The six tapestries named The Lady and the Unicorn were commissioned by Jean le Viste, in 1464, and are not to be confused with the seven tapestries comprising The Hunt of the Unicorn, 1) commissioned by Anne of Brittany (25 January 1477 – 9 January 1514), 2), bought by John D. Rockefeller, Jr (29 January 1874 – 11 May 1960), in 1922, and 3) donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1937. Both represent the legendary unicorn and feature the millefleurs [thousand flowers] motif. Moreover, both were made in the Netherlands at approximately the same time. But despite similarities, they are different works of art. (See Google images.)
The Fifteenth Century: The Lady and the Unicorn
The Lady and the Unicorn, or La Dame à la licorne, is a collection of six highly allegorical tapestries, housed, since 1882, in the Cluny Museum in Paris. As noted above, they were commissioned in 1464 by Jean le Viste or Antoine Le Viste (see Antoine le Viste, Wikipedia [FR], a prominent lawyer attached to the court of King Charles VII. In 1475, at the age of 43, Le Viste married Geneviève de Nanterre thereby entering nobility. The six tapestries were made in the Netherlands, of wool and silk, but designed in Paris.
The Nineteenth Century
The tapestries were found in the castle of Boussac, in 1841, by Prosper Mérimée (28 September 1803 – 23 September 1870), the creator of Carmen (1845), among many other accomplishments. George Sand (1 July 1804 – 8 June 1876), a prolific writer and very colourful figure, attracted the public’s attention to the tapestries. As one can imagine, when Mérimée found the tapestries, they were damaged. They had not been stored properly, but they are now in fine condition and are described in a wealth of details in Rainer Maria Rilke‘s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. (Wikipedia)
The Unicorn: the Dragon, the Griffin and the Phœnix
The Unicorn is one of my four main mostly mythical both also mythological and zoomorphic animals. Zoomorphic animals combine the characteristics of several animals, or the characteristics of a human and an animal and are also anthropomorphic, humans in disguise. The other mostly mythical animals are the Dragon, the Phoenix and the Griffin. However, the Unicorn is perhaps the most famous and beloved among legendary beasts and it has been a source of inspiration to various authors, filmmakers and artists, one being J. K. Rowling of the Harry Potter series of novels and films. Children are particularly fond of the unicorn. But that is another story.
For the time being, all I wish to say about the ubiquitous Unicorn is that, although he is a universal figure, there is a European legend according to which he cannot be caught by anyone other than a virgin. In Europe, the Unicorn symbolizes purity and, at times, Christ. In this respect, the Unicorn straddles paganism and Christianity as do feasts, most of which are seasonal. Christmas is celebrated on the shortest day, and the longest day is June 24th, St John the Baptist’s day.
The Tapestries and the Myth about Birds Mating on February 14th
However, just how the tapestries forming The Lady and the Unicorn series are linked to the myth according to which birds (foules; Fowles) mate on February 14th, St Valentine’s Day, is a bit of a mystery. But we do know, first, that Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 – 1400) told this myth in his Parlement of Foules, (Parliament of Birds, 1382). Second, we also know that Chaucer (from chausseur, shoemaker) had translated into English the French Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), the most important courtly, yet satirical, novel written in medieval France. Moreover, we cannot exclude an oral tradition that would link the Lady and the Unicorn and the myth about birds mating on St. Valentine’s Day. The oral tradition has its validity.
The Courtly Tradition
But it could be that Chaucer may have situated the legend of the mating of birds on February 14th in the courtly love tradition epitomized by the Roman de la Rose and in which the “Lady and the Unicorn” could be inserted. Given that they share a romantic aspect and that both are products of medieval France, a similar thread, or fil conducteur, runs through La Dame à la licorne tapestries and the myth according to which birds mate on the 14th of February.
The Golden Age of Bestiaries: Richard de Fournival’s Bestiaire d’amour
The Middle Ages were the Golden Age of bestiaries, of which the best known is Richard de Fournival’s Bestiaire d’amour. It could be that the medieval Christian bestiary had to include a unicorn or some other animal who could only be caught by the ideal woman: a virgin, and, as written above, symbolize purity, if not Christ.
* To see better pictures of all six tapestries, please click on The Lady and the Unicorn. Also, click on the above picture to enlarge it.
The Golden Age of Allegorical Works
Be that as it may, The Lady and Unicorn tapestries are allegorical, a common characteristic of medieval works of art and literature. Five of the tapestries represent a sense: touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. As for the sixth and largest tapestry, called “À mon seul désir” (To my only desire [or wish]), it could represent “understanding.”
A Sixth Sense: Understanding
In a lecture dating back to 1420, famed French scholar Jean Gerson (13 December 1363 – 12 July 1429) offered the hypothesis that there was a sixth sense: the sense of “understanding.” If we accept Gerson’s hypothesis, the Lady and the Unicorn could be about love and “understanding.”
All six tapestries feature a lion, standing on the right side of the Lady, and the mythical/mythological Unicorn, standing to her left, holding pennants or crests. Given this configuration, the tapestries could be otherwise interpreted. For instance, the Lion, the king of animals, and the Unicorn are heraldic animals. Besides, the medieval animal lore includes the animals represented in the twelfth-century Aberdeen Bestiary, perhaps the finest, illuminated bestiaries.
I should point out that the tapestries reflect the influence of the Crusades on Europeans. Crusaders discovered beautiful rugs often called “Turkish,” regardless of their precise origin. The Crusades helped shape the Western imagination to a degree that may be underestimated and/or understated.
Motifs: mille-fleurs and Animals
It is quite true that the millefleurs motif is used in both The Lady and the Unicorn and The Hunt of the Unicorn, but “Turkish” rugs also featured animals that were often very small: minuta animala, birds: aves (our majestic Phœnix), and other animals. La Dame à la licorne tapestries are ornamented with both the millefleurs motif and depictions of animals.
To conclude, it may suffice to say
- that The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are among the finest examples of 15th-century Franco-Flemish tapestries;
- that they are allegorical works, in which they resemble other works produced in the Middle Ages, and
- that they belong to a courtly tradition.