The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

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 A Mon Seul Desir tapestry - Cluny MuseumAnne 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.

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Baroque tapestries

Baroque tapestries include many splendid series of Louis XIV chateaux masterpieces of Louis XIV woven in France, tracing their history back over centuries.

Scenery and landscapes have always been highly popular subjects for Tapestry Art. The Romans, Greeks and, later, the rulers of medieval Europe would sometimes commission a tapestry to record great battles and other important events. The famous ‘Odyssey’ written by the Greek, Homer, in 800BC was translated into tapestry art thus making his stories accessible to all the ancient Greeks, not just those who could read. Tapestries were created in ancient Egypt (there is a drawing of a tapestry loom in one of the pyramids) and by the Inca tribes.

Louis XIV chateaux tapestries

Landscape tapestries provide a pleasing play of colour and light with their three-dimensional perspective and depth. For those who love the grandeur of castles, reproductions of a famous series of chateaux tapestries like the “Tenture de Maisons Royals” might be considered. These ‘Tapestries of the Royal Households’, the Royal Residences, were originally commissioned by Louis XIV circa 1670. Originally a set of twelve tapestries, each tapestry represented a month of the year with each depicting a different French royal chateaux. I remember visiting the Chateau of Blois which had some of these large tapestries hanging dramatically from floor to ceiling along a hall.

Tapestries of the Royal Households - The Royal ResidencesThese were designed by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), the ‘Premier Paintre du Roi’ of Louis XIV, ie Louis’ court painter. They include the ever-popular Royal Palace tapestry, also called Verdure au Chateau tapestry: a good example of the baroque tapestries typically associated with the flamboyant reign of the Sun King.

Another piece from this same Royal Residences of Louis XIV tapestries set is ‘Château Bellevue’, again with a deep, elaborate border framing the tapestry with its view from a balcony. These all reflect the highly detailed and elaborate tone of French tapestry art during the seventeenth century.

Today’s wide range of classical reproductions often have their roots based in historical masterpieces. Now, artists are not limited to producing tapestries to satisfy the requirements of the rich aristocrats who once commissioned them. Thanks to modern technology, producing a tapestry is less labour intensive, making Baroque tapestries and all other styles affordable for everyone. They are a popular modern day choice for the home with their beauty, warmth and tactile qualities.

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Portiere wall-hangings

You may wonder “What is a portière?”. Portiere wall-hangings are defined by Wikipedia as: “A portière is a hanging curtain placed over a door or over the doorless entrance to a room.”

We need to expand on this regarding their use in centuries past and today. Walking through a French chateau or elegant Paris mansion you would see portières hanging on either side of doorways, adding to their grandeur. Several of these portières are available today, all being tall slim French tapestries.

Since the visual characteristic of these is that they are both tall and slim they can be woven tapestries in other styles, not necessarily suitable for an elegant chateau. They may be suitable for a humble home (yours?).

Elegant French portiere wall-hanging Unicorn tapestry - medieval portiere wall hanging Gustav Klimt tall slim tapestry - Silhouette wallhanging William Morris portiere tapestry - portiere wall-hanging

Today portiere wall-hangings are much more adaptable for our homes simply because of the variety of styles. Yes, there are elegant designs but consider these too: medieval tapestries, verdures (ie forested scenes), numerous botanical hangings, even Art Nouveau portières. Several are available as pairs of hanging tapestries; visually a pair is far more than doubly effective than a single tapestry. These pairs might flank a door in the traditional manner but are excellent ways to decorate a large wall (see top image).

My own favourites are the William Morris portieres in their Arts & Crafts splendour. Furthermore, they are unusually varied in sizes and colour tones. Seen on the right above, this one is the medium of three sizes. It is the green and yellow version; you can also order a maroon and brown alternative, also in three sizes.

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Monet tapestries

Monet tapestries, ie tapestry reproductions of his wonderful paintings, are understandably popular today.

One of our supplying tapestry weavers has just released two more tapestries from his wonderful art and a further one from a modern painting of Monet’s lake at Giverny in Normandy. It is not difficult to see why Claude Monets art is ideal as tapestry wall-hangings.

Monet tapestries

·    The soft brush strokes of Monet’s Impressionist art lends itself so well to the gentle appearance produced by tapestry weaving.
·    Framed prints have a hard look whereas the softness of a wall tapestry suits the Impressionist style well.
·    Many homes have a Monet framed print but not many a tapestry. Now there are many of his paintings available as Monet tapestries including Giverny scenes
·    Impressionist art is perhaps the most popular period for home décor today.
·    And they are so beautiful!

Irises in Monet's Garden tapestry - Claude Monet tapestriesAbove is one of these new tapestries, Irises in Monet’s Garden, woven in Belgium featuring his gardens at Giverny, from a 1900 oil painting. Monet’s art has inspired so many so it is not surprising that we have tapestries by modern artists of his lake where he spent productive years. These include the Monet’s Garden series (see top image) and now a new Belgian tapestry (below) from a painting by Bob Pejman who is responsible for many of our Mediterranean tapestries.

Giverny Pond tapestry - Monet's lake

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Elegant French tapestries

I’m in the mood to write about elegant French tapestries. I’ve often read that bloggers struggle with “what shall I write about?” but this really is no problem for us here – we have so many tapestries, each with a tale to tell.

Our Belgian, Italian and French tapestries are naturally very broad-ranging in their styles yet certain fundamental styles play a dominant role. A visit to France quickly reveals the influence of French elegance in tapestry art derived from the 17th and 18th centuries. The chateaux and museums shout out Louis XIV in particular. He commissioned them by the hundred for his royal palaces. I remember being stunned by a long hallway at the chateau at Blois whose walls were filled by wall tapestries showing his palaces. One of these, the Royal Palace tapestry (above), is very popular today.

Louis XIV was even followed into battle by an artist whose job was to depict the king directing his troops. These later became glorious paintings or tapestries … if the king was victorious. See the Capture of Lille:

Louis XIV tapestries - Capture of Lille wall tapestryHis successor Louis XV may have been less flamboyant but his patronage of Francois Boucher (1703-70) resulted in a distinctive influential style of elegant French tapestries. In spite of the republican vandalism of the French Revolution tapestries continued as status symbols to future emperors and kings. By then the more efficient Jacquard loom had been invented. This loom provides the basis of all tapestry weaving today. The tapestry below shows that French elegance remained in the 19th century when this was woven in Beauvais. The image shows The Mandolin tapestry in our home above an antique seven legged table (yes, seven legs).

French elegant tapestryOne has to conclude that the French will always have an elegant flair, certainly in Paris. I, for one, am glad of that.

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