841 in the castle of Boussac.

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                       The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries
  • Artist:                     Woven in Flanders based on drawings from Paris
  • Year:                       1500
  • Medium:                Wool and Silk
  • Dimensions          H: 3.68m  w: 2.00m
  • Discovered:           1841
  • Museum:               Musée National du Moyen Age

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“A bad craftsman blames his tools.” French Proverb

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Video of the Day: U is for Unicorn in Captivity

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Video of the Day: U is for Unicorn in Captivity

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U is for the Unicorn Tapestries

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A Peek at my Work-in-Progress

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A Peek at my Work-in-Progress

Just for fun, I’m going to give you a little glimpse of the YA mystical fantasy novel I’m writing, with the working title: The Unicornologist.

It’s set in 1967. To give you a feel for the time, here is what a McDonald’s hamburger stand (the setting of chapter five) looked like:

No drive through. You had to park your car and walk up to the sliding glass window to order, and wait for your food to be packed into a bag. No dining room. Some McDonald’s had a bench built into the exterior side wall, but most people just took their food back to their cars and ate while parked in the lot. And, yes, a hamburger cost 15 cents.

HillaryMy story centers around a New Jersey high school freshman, Hillary Noone, whom I picture as looking something like the girl on the right, except with glasses. She’s a nerd. Her mother died when she was eight, and her father recently remarried. Hillary, an only child, resents her stepmother, who kind of took over when she moved in, not respecting the routines that Hillary and her dad put into place to cope with her mother’s death.

TwiggyHillary’s best friend is her neighbor, Allie, who  wears her hair like Twiggy (see the image to the left), a popular British model in the late 60’s, nicknamed after her slender figure. Hillary and Allie grew up playing in the forest that surrounds their homes, and even have a tree they like to climb (where they talk about their problems and dreams), looking something like the big cedar tree to the right below.

treeThe story really gets going when the girls go on a school field trip to the Cloisters in New York City, the medieval branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (See my previous post, Cloister Me.)

While examining the Unicorn Tapestries housed there (see my previous post, Unicornucopia), something happens that imprints the unicorn in her heart. She becomes obsessed by unicorn lore and learns everything about them, especially their use as a symbol in medieval art.

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That’s all I’m telling for now, but at a later date I’ll spill more about Allie and Hillary, and about Robin, the boy they both fall for. And about how complicated things get for all three of them when life imitates art.

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Unicornucopia

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Unicornucopia

Last month I promised I would post about the Unicorn Tapestries that hang in The Cloisters (see my post Cloister Me). They have special meaning for me. I first saw them as a freshman in high school on a field trip. And they figure largely in the mystical fantasy I am writing, about a high school freshman who is uniquely impacted by seeing the Unicorn Tapestries while on a field trip to The Cloisters (any similarities between this character and, um, any living person is strictly a coincidence).

1. The Start of the Hunt

1. The Start of the Hunt

Taken together, the tapestries tell an allegory that would have been familiar to medieval audiences. The story is called The Hunt of the Unicorn as an Allegory of the Passion. It begins with a scene of hunters equipped with spears and dogs.

The second tapestry is called The Unicorn is Found. A unicorn dips its horn into a stream flowing out of the fountain. The hunters stand by and watch, as do a group of assorted animals, including lions, pheasants, a hyena, and a deer. According to legend, serpents could release their venom into streams, and any person or animal drinking the water would die. The unicorn purified the water with his horn, making it safe to drink again. Interpreting the allegory, the serpent is Satan, and the venom is sin. Anyone who partakes of it dies. The unicorn is Christ. He purifies the stream, counteracting sin, and restores life. Because of this legend, unicorn horn was a highly sought-after prize in the middle ages, and royal families reportedly owned them. Wealthy nobles might have a piece of one. They were used at the table to purify food and drink, since poison was a fairly common means of murder in those days. (Click on the images below for a larger view.)

The next tapestry is called The Unicorn Leaps out of the Stream. The unicorn is surrounded by hunters with spears drawn, tormenting him, just the Roman soldiers beat and mocked Christ. Then in the next tapestry, The Unicorn at Bay, the attacks escalate, and the fierce unicorn fights back.

5. The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn

5. The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn

The next tapestry, The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn, is parenthetical to the story, and is partially destroyed. The two fragments that remain show the unicorn being attacked by dogs in a fenced garden. At his side is a woman who appears to be signaling a hunter standing a short distance away. This is addressing another legend about the unicorn, that it is so fierce it can only by tamed by a virgin. In the allegory, the hunter is the angel Gabriel, by whose announcement the unicorn (Christ) succumbs to Mary and becomes incarnate. The woman we see, however, in not Mary. The portion of the tapestry showing Mary is gone. If you look carefully at the unicorn’s neck, you can see Mary’s fingers caressing his mane, and her sleeve below the unicorn’s goatee.

6. The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle

6. The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle

The unicorn is pictured twice on the tapestry called The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle. In the upper left hand corner he’s being stabbed with the hunters’ spears and bitten by their dogs; in the center, he’s dead and hanging over a horse’s back.

Finally my favorite tapestry, The Unicorn in Captivity. The unicorn, alive but wounded, sits corralled within a little fence. This is the quintessential depiction of a unicorn, probably familiar to everyone.

When the Bible was being translated into English from 1604-1611 (known as the King James Version), the scholars didn’t know how to translate the Hebrew word reym. As far as they could tell, it was a swift, fierce, horned animal. That suggested a unicorn to them. The word appears nine times in the KJV. Subsequent translations say “wild ox” in its place.

Did the unicorn ever really exist? Sightings of unicorns have been documented going back to the third century B.C. If you search on YouTube, you can find dozens of cheesy videos of unicorn sightings along with the UFOs, chupacabra, and bigfoot. Unicorns appear in the historic household inventories of royal families all over the world. Who knows? But isn’t it interesting it was such a pervasive theme in old literature and art? And so beautifully crafted in the legendary Unicorn Tapestries.

7. The Unicorn in Captivity

7. The Unicorn in Captivity

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