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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The Unicorn Tapestries

The Unicorn Tapestries are among the most significant medieval tapestries ever created.

The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries, as they are sometimes called, are a truly awe-inspiring series of medieval tapestry art. It has been long speculated as to why this set of seven Flemish wall tapestries was produced and what are its true meanings. Historical records suggest Anne of Brittany originally commissioned them in celebration of her betrothal to the French king, Charles VIII, with the weaving taking ten years, completed around 1505. Art historians from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York feel sure they would have been displayed together in their illustration of the complete story, the hunt of a somewhat elusive unicorn.

The Hunt Of the Unicorn tapestries are often referred to as simply The Unicorn Tapestries. This set should not be confused with a similar collection of tapestries known as The Lady and The Unicorn. La Dame à la Licorne, as they were originally known, is a set of six tapestries commissioned by Jean Le Viste, also toward the end of the fifteenth century, now displayed in Paris at the Musée de Cluny. Both series are heralded as medieval masterpieces.

The Unicorn Tapestries are owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and displayed at ‘The Metropolitan Cloisters’ gallery, a medieval style building overlooking the Hudson River. Germain Bazin, the former director of the Louvre Museum in Paris, once described this remarkable building as “the crowning achievement of American Museology”. The Metropolitan Museum originally acquired the building with funds donated by John D Rockefeller who also donated the tapestries to the museum in 1937. He had purchased the collection in 1922 from the La Rochefoucauld family of France, who previously owned them for hundreds of years, paying a million dollars for the collection.

The Unicorn Tapestries portray each stage of the hunt for the unicorn from the start of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestriesthe hunt for this elusive creature, its pursuit and capture, its death and ultimately the resurrection of the Unicorn. The first of these tapestries, The Hunters enter the Woods (left) shows the beginning of the hunt with the seigneur and two noblemen placed to his left. Although the scene is portraying a certain similarity to any stag hunt of the day the men are not dressed for hunting nor riding. Instead they are attired in rich clothing and on foot. Only three keepers and four hounds are included. The first of the unicorn tapestries named ‘The Start of the Hunt’ is just over twelve feet long and fourteen feet high. Produced in the Southern Netherlands, all the tapestries have a woollen warp and were created using wool, silk, metallic and silver threads.

Both the first and last tapestries in the set are completely covered in a complex and accurate selection of flora. This greatly reflected the ‘Mille Fleurs’ tapestries which were very popular during the time. It was highly symbolic and depicted myths and legends with great detailing. The penultimate of the series depicts the unicorn being slain and its corpse transported on horseback to the lord and lady of the castle: ‘The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle’. During these times, it was believed that those who possessed the magic horn of the unicorn would be purified. In the final piece, The Unicorn in Captivity, the unicorn is resurrected, and despite being trapped by a fence and in chains, seems content in his ‘garden of paradise’. Pomegranate juice and seeds, resembling wounds, are symbolic of immortality and of Christ; the captured unicorn thus representing Christ resurrected. However, they could also be a reference to fertility and an abundance of children.

Today, several reproductions have been produced from the Metropolitan Cloisters tapestry gallery by French and Belgian tapestry weavers: The Hunters enter the Woods, The Unicorn is Found, and The Unicorn in Captivity.

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Verdure tapestries

A history of tapestry art with descriptions of verdure tapestries available today.

Tapestries were produced in Europe from around the twelfth century when, it is believed, the art of weaving was introduced from the East. Some small scale tapestries may have been produced during early medieval times. However, it was towards the end of this period, and throughout the Renaissance, when tapestry art production prospered. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, France and the Low Countries would create some of the finest tapestry art ever produced. After The Hundred Year War from 1337 to 1453, many weavers left France and moved northwards. Many tapestries were destroyed during this protracted war but afterwards a new period of learning and artistic development would begin.

The Renaissance marked an important revival of the arts, and major design changes came about for tapestries. By the second half of the fifteenth century many workshops, especially in Northern France and the Southern Netherlands, were exporting tapestry wall-hangings throughout Europe. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Brussels tapestry workshops began to dominate production. Once again, war would disrupt production, as weavers were forced to relocate. Later, toward the end of the sixteenth century, Paris, became the recognized European centre for tapestry weaving.

