The Unicorn Tapestries

Elaborate woven tapestries were a common art form during the period of late Medieval and the Renaissance.  Tapestries served the dual purpose of adding warmth to a room and providing beautiful decorations.  Biblical or historic themes were common and often tapestries would be created in a cycle of 4-10 works telling a story.  They were hand-stitched from threads of wool and silk, created in workshops throughout Europe.

The unicorn was seen as a symbol of Christ and was frequently shown in Medieval art.  There are several interesting examples of unicorn tapestries, this blog post will focus on one of the most famous unicorn tapestry cycles known as The Hunt of the Unicorn.

The Unicorn in Captivity (Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

This seven tapestry cycle was likely created sometime between 1495-1505.  This cycle is displayed in the Cloisters Museum in New York, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated entirely to Medieval Art.  The original patron and tapestry workshop is not known, but the dates can be deduced based on clothing styles of the figures.  It was probably created in Belgium (known at the time as Flanders).  Brussels in particular was known for its high quality tapestry construction around the turn of the 16th century.  

In the late 17th century the cycle was owned by French nobility living in Paris.  After the French Revolution the tapestries were taken down and used by peasants to keep warm and were found lying in a barn 70 years after the revolution.  Unfortunately during the years when they were outside they were damaged, faded and in the case of the fifth tapestry in the cycle, torn badly.  They were recovered in the 1850's by descendants of the French family that once owned them and despite their damage they are still quite well preserved. The Rockefeller family purchased them in the early 20th century and then later donated them to the museum where they hang today.

#1: The Hunters Enter the Woods (Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505
The cycle tells the story of a royal hunt of the unicorn and in these tapestries there are many symbolic ties between the unicorn and Christ.  The unicorn is seen in six of the seven tapestries but he is missing from the first one.  It is the start of the hunt with huntsman and hunting dogs out looking for the unicorn.  If you look carefully you will see the initials "A" and "E" hidden in each tapestry several times.  The "E" is backwards and one example can be seen in the tree between two hunters, others are found in the bottom corners. Notice the distinctive style of clothing worn by everyone in the tapestry.  Every part of the tapestry is filled and the forest floor contains dozens of types of plants and flowers.

#2: The Unicorn is Found(Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

In the next tapestry the Unicorn is discovered as he dips his horn into the stream to purify the water.  A wide variety of animals wait by the side of the stream to drink out of it afterwards.  The animals include: a panther, a stag, a lion, a rabbit and even a hyena.  Rather than representing animals found in a typical French forest, each animal had its own symbolism.

At the very moment he is putting his horn into the water the unicorn is discovered by the hunters who all point to him.  This lovely tapestry is rather faded and the blue sky was added later after the cycle was recovered.  During the time that this was created the sky would have been replaced by something else such as more trees.  As we can see in the other tapestries, all areas were filled in with decoration and not left a solid flat areas of color.

#3: The Unicorn is Attacked (Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

The recurring initials have led historians to think these tapestries may have been commissioned for a marriage.  Note that in this tapestry the letters "F" and "R" have been added to this particular work, but they appear to have been added later and not part of the original tapestry.  The viewer can also see different coats of arms on the collars of the hunting dogs which is likely an allusion to the family or families represented by the initials.  The "R" added later may stand for the La Rochefoucaulds, the French noble family who owned these works for a time.

The composition in the 3rd tapestry is quite similar to the 2nd, the unicorn is in the center by the stream and surrounded by hunters, in the 2nd they all point to him and in the work above they all lunge at him with spears. As in the first two we can also note the use of vivid colors and dense foliage.

#4: The Unicorn Defends Itself (Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

In the 4th tapestry the unicorn has been surrounded and is making an escape by giving a powerful kick, as he kicks outward his horn gouges one of the hunting dogs.  This two follows the compositional set up of the previous two works.  In the foreground a variety of animals continue to drink from the purified stream. 

There is also a #5: The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn, today this is badly torn and only fragments remain.  This is unfortunate as we don't know how the unicorn came to be captured.  In one strip of the tapestry the unicorn is with two women (only the hand of one remains).  The woman who strokes the unicorn is thought to be a maiden (virgin) due to the fact that she is shown in an enclosed garden which was a popular symbol of virginity.  As he is subdued it appears that the other woman is signalling to the hunters.  However since only pieces of this work are still intact that isn't known for certain.

#6: The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle(Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

The killing of the unicorn is presented in a rather gruesome way.  If we are to follow the Christian symbolism of the unicorn in this tapestry cycle we can note the following: The unicorn is capable of purifying the water, the unicorn is tamed by a maiden (virgin) and killed violently.  However after he is dead, he is resurrected in the last tapestry.

#7: The Unicorn in Captivity (Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505

The subdued and resurrected unicorn sits within another small enclosure in the final tapestry in this series.  In addition to the Christian symbolism there are also symbols that could reflect that the "maiden" has in fact subdued a bachelor by marrying him, another reason that historians think this was commissioned for a wedding.

Flowers each had their own symbolic meaning and several in this would also tie into a matrimonial theme; for example the lily for faithfulness and the carnation for marriage.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art website says of this work:

"The Unicorn in Captivity may have been created as a single image rather than part of a series. In this instance, the unicorn probably represents the beloved tamed. He is tethered to a tree and constrained by a fence, but the chain is not secure and the fence is low enough to leap over. The unicorn could escape if he wished but clearly his confinement is a happy one, to which the ripe, seed-laden pomegranates in the tree—a medieval symbol of fertility and marriage—testify. The red stains on his flank do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from the bursting pomegranates above."*

*"Unicorn in Captivity, The [South Netherlandish] (37.80.6)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)  


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