A visit to see The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Cluny Museum is an awe-inspiring experience; an intriguing viewing of tapestries exploring the senses.
The Lady and The Unicorn tapestries, “La Dame à la Licorne”, are one of the most accomplished and beautiful series of tapestries in the world. They are considered to be one of the most significant works of art produced in Europe during the Middle Ages, a peerless example of French medieval tapestries.
They are believed to have been produced for Jean Le Viste in the Southern Netherlands workshops. There is little information about Le Viste, although records suggest his family were originally from Lyons and that he was actually the fourth Jean Le Viste of the Le Viste family. More than thirty years before the tapestries were commissioned, in 1464, Jean Le Viste, a lawyer, became a Counsellor to the court of King Louis XI and Parliament. After the King’s death in 1483 he continued to be a close advisor to his successor Charles VIII and in 1489 he became a president for one of the Royal Courts of Justice.
Although Jean Le Viste was from a wealthy family, he was not of noble blood. Around 1475, at the age of forty three, he married Geneviève De Nanterre from a noble family. This leads us to ponder if the noble lady of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries is Geneviève? Jean Le Viste died in 1500 at about the time it is thought the Lady with the Unicorn tapestries were created. It is his coat of arms that is featured on the pennants. Is this the reason why he chose to commission these tapestries? He might have foreseen that an elaborate series of tapestries such as these would have historical significance.
The Lady and the Unicorn – Tapestries exploring the Senses
A set of similar tapestries, known as ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn’, were commissioned by Anne of Brittany around the same time. These were created to celebrate her marriage to Charles VIII of France. So it may be no coincidence that The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries were commissioned by Le Viste, since he was close to Charles VIII.
His set of six tapestries was woven in wool and silk based on set of cartoons (working drawings) produced in Paris. All feature Jean Le Viste’s coat of arms. Five of the six tapestries represent the five senses, and all depict a woman of nobility with a lion to her right and a unicorn to her left. The sixth tapestry is known as ‘À mon seul désir’, the words on the central tent canopy. It is generally translated as “To my Only Desire”, emphasizing their symbolism of a love affair.
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are true to the popular Mille Fleurs (thousand flowers) style which was most commonly woven into the background of tapestries at the time. ‘À Mon Seul Désir’ tapestry is the largest of the series and has been the subject of numerous interpretations over the years. In this final tapestry, the lady places the necklace which has been worn by her in all the other tapestries into an open chest. Some say this represents her love or even her virginity. Another interpretation is that this a symbolic rejection of the passions which are touched by the five senses, and therefore an assertion of her free will.
The five other tapestries clearly depict the five senses with the animals involved in the portrayal of each sense:
- Le Toucher – Touch, where the lady holds the horn of the unicorn,
- Le Goût – Taste, showing the lady accepting sweetmeats from her maid,
- L’Odorat – Smell, the lady makes a wreath of flowers while the monkey smells a dropped flower,
- La Vue – Sight, the seated lady holds a mirror,
- L’Ouïe – Hearing, the lady plays an organ while her maid pumps the bellows.
The tapestries had been stored at Boussac Castle damaged by dampness and by rats until they were discovered by the writer, Prosper Mérimée, in 1841. However, it was George Sand who brought them to the attention of the public in one of her novels, Jeanne. Since 1882, the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries have been on display at the Musée du Moyen-Âge in Paris, the Musée de Cluny, in their own magnificent exhibit room. Today we can enjoy many reproductions of each tapestry (see images) woven in France or Belgium, all lined and having a rod pocket for easy hanging.