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Tapestry of the unicorn lady

Discovered in 1841 by Prosper Mérimée in the Boussac Castle, the Lady and the Unicorn wall-hanging still inspires admiration today. It consists of six tapestries: each stages a high society young lady with a maid companion, in an idyllic garden. A unicorn and a lion surround them while presenting the coat of arms of the sponsor, a member of the Le Viste family, may be John, who held an important position under the reign of Charles VIII, after 1483.


All the tapestries depict the same elements: on a kind of island, planted with clusters of vibrant flowers , of dark blue colours contrasting with the vermilion red or pink background, filled with animals or blossoming uprooted branches, features a woman surrounded by heraldic emblems, a unicorn on her right and a lion on her left, at times accompanied by a maid, at other by animals.


Five of these representations are an allegory for the five senses, symbolised by the Lady’s occupation:

  • Taste: the Lady takes a sweet presented to her by her maid and offers it to a parrot;

  • Hearing: the Lady plays the organ;

  • Sight: the unicorn gazes in a mirror held up by the Lady;

  • Smell: while the Lady makes a flower wreath, a monkey smells the scent of a stolen flower;

  • Touch: the Lady holds the unicorn’s horn as well as a pennant.

The sixth tapestry, on which can be read the motto “My only desire” (flanked by the initials A and I) on a blue tent, is more difficult to interpret.


A precious background


 By the end of the Middle Ages, tapestries are key elements in the decoration of wealthy homes. They are useful to insulate walls, but they also play an important role for the owner to display his wealth.. Their manufacture is indeed very costly and requires the input of many master craftsmen: the painter to draw the cards (cardboards), the weaver (licier) to weave them, both not necessarily staying in the same town or the same country.


The cards (cardboards) of the Lady and the Unicorn were designed in Paris by an important artist of the end of XV century whose identity has not been established, while the weaving was done in Flanders which featured the best weaving workshops in the whole of Europe. Even more than the drawings, the red background colour turns this object into a luxury item. The very fact that this red (colour) preserved its brightness suggests that the wool was dyed with very high quality of madder.


A fantastic world


These tapestries immerse us in the imaginary world of wealthy classes of the late Middle Ages. The millefleurs background creates a space which is both familiar and fabulous. Familiar because the flowers, depicted with realism, are found in our gardens (carnations, mint, lily of the valley) and the frolicking animals appear to come straight out of the forest or out of a castle (birds, rabbits, dogs, monkeys…) Fabulous as the flowers symbolise Eternal Spring where cold, disease and age are banished, while animals live in peace together. In the medieval man’s brain, such harmony can only exist in one place, Eden, the Garden of Paradise, described in the Genesis, as God’s creation.


The Unicorn, an imaginary creature


But it is essentially in the unicorn that the fantastic resides, since it is a fabulous creature with the body of a horse, the head and legs of a goat, and a narwhal tooth as a horn. Its presence reflects the importance it has in the medieval imaginary world. Medieval bestiaries, in which it is described, drew inspiration from legends, circulated since Antiquity. It is said that this wild beast can only be tamed by a virgin. Once trapped, it can be captured and kept in an enclosure, as seen in one of the tapestries of the wall hanging depicting the Hunt of the Unicorn preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of New York.


Despite its fabulous nature, the unicorn is often, in the Middle Ages,  representated in a familiar environment. It features as a real animal, like the lion or falcon, as it is the case here. Lingers then a doubt about its very existence, supported by the tales narrated by some travellers who ventured in Orient and are convinced that they spotted them. Marco Polo, the most famous among them, describes it in his Book of Marvels. Tenacious is thereafter the belief that distant and fascinating oriental regions are populated with lions, monkeys, elephants, unicorns, griffins, all as real as one another. More than a Lady, an allegory.



The Lady on the wall hanging, of delicate complexion, with vermillion red lips and golden hair, is of a beauty that courteous litterature praises since the XII century. She is not depicted as a Lady from the entourage of the Le Viste, but as the incarnation of the ideal woman according to medieval standards.


To understand the wall hanging and what it represents, it must be examined as a set. Herewith, it becomes clear that it stands for an allegory of the five senses. On each tapestry, the gesture made by the Lady describes the sens in question: she feeds a bird for Taste; she plays the organ for Hearing; she charms the unicorn with a mirror for Sight; she plates a crown for Smell; her hands lay on the pennant and on the horne for Touch.


Senses are a frequent theme at that time, and not only for artists. They are, in fact, at the heart of some scholars’ concerns who classify them in a specific order. For theologians, they enable man to understand God’s creation and to lift the soul. Sight, at the top of the hierachy, underlines the importance of light and colours in tune with God.


The sixth sense, on the opposite, where the Lady stands in front of a half-open tent on which is written the motto “ my sole desire” (or “by my will only”), is of more complex interpretation. The young Lady who plays with her jewellery seems to warn against the sensual abandonments and abuse of earthly pleasures. One is consistently puzzled by this “sole desire”.


What is it? That of the heart or of that of reason? The soft feminity of the atmosphere and the erotism associated with the unicorn endorse one way, the volontary gesture of the Lady who seems to renounce her jewellery, endorses the other one. Either way, the message conveyed by the wall hanging appears to focus on the value of balance in all matters, enabling us to enjoy sensual pleasures without being tethered to them, unlike the monkey in the  “Touch” tapestry. This undertaking is a matter of determination and of free will making men responsible for his actions. Therefore, there already is in the Lady and the unicorn a humanistic impetus, precursor of the Renaissance.


(Source - "Sous la direction de Cécile Maisonneuve")

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