Having barely survived five hundred years of war and revolution, the Unicorn Tapestries now hang safely on the walls of the Met Cloisters, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They immerse the viewer in a medieval forest as a story of a unicorn hunt unfolds scene-by-scene, in successive images designed to completely cover the walls of a Renaissance castle. Scenes show hunters chasing a unicorn across fields and forests so they may too possess his magical, purifying horn.
Little is known or understood about the Tapestries. Ideas abound, but no drawing, description or receipt exists from what was likely a multi-year project undertaken by dozens of artists across two countries. The set at Met Cloisters referred to as "The Hunt for the Unicorn" is a tremendous mystery.
At the Musée Cluny in Paris, there is a different set of tapestries called the Unicorn Tapestries, but are more specifically named, "The Lady and the Unicorn." These are assumed to have been woven in the 1480s, also in the French court, but really, nobody knows what they mean or where they were originally displayed, only that the coat of arms of Jean le Viste, a nobleman were included.
"The Lady and the Unicorn" set were known as early as the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the author Prosper Mérimée saw them in 1841 and drew attention to their declining condition. Then the writer George Sand became aware of them and in 1847 wrote an article about them, illustrated with drawings done by her son. Twice more she published pieces about “The Lady and the Unicorn,” until the Commission des Monuments Historiques purchased them in 1882 to hang in the Musee des Thermes.
Interpretations of the scenes of a lady, girl, dogs, a monkey and a unicorn abound, but like the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters, no one theory is widely accepted. Some people say they an allegory of the five senses. Others say they created the atmosphere of an enclosed garden hanging on the walls of a lady's bedchamber. But for who? The novel "The Lady and the Unicorn" by Tracy Chevalier is a fictional exploration of the mystery.
Having spent nearly thirteen years studying and lecturing about the "The Hunt for the Unicorn" Tapestries, I hope you will enjoy this breakdown of the mysteries that make this stunningly beautiful tapestries even more attractive.
The Unicorn Tapestries Were Made Around 1500. Maybe.
The date that has been assigned to the creation of the Unicorn Tapestries is based on a fashion. A square-toed shoe to be precise, worn by several of the hunters illustrated in the Unicorn Tapestries that was in vogue in France between 1495 and 1505.
Nobody knows who made the Tapestries, where or why they were made. There are no preparatory sketches, no notes or written accounts about the place where they would have been displayed. The cartoon (the preparatory map for the weavers) no longer exists. There’s nothing left from what must have been a lengthy correspondence between the patron, the tapestry broker who would have coordinated the commission, and the workshop that ultimately produced them. Nothing.
But here's the thing; Tapestries were the most luxurious, most expensive artwork you could possess during the Middle Ages. Today, museums that have tapestries often display them separately from painting and sculpture, relegating them to somewhat second-tier galleries devoted to “Decorative Arts.” This is no justice for the amount of effort and work that went into tapestries, let alone the status they held and conveyed.
The Unicorn Tapestries Were Stolen During the French Revolution
In 1793, peasants uprising in the French Revolution broke down the doors of the Rochefoucauld chateau at Verteuil to rob the noble French family of their opulent treasures. The north tower was set ablaze in their path of near total destruction. Instead of leaving the Tapestries to burn, the looters stole them. The silver and gold so-called gilt threads would usually be extracted from similar tapestries by setting them on fire. Because this practice was common, the Unicorn Tapestries were assumed to be gone.
But sixty years later, another Rochefoucauld family member was trying to reassemble the treasures that were stolen during the Revolution. (Family legend said that the lost Tapestries saying were woven for the marriage of Francois VI Rochefoucauld and Marie du Barbizon.)
The investigation led to a barn where a woman described some "old curtains" her husband had stored in a barn. There he found the Unicorn Tapestries serving as blankets torn, tattered, but largely intact, covering bales of root vegetables. They were heavily damaged around the edges and full of holes, but still largely intact.
How Did the Unicorn Tapestries End Up in New York City?
In 1925 the Unicorn Tapestries left France for the first time for a gallery show in Manhattan. Philanthropist and art collector John D. Rockefeller, Jr, saw them and wished to own them though they were not for sale.
Fortunately, artist and art collector George Gray Barnard, whose collection is the core of today's Met Cloisters, stepped in to negotiate. Having served as a scout for American’s wealthiest art collectors, he knew that the Rouchfoucald family desired to keep up with the fashion of other noble French families and build a miniature golf course on their estate. The sale was brokered and the Unicorn Tapestries left France for good.
At first, they were displayed in Rockefeller's home on 54th Street. David Rockefeller describes giving a tour of the Unicorn Tapestries to guests at his sister's wedding when he was only 8-years old.
When the Met Cloisters which Rockefeller funded was being developed, curator James Rorimer (who you may know as Matt Damon's character in "The Monuments Men") placed a little slip of paper on a model of the galleries that read "Unicorn Tapestries." Rockefeller was then convinced to give them to the new museum as a gift.
How Long Did It Take to Make the Unicorn Tapestries?
Short answer: A really, really long time.
Here's the long answer: The tapestry workshops of Belgium and Northern France were incredibly busy at the turn of the sixteenth century when a skillfully woven tapestry was a distinctive sign of wealth and power. Interiors were generally sparsely decorated when the baron, prince or regent was not in residence, but upon their arrival, tapestries would be hung, restoring warmth and life.
