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The World of the Unicorn Tapestries

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I am often irritated by radio announcers who talk on about the composers whose works they are about to play, some facts well known, some gathered from the internet and often tangential.

Yet, when I was working with the unicorn tapestries I wanted to know “more, more, more” about the world in which they were made.

DP118987 Defends cropped

The Unicorn Defends Himself (part)

I discovered two history books from the 1920s.  The Autumn of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga is translated from the Dutch.  The translation I have is from 1996, indicating that the book is still important.

A second, less well-known, history is Lucien Febvre’s Life in Renaissance France.  Both of these authors convey a sense of loss in describing the vitality of the era they describe.

These two books, and the energy of the tapestries themselves, persuaded me.  Pictured here is just part of one of the tapestries from the Hunt of the Unicorn series in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I’ve come to share the two authors’ sense of loss and wish I could know personally these two good writers.

 

Historians

When the world was half a thousand years
younger all events had much sharper
outlines than now.
     Johan Huizinga, Autumn of the Middle Ages (1923)

The unicorn’s realm is beyond our reach.
We cannot leap half a millennium
to dance with the lords and ladies
of the country in which he thrived.

Admiring the vigor of that age,
Lucien Febvre said we are hothouse
flowers.  The past is a mirror too distant
to give us clear sight of ourselves.

Lucien and I and Johan Huizinga
wander along cold, unswept streets,
wanting to crash the splendid parties
we are too late to attend.

Note:  “more, more, more” is a quotation from A Very Special House by Ruth Krauss.  See my post of August 28, 2013.

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More About Tapestry Unicorns

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lady0001I did not begin with unicorns.  My fascination with the tapestries began when a friend gave me a souvenir bookmark from her trip to Paris.  This lady is at the center of one of the six panels of the “Lady and the Unicorn” series.

What entranced me was her fly-away hair.  Why would a weaver of tight threads fuss with such a detail?  Why would a lady be portrayed this way?

Each of the six ladies in these panels is flanked by a lion and a unicorn.  These unicorns are not hunted.  They are tame as can be.

This set of tapestries had no original connection with the Hunt of the Unicorn Series in the Met.    Yet writers who discuss one set usually also refer to the other. Their connection is that they are close in age and have survived.

There is much to discuss: style, technique, symbolism, significance.  My reading went in many directions.

I learned that guilds are basically conservative.  Innovation was frowned upon because it may give one artisan an advantage over the others.  Designs and methods did not change quickly.

 

I also learned about the dyes:

From “Colors”:

Red made from roots of madder,
yellow from everything but the roots
of weld, the challenge is blue:
woad leaves dried, fermented, spread
on stone for nine stinky weeks.

From India Vasco da Gama
brings indigo, a better blue.

Before science can prove
the chemical’s the same, central heat
warms walls; tapestries are not needed.

Other colors were made from these three, as we learned from the color wheel in grade school.  The lion is some shade of yellow.  The unicorn stands out because he is white.

Encounter with Unicorns

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DP118983 Healing croppedA unicorn uses his horn to purify a stream of water.
Section of a tapestry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

For about two years I was obsessed with unicorns.  Not just any unicorns.  I was studying, writing about, responding to, two sets of unicorn tapestries from 500 years ago.  These are the Hunt of the Unicorn series in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Lady and the Unicorn series in the Musee du Moyen Age in Paris.

These unicorns are a different species (yes, species) from those imagined in our time.  Today’s unicorns look like horses.  The unicorns of circa 1500 are goats, with beards and cloven hooves.

They also can be dangerous.  They have magic as well as physical power, and complex symbolic meaning.

Their horns were believed to heal.  For lack of actual unicorns, the tusks of narwhals, creatures who live in the north Atlantic sea, were sold as unicorn horns.

In A Natural History of Unicorns Chris Lavers has identified some one-horned animals in east Asia.  After discounting a number of theories about the origin of unicorns as errors and mistranslations he cites a 19th century letter from an English explorer who recounts how unicorns are created by humans: the herders choose a newborn goat and bind his horns together.  Having one horn in the center of his head instead of two angling out apparently gives this kid an advantage and he becomes a leader.

When did these feisty beasts turn into gentle horses?  Was it Disney, with his stuffed animal creatures in Fantasia, or did it happen earlier?  I see it as part of a modern human tendency to reject mystery, and to insist that nature, even imaginary nature, can be tamed.  Another loss from the so-called Enlightenment.