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 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.