Entering the darkened room, a feeling of awe overcame me. This was a sacred space and its contents were to be revered. The hushed awe was contagious and as each person entered the room, they automatically continued the silence. Gently lit, 6 large tapestries adorned the walls of this purpose-built space. Vibrant, ethereal, their red backgrounds warmed the room and appeared to glow from within the dark confines of the small room. On first glance, a series of ladies are visible, placed at the centre of each tapestry, some flanked by servants, others by trees and animals. On each tapestry, the lady is accompanied by two animals, a lion and a unicorn, but it is the unicorn who is central, sitting beside the lady with his hooves in her lap on one tapestry. Despite their beauty, it was neither the lady nor the unicorn which appealed most to me, but rather the backgrounds. These ‘mille fleur’ (thousand flower) designs contained lifelike depictions of flowers of every hue, small animals and other details. Alternating between looking from afar to take in the entirety of each tapestry and moving as close as possible to examine the backgrounds, the fine weaving and texture, I moved slowly back and forward. I longed to reach out and touch one, just for a second, but had to satisfy myself with merely looking. As my eyes drank in the exquisite beauty of these medieval tapestries, my mind knew this was a very special experience, to be savoured and stretched out. I know not how long I spent in that darkened room, but it felt like both a long time and not long enough. It was as if time stood still. I realised photos could never convey this beauty, I could only enjoy the moment and hold it within memory for as long as possible. Once wasn’t enough. I returned after viewing the remainder of the museum, not wanting to leave, drawn in by the spell of these magical tapestries.
A self-confessed history geek, I tend to get excited about artefacts encountered in various museums and art galleries on my travels. Some, of course, stand out more than others but very few truly capture the imagination and return to memory over and over again, long after the viewing is over.
Fabrics, papers, ancient books, clothing and soft furnishings especially fascinate me. This stems not only from my love of all things fabric and handcrafts, but also from their ephemeral nature. Historical fabrics, due to their nature, construction and frequent use, rarely survive. As a result, there is something magical about fabric which has conquered the odds and travelled from its own time to be viewed by us in our time and place, so far into the future when it was created.
I clearly remember visiting an exhibit of artefacts from Captain Cook’s expeditions and the First Fleet of English convicts to sail to Australia. Exhibits included globes, maps, letters and diaries but I found myself drawn to fabric fragments and a patchwork quilt. With my love of fabric and crafting, I was drawn to the woman or women who had carefully sewn these items two hundred years before my time.
Visiting chateaus and palaces in Europe, many items are considerably older than the convict quilt. Multipurpose tapestries adorn stone walls, serving to brighten dull spaces, insulate from the cold and muffle noise. Often faded, I find myself wondering what they originally looked like. How much brighter and more vibrant were their original hues? I am intrigued by the narratives and symbolism contained within them and amazed at the countless hours which went into their creation, from concept to completion.
A little background information
One such set of tapestries has succeeded not only in capturing my imagination, but that of admirers, scholars and historians the world over. Created an astounding 500 years ago, their colours remain miraculously vibrant to this day whilst their stories retain enough mystery to make them truly fascinating. These tapestries have entered the collective consciousness through popular culture, and many of you would have seen them. They have been featured or mentioned in novels, adorned walls in multiple movies including the Harry Potter franchise and had a ballet written about them. They are simply known as The Lady and The Unicorn Tapestries, a name so simple and unassuming that it belies their beauty and power.
Housed in the Musee du Moyen Age (Cluny) in Paris, they were created around 1500, commissioned by a wealthy nobleman. The workmanship is exquisite, the stitches unbelievably tiny, the backgrounds full of thousands of flowers (mille fleurs). This set of six tapestries, probably designed to cover the entire walls of a room, would have taken many years to weave, perhaps up to 3 years per tapestry. They are estimated to have cost much more than the annual income of the majority of the population, including many nobles. It is believed they would have been worth more than a battleship at the time. Just imagine! Oh, the decadence!
Despite their beauty, value and cultural worth, these tapestries were rediscovered in the mid 1800s within a crumbling chateau, eaten away by both vermin and damp. Sections had even been cut off to use as draught stoppers and a foot rug – a fall from grace if ever there was one. They were promptly hung in a regional town hall and negotiations were begun for the French government to purchase them. Due to their state of disrepair, extensive restoration and reconstruction was carried out during the 1880s before the tapestries were placed on public display. It is interesting to note that the chemical dyes used in the 19th Century restoration have fared less well than the original late 15th/ early 16th Century organic dyes. The lower sections were reconstructed and it is here that the bright red background has faded to pink, whereas the original reds have remained vibrant.
The magic of the tapestries
“Watch the behaviour in front of these tapestries. There is a magnetic pull which keeps sucking people back.”Tracy Chevalier
I certainly felt this magnetic pull when I had the privilege of visiting The Lady And The Unicorn Tapestries during the winter of 2014. Tracy Chevalier felt it too and it led her to write a fictional account of their construction. A quick and easy read, The Lady And The Unicorn weaves a fictional story around the people involved in the commissioning, design and construction of the tapestries.
“I was totally unprepared for how overwhelmed I was by the tapestries.”Charlotte Wood
“When you see the size of the tapestries, there is a very strong emotion. It does not depend on age. Everyone from the oldest to the youngest can find something special in these tapestries.”Musee Cluny staff member
The Lady And The Unicorn Tapestries are unusual for their period, as they are secular artworks. At the time, almost all artworks were religious. This is exemplified in the other exhibits within the Musee Cluny – stained glass windows, sculptures of the Virgin Mary and saints, highly adorned ceremonial items used in churches, rich calligraphy and illuminated texts, all related to Bible stories and figures.
The meaning behind the tapestries
There has been much debate about the meaning behind the Lady And The Unicorn Tapestries, however most agree they depict earthly pleasures and courtly love through an allegory of the senses, with each panel representing a single sense. In Touch, the lady holds the unicorn horn. In Taste, she smells a sweet. In Smell, she creates a floral crown or garland out of scented blooms. In Sound, she plays a small organ and in Sight, the unicorn views himself in a hand mirror, held by the lady. The sixth panel is unique. It contains the words “mon seul desir’, translated as ‘my only desire’ or ‘by my own free will’. Depending on the translation of these words, the entire meaning of the tapestries is altered.
The Milles Fleur background contains over forty different species of flowers as well as insects, rabbits, dogs and more. You could spend hours just examining the background alone.
On one panel, the lady holds jewels whilst her lady in waiting holds a treasure box. Some believe she is taking the jewels out to put them on, representing a young woman embarking on her sexual life. She proceeds to seduce the unicorn and holding his horn is not so subtle sexual innuendo. Others believe the lady is replacing the jewels in their box, thus renouncing or saying goodbye to the sexual life. In this version, the unicorn represents chastity, purity and perhaps even Christ and the lady exercises her free will to conquer passion with reason. In Chevalier’s novel, we meet both possibilities, a mother and daughter.
Whether you choose one of these explanations or simply admire the tapestries for what can be seen and understood today, they remain a precious gift from medieval times.
Of course, photos could never do justice, especially my poor quality ones, but here’s a couple to give you a vague idea of the tapestries in case you have never seen a picture of them before.