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The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry

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  1. 1. “The Lady and the Unicorn” Tapestries<br />The Medieval Tapestry of the Lady and Unicorn was designed at the end of the 15th century in Paris for Jean Le Viste, a nobleman close to King Charles VII. It was woven in Brussels, a city well-known for its tapestry designs. <br />Today the art work is displayed at the ‘Musee du Moyen Age’ in Paris, in a circular room as seen at left. <br />The tapestry is comprised of six sections—five are an allegory on the senses, and the sixth one summarizes the series as an allegory of love and/or virginity. It is generally accepted that it had both secular and spiritual meaning. The noble lady seen throughout represents a virgin and, therefore, was associated with the Virgin Mary. Overall, it is a prime example of the medieval love of tapestry designs. Many of these tapestries had an important architectural function as well as decoration. They functioned to provide warmth and less draft along the cold, damp walls of the castle or villa. <br />I will concentrate on one of the series---the one for “Taste”. If you wish to gain a better view and understanding of the rest on the series, you may go to one of the web sites listed at the bottom.<br />Tapestry associated with Taste:<br />At left is a detail of the beautiful head of the main figure in “Taste”. It shows you the skill of the artist who was responsible for the original paintings, as well as the “cartoonist”--the artist who enlarged these smaller works into full scale designs from which the weavers copied. Unfortunately both artists are unknown today. Some historians believe the image was patterned after a real woman, but to me, it appears to be influenced by the famous Italian artist who lived about this time, Botticelli. (Compare it with the image to the left of it, which is a detail of Botticelli’s painting of “Spring” or “Primavera”.) <br />What do you think?<br />Below is the full tapestry representing the sense of “Taste”. You see the fair noble lady at the center flanked by the unicorn on our right, and a servant holding the candy dish plus the lion on our left. In each of the tapestries the main figure is flanked by the unicorn and the lion, which each hold either a standard or a banner. <br />Notice the other small animals woven into the tapestry. See the dog, a traditional symbol of fidelity, sitting on the train of the ladies’ dress, another off to her right, the monkey below her putting a necklace on his neck, and lots of rabbits and other animals woven into the “millefleurs” (thousand flowers), a traditional pattern of the Brussels’ weavers for background designs. The standards and banners held by the lion and unicorn have the ‘coat-of-arms’ pattern of the Le Viste family. We find it everywhere on all six tapestries. Of course, these tapestries were important status symbols for French nobility.<br />At left is a detail of the woman at the center who holds and looks toward the parakeet. Notice her hand is slightly enlarged to make sure we see it from a distance, and her garments are richly woven with a swirling head cloth to give vibrancy to the scene.<br />What is the meaning of the parakeet you might ask? Some believe it is a symbol of watchfulness and surveillance. A talking parrot may warn one about deception. It would fit in this sense, if we think of protecting the chastity of the virgin.<br />In the detail on the left, we see the servant holding the candy dish into which the lady dips her hand. The concept of ‘taste’ is subtle yet very evident. <br />Take another look at the “millefleurs” design above. This is what makes it different from a painting---tapestries need a continuous pattern to create movement along the wall, and they need a lot of detail to see when one is close up. All the flowers would be identifiable and symbolic, as well as the animals. An artist would learn the symbolism from research books, like the Bestiaries (for animals) and flora books. <br />Tapestry associated with Sight: <br />Let’s take a quick look at one of the other tapestries associated with the senses. The one symbolizing “Sight” would be further along in the order. As seen in the image below, here the lady is seated, holding a mirror up for the unicorn to see his image. As the unicorn kneels on the ground and has his front legs in the lady’s lap, many have interpreted this as an allegory of the Virgin Mary holding the body of the dead Christ, what is known as the “Pieta”. It is not unusual for the unicorn to represent Christ, and to add to his interpretation, we notice the lamb off to the right with h is legs crossed in a gesture of submission and reverence. This is the “Lamb of Christ”, another symbol of Christ’s death and sacrifice for mankind.<br /> <br />To the Medieval mind, such merging of secular stories with religious symbols was common. Remember these works were seen and walked by continuously during the day, so the connections with spiritual ideas were often interwoven<br />One novelist, Tracy Chevalier, who has done extensive research on the tapestries describes the allegory in this way: “The tapestries can be interpreted several ways – as a virgin seducing a unicorn, as a woman renouncing the physical world of the senses for the spiritual world, as the Virgin Mary with Christ. The first is the most popular interpretation, and refers to the old belief that the unicorn is so wild it cannot be tamed, except by a virgin. If she sits in the woods, the unicorn will come and lay its head in her lap.<br /> <br />To learn about the animals depicted, to see the other panels at the museum or to find an exceptional novel about the tapestry go to these web sites. <br /> <br /> <br /> This is a novel where the author, Tracy Chevalier weaves a fictional story around the tapestry. You will learn a lot about medieval life, and the process of making a tapestry!<br /> On this page you will find Chevalier’s summary of the symbolism of the animals and plants.<br />