Verdure Tapestries

It is not entirely certain where verdure tapestries were first produced. However, it is known that by the sixteenth century, they had become a recognized tapestry art form. The word ‘verdure’ derives from the French word ‘vert’, meaning green. Initially, verdure tapestries were characterized by their green tones, complex foliage and flower motifs – such as the Aristoloches wall tapestry (left). Forests and woodlands were typical scenes. As their popularity rose more expansive, and expensive, designs incorporating wildlife were woven. It is these more elaborate designs that we most often associate with the verdure style today. For centuries verdure tapestries remained highly popular and were made on a large scale for export. That was, until the arrival of wallpaper, which served as a more economical way to decorate a room.

In recent years verdure tapestries have seen a revival. These can change a room by creating a striking and impressive focal point, something which cannot be matched by wallpaper alone. The subtle earthy tones of this form of wall art can deliver that, whilst also being compatible with almost any style of décor (see above). Today, these tapestries are produced by respected weavers in France, Belgium and Italy, in a range of sizes so we can enjoy their aesthetic beauty virtually anywhere..

There is a good selection of themes to choose from: forests and lakes, flora and fauna, plus wonderful images of French châteaux, hunting tapestries, classic gardens and scenic landscapes. Quite a number are available in matching pairs. The lush greenery depicted in verdure tapestries, along with the idyllic scenery cannot help but create a beautifully harmonious room; peaceful, yet unobtrusive imagery which will complement and add to the ambience of your home. Further, a wall tapestry is an investment that will be there for generations to come.

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Francois Boucher wall tapestries – in pursuit of the idyll

Francois Boucher wall tapestries of the Louis XV period – Gobelins tapestry art celebrating the sensual Rococo style.

Francois Boucher wall tapestries are as respected today as they were during the Renaissance. This remarkable French tapestry artist and painter began his career engraving the works of Antoine Watteau. The son of a lace designer and Parisian painter he won the ‘Grand Prix de Rome’, a scholarship created during the reign of Louis XIV, which enabled him to spend four years studying at the Academy of France in Rome. During this time he was free to indulge his infatuation with the sensuality and frivolity of Rococo painting. After his return to Paris, Boucher was admitted to the prestigious Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In 1765 he was appointed by the mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, to became Court Painter to the King.

Francois Boucher (1703-1770) loved to focus on women and mythological themes, his paintings and tapestries being considered quite erotic for those times. Although he is considered to be one of the most influential tapestry artists in history, especially with regards to figure tapestries, his academic training enabled him to master many styles and techniques.

From 1755 until 1770 Francois Boucher was art director of the Manufacture Des Gobelins in Paris, a tapestry manufacturer established by Louis XIV famed for producing tapestries for the French kings. Today ‘Gobelins’ is run by the French Ministry of Culture and it hand-weaves contemporary tapestry art for the country’s government institutions. (My wife and I have taken the fascinating tour there.) Many of Gobelin’s most impressive tapestries were created by Boucher and Maurice Jacques. They produced a famous series of wool and silk tapestries, over four metres high and almost four metres wide. Serenade Rouge is just one tapestry of this set of four which adorned the chambers of the Duchess of Bourbon. The tapestries were sold during the Revolution.

His Noble Pastorale tapestries were woven several times at Beauvais after he was apppointed Director. This set of six large idealized pastoral scenes show him in pursuit of the idyll; Rococo shepherds and shepherdesses rather remarkably dressed in silk. We have numerous smaller details from this series available today, such as the top image.

The Triumph of Flora tapestry - Francois Boucher wall tapestriesTapestries like Serenade Rouge with decorative surrounds first appeared during the eighteenth century. But it was Boucher and Jacques who brought this tapestry style to its peak of popularity. Most tapestries before this period depicted historical events, religion and mythology. During the eighteenth century people sought tapestries with less sombre subjects and were looking for a more light-hearted and decorative styling. They were feminine and elegant; their style was unique in that these tapestries sought to imitate a variety of decorative techniques. But they also reflect heavily on Trompe l’Oeil, a technique which had been used by many artists for centuries, a style which seeks to depict things realistically and in a three dimensional light. Combining various styles, along with a vivid use of colours, makes these tapestries a quintessential example of 18th century tapestry art.