A painter created the original design, which would be presented to the patron in oil paint on board. That could take months or years.
Next step, a cartoon would be made, sometimes by an assistant in the painter's shop, which would serve as a map for the weaver. The cartoon was incredibly valuable, as it could be used multiple times, and designs could be switched and swapped by overlapping cartoons. They were so valuable that tapestry brokers would get involved, to properly handle and negotiate the cartoons’ journey from the painter’s workshop which could be anywhere in Europe, to the weavers usually in Belgium, but also in Northern France. The cartoon, hiring of a tapestry broker and the negotiation and travel could take months or years.
Once the tapestries arrived at a weaving workshop, all the wool would have to be dyed. Then, finally, the weavers would set up enormous looms, and use warp and the weft to weave tapestries with the cartoons tucked underneath as their guides. This stage relied on natural light which is in short supply during Northern European winters. And as paid artisans, there were of course holidays where the workshop would be closed. So this stage requires several years of work. In a days time, a very skilled tapestry weaver could likely produce a piece of the weaving smaller than the size of your palm.
In 1500, Everyone Believed Unicorns Were Real
In 1500 unicorns everyone believed unicorns were real. Unlike the centaur or minotaur which have their origins in mythology, the unicorn arose from the study of natural science and was first observed in India by the Greek writer Ctesias in the 5th century BCE. Like a game of telephone, descriptions of the unicorn transformed his appearance from a red horse with purple spots to the mystical white horse-like creature shown purifying a stream of water with his horn in the Unicorn Tapestries. Julius Caesar claimed that unicorns ran wild in Gaul. When the Spanish explorers returned to Europe from their explorations of the Americas, they claimed that unicorns ran wild in the New World.
In the tapestries at the Met Cloisters, the scenes can be interpreted as a hunting story (with a unicorn instead of a stag), an allegory of a lover male on a chivalric quest to prove his worth to his beloved, and an allegory of the Passion of Christ.
See how there are twelve hunters gathered around the fountain, but only one is pointing toward the unicorn? That's Judas.
Why Are There Unicorn Tapestries in Scotland?
The West Dean Weavers are a studio of tapestry makers from England who were privately commissioned to weave an entire reproduction of the "Hunt for the Unicorn" to hang in Stirling Castle in Scotland.
The patron was inspired by the belief held by Scottish historians that the tapestries in the inventory of James V were indeed the Unicorn Tapestries, having come to Scotland through his short, ill-fated marriage to Madeleine of Valois. They were returned to France in the eighteenth century through ties with the Rochefoucauld, who later incorporated them into their own family history.
Over ten years, weavers from West Dean visited the Met Cloisters to make new cartoons, count knots and intensely study the original set. They wove the tapestries as they would have been done in the 16th century. Today they are proudly displayed at Stirling Castle.
I Think I Saw This Tapestry in Harry Potter!
The scene called "The Unicorn in Captivity” is the most famous. It’s on museum postcards, tote bags, t-shirts an embroidery kit that everyone's grandmother had in the '70s and yes, in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
In addition to the scenes of hunting, this millefleur tapestry which doesn't quite fit in the rest of the cycle sits encircled by a gated fence, chained to a tree that has ripe pomegranates growing on its boughs. They’re juicy seeds drip onto his body, also appearing as blood stains. It's laden with symbolism, but without a narrative. The only thing linking this tapestry to the rest of the "Hunt for the Unicorn" cycle is a mysterious cipher that looks like an A and backwards E tied together with a cord. Scholars have tried to interpret the letters for over 140-years, but no theory has been successfully accepted.
How to Visit the Cloisters, Cluny, and Stirling Castle
The Met Cloisters
Fort Tryon Park, New York, NY 10040
Hours: March–October: 10 am–5:15 pm, May 27–September 2, 2016: Open late on Fridays until 7:30 pm
November–February: 10 am–4:45 pm
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1
Admissions: Suggested $25 Adults, Seniors $17, Students $12, Children under 12 and members Free
Hours: Daily, closed Tuesday, from 9:15 am to 5:45 pm.
Desk closes at 5:15 pm.
Closed 1 January, 1 May and 25 December.
Admission: Full price: 8 € (9€ during temporary exhibitions)
Concessions: 6€ (7€ during temporary exhibitions)
Free for UE nationals under 26
Free for everybody on the first Sunday of each month
Castle Esplanade, Stirling, FK8 1E
Hours: Daily, 1 Apr - 30 Sept 9:30-6pm 1 Oct - 31 Mar 9:30-5pm
Admission: Adult (16 - 59 yrs) £14.50, Child (5 - 15 yrs) £8.70, Concession (60 yrs+ and unemployed)*£11.60
What Story Do the Unicorn Tapestries in Paris Tell?
The set of tapestries also generally referred to as "The Unicorn Tapestries" are more specifically called "The Lady and the Unicorn." These also were likely woven around 1500 and have equally mysterious origins. The Paris tapestries are the type that were commonly displayed in a lady's bedchamber to create the effect of being inside an enclosed garden. Different vignettes of a lady, a young girl, a unicorn, dogs, a monkey, and other creatures have been suggested to be an allegory of the five senses, but there remains no clear consensus among scholars.