The Lady with the Unicorn tapestries exhibit in the Cluny Museum is one of two places I know in Paris which bring a sense of awe to all its visitors. The other is Sainte Chapelle (below), the 13th century Gothic chapel with its soaring stained glass windows.
Why these are the most popular of our medieval tapestries? Is it their beauty, history, survival, imagery? There are about 40 versions of The Lady with the Unicorn tapestries on our website, from several European weavers. A few favourites are shown here.
Creation of The Lady with the Unicorn tapestries
The cartoons (original designs) for the tapestries were made in Paris and then they were woven in Flanders from wool and silk, probably in about 1511. The banners on each tapestry show the arms of Jean le Viste who was in the court of King Charles VII.
The limited range of colours adds to their cohesive visual strength but is due mainly to the limitations of the time. Dyes were extracted from plants and insects in a range of less than twenty colours: such as red came from madder, pomegranates or poppies, and blue from woad. (Woad was so profitable in 16th century France that importing it from the East was punishable by death: extreme protectionism!).
Imagery of The Lady with the Unicorn tapestries
Five of the tapestries feature the senses – taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch. The sixth has the enigmatic words “A Mon Seul Desir” written on the tent. These may translate literally as “To my only love” or “My sole desire” but what do they mean? Interestingly, this is the only tapestry where the lady smiles. Is she picking up or putting down the necklace; does it matter?
All show a unicorn on the left of the lady and a lion on her right. Unicorns represented purity and lions strength and valour. Some include monkeys, rabbits and birds. Each has a mille fleurs (thousand flowers) background of small flowers many with attributes and meanings commonly understood at the time. Mille fleurs tapestries were the dominant style of late 15th century French weaving.
Later history of The Lady with the Unicorn tapestries
Forgotten and lost, the six tapestries were discovered in the castle of Boussac in 1841 by the writer Prosper Mérimée in a poor conditions caused by dampness and rats. The novelist George Sands drew attention to them and they were acquired by the Cluny Museum in 1882. A poor restoration was made of the damaged lower portions causing the dyes to fade soon whereas the original colours have withstood the centuries.
The Lady with the Unicorn tapestries today
These national treasures of France are stunningly displayed in their own circular room at the Musee National du Moyen Age (Cluny Museum)– do note that this exhibit is closed from April to December 2013 for improvements to the room. The poor image below is a close-up I took years ago of A Mon Seul Desir.
Today they have inspired many musicians and authors and caught the imagination of many in Harry Potter films.