Francois Boucher wall tapestries were admired for their romance and idyllic depiction. All his tapestry works, even landscapes, achieved the same three dimensional qualities so beautifully emphasised in the ‘Serenade Rouge’ tapestry. A Francois Boucher tapestry is no longer reserved for the boudoirs of the aristocracy, now we can all enjoy his fabulous creations in our own homes. If you appreciate the Rococo style, you will enjoy these Boucher tapestries.

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World maps tapestries

World maps tapestries – interesting tapestry wall decor that intrigues us

We have an inbuilt curiosity in the world around us. This curiosity drove the first man to the ends of the world, a world everyone previously believed to be flat. Later it would send others to the moon. As people learned more of the world around them, they sought a way to record their discoveries and to make future discoveries easier by creating maps. Tapestry maps add a new dimension to these ancient maps. Further, these wall tapestries add charm and beauty to a room and also provide a focal point for interesting conversation.

Conquering uncharted horizons has been an obsession of man since time began. Therefore, it seems only natural that even today, we find tapestry maps so appealing. The Egyptians, Babylonians and the Greeks had a fascination with geography that compelled them to create maps.

Ptolemy’s world map was well known throughout Western society during the second century and was based upon ‘Geographia’ a book he had written around fifty years before. A reproduction of his world map was eventually published in 1482. (The original maps have never been discovered.) His book contained longitude and latitude co-ordinates, references and other important geographical information with regards to the various continents of the ‘Old World’ that was used to reconstruct the original world map. The ‘Geographia’ only describes the European, Asian and African continents.

Many of these world maps tapestries feature mythical creatures and gods, as did the Willem Blaeus Planisfero map - interesting tapestry wall decorancient cartography, adding to their decoration and interest. A classic world tapestry map often features two globes showing both the ancient Eastern and Western worlds. This is seen in the Willem Blaeu Planisfero map (left) available today as an Italian tapestry wall-hanging. Others might reflect the style of one of the most famous world maps ever made, “Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula”, a map created in 1630 by Dutch cartographer Henricus Hondius.  When translated, this means ‘A Complete New Map of the Earth and the Oceans’. It has been reproduced today as a French wall tapestry.

The most popular old map woven as a tapestry is Orbis Terrae Compendiosa Descriptio (“A Brief Representation of the World”) seen above. It is admirably woven in Belgium in a rich full weave.

These world maps tapestries make a wonderful focal point for today’s wall decor as collectable works of art – intriguing examples of what can be achieved when both the arts and science combine.

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Information about wall tapestries

Background information about wall tapestries for sale by The Tapestry House – a summary about the weaving of fine European tapestry wall-hangings.

All of our tapestries and wall hangings are Jacquard woven using modern looms based on the original Jacquard looms from the early 19th century. The tapestries are not screen printed – they are individually woven using centuries-old techniques on modern looms. Some of our pieces are licensed from the originals in private collections and museums, not poor quality imitations.

Although modern methods of manufacture speed up the process our wall tapestries still retain the individuality found in all tapestry art. Each piece is individually woven so each tapestry is unique. The techniques used to make our tapestries for sale are the same as craftsmen have used for centuries. Modern equipment has helped speed up the process but the end result is still a unique work of art. They are woven in mills across Europe – from Belgium, France and Italy; many being reproductions of old masters and famous works of art. We do not sell the inferior tapestries woven in China, USA, Egypt or India – no knock-offs or sweatshops!

The designs are machine woven using a combination of yarns usually including cotton, wool and/or viscose. Historically wall hangings were made using natural fibres, generally wool, however today’s combination of yarns adds texture, depth and fine detail to the tapestries whilst retaining their historical look. For example, a tapestry woven in wool and cotton benefits from the fullness provided by the wool and the fine detailing of the cotton. Each weaver has several different qualities of weaves with the simplest way to discern this being directly related to the price.

