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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Medieval wall tapestries

Medieval wall tapestries – a history starting with the Bayeux Tapestry.

Around 500AD, when Rome could no longer contain the fierce Northern European, tribes, the Roman Empire was replaced by much smaller kingdoms. The thousand years which followed are known as the medieval period. Despite the collapse of Rome, the Catholic Church continued to be a powerful institution unifying all those kingdoms. The Church became the centre for learning during these times: in science, the arts, in medicine, as well as religious culture. The rich culture of this medieval period eventually paved the way for many of the ideas which would mark the start of the Renaissance.

Historians believe small scale tapestries were produced throughout medieval times across Europe. By the end of this period, tapestries adorned the walls of castles and churches throughout the kingdoms. Tapestries were not only used in a propagandist way, to narrate the stories of brave knights or to present Christian teachings but were practical, providing insulation and decoration for wealthy homes. Hand-stitched medieval tapestries were relatively coarse in comparison to those created on a loom. However, the tapestry weaving process did allow the production of complex imagery on a vast scale with some medieval tapestries produced in sets of several pieces. At this time a tapestry could sometimes be more than ten yards long and up to five yards wide, woven by small teams, perhaps a father and his sons. It was a laborious process.

Unfortunately, few tapestries managed to survive the wars in these centuries. However, one of the most famous medieval wall tapestries ever created did survive: The Bayeux Tapestry (Tapisserie de Bayeux). Completed in 1076, this “tapestry” (actually an embroidery) depicts and records the events which led up to the invasion of England in 1066, the Norman Conquest (see above image). Originally hung in Bayeux Cathedral, Normandy, today the Bayeux Tapestry is displayed at a dedicated museum in Bayeux, seventy metes long although only fifty centimetres high.

Medieval Tapestries were enriched with metal and silk threads producing ostentatious displays for both the Church and the aristocracy. Early in the fourteenth century, a substantial industry evolved for the production of high quality tapestries. This new surge of tapestry production was assisted by the abundance of skilled weavers and the support of many local guilds who actively encouraged large scale tapestry production. This was especially true in Northern France and the southern regions of the Netherlands. During the Hundred Year War from 1337 to 1453, Paris was considered the most influential producer of tapestries in Europe although many weavers left France for Holland and Belgium during the unrest.

The 1400’s marked the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, a period which would 14th century tapestries - the historical context in artbegin and end at different times for different countries. It marked a renewed interest in learning and brought about a definitive change in the design of tapestries, especially notable in the first half of the fifteenth century. More emphasis was placed upon the line and pattern of the tapestry narrative, rather than its volume. This can be seen in the difference between the Apocalypse Tapestries at Angers woven in about 1380 and the Lady with the Unicorn series, now at the Cluny Museum, woven over one hundred years later. Incidentally, the Musée de Cluny in Paris, now called the Musée national du Moyen Âge, is the best place to view medieval art spanning the centuries.

Mille fleur tapestries (thousand flowers) often featured local nobility who had commissioned these pieces, such as grapes harvest scenes and La tenture de la Vie Seigneuriale series including The Promenade tapestry. By the middle of the fifteenth century, a significant number of tapestry workshops, mainly based in Northern France, were exporting tapestries throughout the European countries. Today, we can step back in time and enjoy medieval wall art in our own homes, including excerpts from the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The medieval period was an epic time of knights, gallantry, myths and legends – beautifully complex, colourful scenes which reflect the period’s rich history, and thus today reproductions of these medieval wall tapestries make a wonderful addition to any home.

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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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Flemish tapestry art

Flemish tapestry art – an historical background study of Flanders tapestries.

Flemish tapestry art at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries meant primarily Brussels tapestry; the city had become the principal centre for tapestry weaving, with a character and technique quite unlike that in other workshops. Novel characteristics there were recognisable in a bias towards painting. Today the design of a tapestry is often traced to a famous painting this Old Masters selection represents these.

Such sources of inspiration can usually be adduced; for instance, the Annunciation and the Adoration in the Musee des Gobelins in Paris have similarities with Vrancke van der Stocken, while the tender yet regal Virgin in Glory (dated 1489) in the Louvre recalls the work of the Maitre des Feuillages en Broderie.

The cornice and subdivisions into triptychs framing the various episodes alone indicate an inspiration taken from pictorial works which were not intended to have any connection with weaving. This method of narration was employed commonly even in cartoons, as can be seen in the famous ‘tapis d’or’ (Cloth of Gold) at the end of the century; so called on the account of the abundant use of gold thread. The narrative tension which is so characteristic of the Tournai tapestries is suddenly relaxed and replaced by an ordered rhythmical composition calculated to reveal the quality of the woven material as well as the subtle imagery.

The stories of the Virgin in the Spanish collections and the Apotheosis of Charles VIII – recently restored to its original vast size in the Metropolitan Museum in New York – are true ‘woven’ altar pieces. The scenes are materially divided by small arches and columns in imitation of the wooden engraved and gilded cornices of church altar pieces. Later, in the 16th century, these visible divisions disappeared and tapestries were framed in figured borders of flowers and fruit, while the composition retained the earlier clear rhythm with its balance and feelings of space.

Society was always changing; and Flemish tapestry art reflected the new tastes, beginning a transformation from being ‘a woven wall’ into a fabric which, according to the prevailing fashion, was more decorative than utilitarian.

The creator of the Brussels style of weaving in the first quarter of the 16th century – a period dubbed the ‘Belle Époque’ – is generally thought to be Jan van Roome, who did the rough sketch for the Communion of Herkenbauld in the Musee Royaux d’ Art et d’ Histoire in Brussels. He was court painter to Margaret of Austria, sister of the Emperor Charles V.