The unfinished tapestry off-the-loom is then imported to our workroom in Canada where it is individually hand-finished. Finishing involves adding a poly/cotton backing as a lining, with a rod pocket for easy hanging of the tapestry. At the end of this process each piece is individually checked for quality before being prepared for shipping. We enclose instructions to assist you with the easy hanging and care of your tapestry.

Alphonse Mucha tapestries

The art of Alphonse Mucha typifies Art Nouveau for many of us, so it’s been pleasing to see an increasing interest in Alphonse Mucha tapestries; hence this article about the man and his work.

One of the privileges of having your own blog is that you can write about matters of personal interest with a greater passion hoping that others will catch this and appreciate it.  I’ve always respected art movements which are a way of life, such as the Arts and Crafts Movement. The breadth of Art Nouveau incorporated so much in daily life; for example, Charles Rennie Macintosh’s designs for new homes in Scotland included everything from the architecture to the cutlery. In Czechoslavakia Alphonse Mucha was part of a cultural movement although it is his designs and illustrations that remain prominent today.

Alphonse Mucha

Alfons Maria Mucha was born in 1860 and studied art first at Vienna and Munich before moving to Paris in 1887. (Where would late 19th century and early 20th century art be without the influence of Paris?)

The story is well known how he went into a print shop in late 1894 and discovered that a poster was needed in a hurry for a Sarah Bernhardt play. On 1st January 1895 his lithographed poster appeared and the rest, as they say, is history. Bernhardt employed Mucha for the next six years and Mucha broadened his output into advertisements, book illustrations and paintings. Often forgotten is that his work extended beyond the commercial world to designing theatre sets, wallpaper, carpets and jewellery. Alphonse Mucha’s flowing style in swirling soft pastel colours was a departure from the past, later much imitated.

Alphonse Mucha tapestries

Today we can enjoy some of his decorative art in the Alphonse Mucha tapestries Alphonse Mucha Evening tapestrywoven in France or Belgium. Most are in series of four designs depicting the seasons or the times of the day and most are woven in several size options.

I love the colours and the flow of the main design into the borders of his Times of the Day series. They were colour lithographs of 1899 which are superbly woven today by Belgian weavers in a thick yet tight weave of 79% cotton: see Evening Reverie on the right. My wife and I had two of these hanging in our master bathroom: see below. (Incidentally, people sometimes wonder if humidity means that tapestries should not be hung in bathrooms, but we did not notice any ill-effects.)

Three years previously Alphonse Mucha produced a series celebrating the seasons. These are now available as wall tapestries from two weavers each having quite different colourings, so you can select according to your decor. You will notice a difference in price points; just remember that this is the best indicator of quality.

Mucha tapestries in a bathroom

We’d love to see a photograph if you have any Art Nouveau tapestry designs in your home. Share the pleasure!

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Bob Pejman art tapestries

Bob Pejman art tapestries form a popular part of our selection – Tuscan, Lake Como and Mediterranean tapestry wall-hangings woven in Belgium.

We have over 20 designs available, most in several sizes, such as this Vineyard Tapestry:Bob Pejman - Vineyard TapestryPejman describes his art as “Romantic Realism” though I consider his realism to be more significant than the romantic. We are drawn to his art by our desires to experience those warm beautiful settings of Lake Como, Venice, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. Their slightly exaggerated emphases are reminiscent of theatrical set designs, compounded by his insertion of urns, pillars and statues. We know that we are not seeing the scene quite as it appears, but do we care? To enjoy such scenes at home on a wintry day warms us inside.

To balance this, here is a video which explores the romantic aspect of Bob Pejman’s art, enhanced by Gounod’s Ave Maria.

What is your favourite: do browse through the choice of Bob Pejman tapestries? Mine is this street in Bellagio Village descending to Lake Como which my wife and I have hanging in our staircase at home.