We know of Knoest, who signed the Finding of the Cross, now in the Musee Royaux d’ Art et d’ Histoire at Brussels, and the variously identified ‘Philiep’ whose name is woven in to the Descent from the Cross in the same collection, a work closely related to the other Descent in the Pallazzo Reale, Naples. In both works Italian knowledge and influence is superimposed on the Flemish tradition, revealing generally the extent of contemporary civilisation across Europe.

The story of the Brussels looms, however, has still not been fully traced. Some outstanding tapestries generally attributed to itinerant weavers in the Loire Valley, have now been related to Brussels. The origin, as well as the date, of some series of tapestries remained for a long time mysterious. The theory that they were done by itinerant weavers from central France has been widely held. Among these are the six celebrated tapestries of the Dame a la Licorne in the Musee de Cluny, with the arms of the la Viste family. This decorative work of exceptional quality reflects a heraldic and courtly ideal, more abstract than real, subscribed to more as a beautiful myth than history. There are obvious affinities with certain Flemish examples, as much in the weave as in the design. A credible parallel can be drawn connecting a particular figure in the Dame a la Licorne series with certain others in the story of Perseus (private collection), and with the Illustrious Women in a series woven in between 1480 and 1482 bearing the arms of the Cardinal Ferry de Clugny. However, the Dame a la Licorne tapestries were dated later (about 1509-1513) by most scholars and incidentally seemed somewhat archaic. Recently a comparison of the background of the Dame a la Licorne tapestries with the tapestry in Berne bearing the coat of arms of Philip the Good of Burgundy, which was certainly woven in Brussels, has revealed striking similarities. Historical research has shown that the set in the Musee de Cluny in Paris was woven for Jean la Viste before 1500, probably in 1480-1490. Indeed the very existence of the itinerant weavers seems now to be questionable.

The Brussels origin of the Dame a la Licorne throws a new light on the origin of many other celebrated tapestries, for instance the Unicorn Hunt, which once belonged to Anne of Brittany and is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The same can be said of the Scenes from Pastoral Life in the Musee des Gobelins and the Metropolitan Museum, New York, of the Feudal Life in the Musee de Cluny, and of the Triumphs of Petrarch in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

The geographic region we associate  with Flanders tapestries today has a hidden richness of Flemish tapestry art.

Renaissance tapestries

Renaissance tapestries or medieval tapestries? This can be a matter of terminology though it is more historical, with the medieval period generally pre-dating the Renaissance. Throughout this overlapping period tapestry weaving enjoyed significant prestige producing memorable art.

It is generally accepted that the Renaissance began in the 15th century, ending in the 17th century. It was a time when the passion for learning was rekindled, especially in the arts, and tapestries were not excluded. Tapestries from the Middle Ages were huge narratives. However, early in the fifteenth century these medieval tapestries took on a new concept within their design. Emphasis was no longer placed solely on the sheer size of the tapestry and the complexity of the narrative.

Some of the most remarkable early Renaissance tapestries were produced Apocalypse Tapestries - Tapisseries de l’Apocalypsedue to the patronage of the court of King Charles V and those of his three brothers: the Dukes of Anjou, Berry and Burgundy. The Duke of Anjou commissioned the famous Apocalypse Tapestries (Tapisseries de l’Apocalypse) which were created by Nicolas Bataille and Robert Poinçon at Angers between 1375 and 1382. Originally, a hundred tapestries were woven for this series, of which seventy managed to survive the French Revolution. The remarkable illuminated manuscripts Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry commissioned by one of those brothers have now been reproduced as wall tapestries in three of their parts. (The one above is intriguingly photographed at the buffet table of a ship.)

When the English invaded the Loire valley region from 1418 to 1436, many weavers moved north to Arras and Tournai. These towns consequently became famous for tapestry weaving to such an extent that ‘arras’ was used to describe tapestries in various European languages and used by Shakespeare in this context.

An example of this emerging style can be seen in a series of tapestries known as ‘The Story of the Trojan War’. These were based on a composite cartoon which illustrated stories from the Trojan War. They were woven in the southern Netherlands, probably created by Pasquier Grenier of Tournai. These highly ambitious tapestries were a gift for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and presented to him in 1472. The Trojan legends were highly appealing to the Burgundy Dukes, as they maintained that Troy’s last King, Priam, was their ancestor.

By the middle of the fifteenth century a significant number of tapestry workshops were exporting tapestries throughout the European countries, mainly based in northern France and the southern Netherlands regions.

Mille Fleurs tapestries - medieval wall tapestryFrom around 1480 to 1520 the French Renaissance tapestries known as the ‘Mille Fleurs’ (above) were produced. Mille Fleurs tapestries were highly symbolic, depicting myths and legends in exquisite courtly detail and characterized by their background which always contain a collection of small flower motifs. Hence their name, which translates as ‘a thousand flowers’. Originating in the Loire Valley, these include the magnificent set of six tapestries celebrating the senses, The Lady with the Unicorn, now on display in the Musée de Cluny, Paris.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the tapestries of the Netherlands became more dominated by the Brussels workshops. Tapestry production in Arras and Tournai began to decline, whereas the Brussels weavers exacted their techniques, becoming the accepted centre for tapestry design. Here, the Pannemaker family dominated the tapestry industry during the sixteenth century. The sheer scale by which the Netherlands’ industry managed to produce tapestries has never been exceeded although war later led to an exodus of weavers to other countries throughout Europe. Tapestry weaving did continue although their quality was to become only a reflection of previous times. During the years of the late 1600’s, new tapestry centres would evolve, primarily in Paris once again.

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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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