Bellagio Village tapestry - Bob Pejman DesignsWhether your preference leans towards the romantic or the realism we’re confident Bob Pejman art tapestries will bring you years of pleasure; ever-popular scenes to warm our hearts and homes. We have most in stock for immediate shipping.

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Monets Garden tapestries

The series of Monets Garden tapestries have consistently been amongst our most popular wall tapestries in recent years. They are superbly woven in 89% cotton in Belgium by a family company.

Monets Garden tapestries - Giverny lake tapestryLeft is one of these Belgian tapestries in our home; proof that we love it too. This is the horizontal scene from the series which also includes a square version and a vertical one, all in several sizes. Handily, all are available with or without the antique gold border here.

Our admiration for this tapestry increased after we visited Giverny, the Normandy home of Claude Monet from 1883 until his death in 1926. As we drove into the village we were among hordes of cars: what a popular place this must be! Yet we were a little baffled that the cars were not tourist rentals but older, battered vehicles. All was revealed when a large field revealed their destination: a car boot sale!

To follow our tour you might like to visit a good website of Monet’s Garden in Giverny. We were there in late September so avoided the tour parties (most useful when we wanted to take photos of the famous Japanese bridge). We began by walking through the Clos Normand flower gardens and then through his home with its collection of Japanese prints. So far the visit was interesting but nothing special. This was to change.

Since Monet’s death a road had been built inconveniently between his home and lake. Access was through a dank tunnel under the road. This short unpleasant tunnel provided a contrast to the wonderful scene which opened up before us: Monet’s lake, his water garden. This was definitely “something to write home about”.  We thoroughly enjoyed walking around it, entranced by its peaceful inspiring beauty. You could see the influence of his Japanese prints on the design.

So our love of this fine Belgian tapestry of Monet’s Garden is understandable. Last month we had the pleasure of taking one of the larger sizes to a fine home further north on Vancouver Island. It may look small below but the tapestry itself is seven feet wide.

Monets Garden wall tapestry - Belgian tapestries

The many options woven of the Monets Garden tapestries are good news for those who would enjoy the beauty of this peaceful scene in their homes. You will find them in the Monet section of our Art tapestries.

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Encounters with a wonderful tapestry

About a dozen years ago we enjoyed a visit from the international sales manager of a Belgian tapestry weaving company. He and his wife stayed overnight. That summer evening I walked into our workroom where he had left a new sample tapestry called The Promenade lying on a table. The sun had turned to a soft orangey, pinky hue and its gentle light brought this tapestry delightfully to life.

The tapestry was one I happened to enjoy enormously; it’s still one of my favourites:

The Promenade tapestry - La tenture de la Vie Seigneuriale tapestriesA couple of years later we were in Paris for a few days where, naturally, we had to visit the Cluny Museum. The Musee National du Moyen Age is unquestionably the world’s leading museum of medieval art; a wonderful place. The highlight was seeing the Lady with the Unicorn tapestries in their own round room. The word awesome can be truly used to express this exhibit. People were in a state of reverence and awe.

As expected there were many other magnificent tapestries like the Vendange grape harvesting tapestry. In one room we encountered a very pleasing surprise.

Cluny Museum tapestries - The Manorial Life

On the left is the tapestry we call The Promenade (I’m not sure why the weaver chose this name). It is one of six tapestries in the series called La tenture de la Vie Seigneuriale, The Manorial Life. I was immediately struck by the fact that the newly woven tapestry available today is an excellent reproduction of the original I was viewing. Over the centuries this tapestry had faded only insignificantly but some of the blue, dyed with woad, varied in intensity. Today’s Belgian weaver has done a magnificent recreation of this effect.

Incidentally, the widespread use of woad for dyeing was threatened at the end of the 15th century (about the time La tenture de la Vie Seigneuriale tapestries were woven) by imports of indigo after sea routes were established to Africa. Woad merchants and dyers persuaded governments in France, Germany and England to ban indigo imports. In France, the death penalty applied to trangressors!

Matters are much simpler today and The Promenade is available to us readily in several sizes. The weaver also produces two smaller details showing figures on the left – my wife and I have one of these hanging in our sitting room.

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