The Hunt of the Unicorn

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The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle, detail

The Hunt of the Unicorn, or the Unicorn Tapestries, is a series of seven tapestries dating from between 1495 and 1505,[1] now in The Cloisters in New York, probably woven in Brussels or Liège. The tapestries show a group of noblemen and hunters in pursuit of a unicorn. The Hunt for the Unicorn was a common theme in late medieval and renaissance works of art and literature. The tapestries were woven in wool, metallic threads, and silk. The vibrant colors, still evident today, were produced from dye plants: weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue).[2] One of the panels, The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn, only survives in two fragments.


The tapestries are subject to scholarly debate about the iconography, the artists who designed the tapestries, and questions surrounding the sequence they were meant to be hung. Possibly the seven tapestries were not originally hung together.

It was posited by James J. Rorimer in 1942 that they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany,[3] to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII, King of France.[4] However Margaret B. Freeman refutes this fairly convincingly in her monograph of 1976,[5] a conclusion which is supported by Adolph S. Cavallo in his 1998 work.[1]


The tapestries show pagan and Christian symbolism. The pagan themes emphasize the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas Christian writings interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. The unicorn has long been identified as a symbol of Christ by Christian writers, allowing the traditionally pagan symbolism of the unicorn to become acceptable within religious doctrine. The original pagan myths about The Hunt of the Unicorn refer to an animal with a single horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; Christian scholars translated this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary.

The tapestries[edit]

The seven tapestries are:[6]

  1. The Start of the Hunt
  2. The Unicorn at the Fountain
  3. The Unicorn Attacked
  4. The Unicorn Defending Himself
  5. The Unicorn is captured by the Virgin (two fragments)
  6. The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle
  7. The Unicorn in Captivity

Other sources give slightly different titles and different sequences. The factors that affect this are primarily threefold. Firstly the nature of the tapestries themselves, which exhibit differences of manufacture and size, suggesting that the first and last may be independent works or form a different series. Secondly the nature of the classic stag hunt, usually cited to Livre de la Chasse by Gaston III, Count of Foix of Foix.[7] Thirdly the established story of the unicorn hunt, where the unicorn is made docile by a virgin, and then captured, wounded or killed. In addition the symbolism of the story needs to be taken into account.


The tapestries were owned by the La Rochefoucauld family of France for several centuries, with first mention of them showing up in the family's 1728 inventory. At that time five of the tapestries were hanging in a bedroom in the family's Château de Verteuil, Charente and two were stored in a hall adjacent to the chapel. During the French Revolution the tapestries were looted from the château and reportedly were used to cover potatoes – a period during which they apparently sustained damage. By the end of the 1880s they were again in the possession of the family. A visitor to the château described them as quaint 15th century wall hangings, yet showing "incomparable freshness and grace". The same visitor records the set as consisting of seven pieces, though one was by that time in fragments and being used as bed curtains.[8]

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought them in 1922 for about one million US dollars.[9] Six of the tapestries hung in Rockefeller's house until The Cloisters was built when he donated them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1938 and at the same time secured for the collection the two fragments the La Rochefauld family had retained. The set now hangs in The Cloisters which houses the museum's medieval collection.[10]


In 1998 the tapestries were cleaned and restored. In the process, the linen backing was removed, the tapestries were bathed in water, and it was discovered that the colors on the back were in even better condition than those on the front (which are also quite vivid). A series of high resolution digital photographs were taken of both sides using a customized scanning device suspending a linear array scan camera and lighting over the delicate textile. The front and back of the tapestries were photographed in approximately three foot square segments. The largest tapestry required up to 24 individual 5000 × 5000 pixel images. Merging the massive data stored in these photos required the efforts of two mathematicians, the Chudnovsky brothers.


Historic Scotland commissioned a set of seven hand-made tapestries for Stirling Castle, a recreation of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, as part of a project to furnish the castle as it was in the 16th century. It was part-funded by the Quinque Foundation of the United States.

'The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle' tapestry, hanging in Mary of Guise's Inner Hall in the Royal Palace at Stirling Castle.

Six of these currently hang in the Queen’s Inner Hall in the Royal Palace.[11] The final one is complete and will be hung alongside the others in the summer of 2015.[needs update]

The tapestry project was managed by West Dean College in West Sussex and work began in January 2002. The weavers worked in two teams, one based at the college, the other in a purpose-built studio in the Nether Bailey of Stirling Castle.[12] The first three tapestries were completed in Chichester, the remainder at Stirling Castle.

Historians studying the reign of James IV believe that a similar series of "Unicorn" tapestries were part of the Scottish royal tapestry collection. The team at West Dean Tapestry visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to inspect the originals and researched the medieval techniques, the colour palette and materials.[13] Traditional techniques and materials were used with mercerised cotton taking the place of silk to preserve its colour better.[11] The wool was specially dyed at West Dean College.[14]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The opening sequence of the 1982 animated movie The Last Unicorn was designed in reference to the tapestries, with many elements such as the fountain and lions, as well as the overall style being extremely similar.
  • The seventh tapestry in the series (The Unicorn in Captivity) appears briefly in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, adorning the wall of a corridor near the Room of Requirement and the tapestry is seen in the various common rooms (Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff) with different colored backgrounds. It also appears in Rumpelstiltskin's castle in Once Upon a Time. It also appears above Stewie's cot in the Season 12 "Chap Stewie" episode of Family Guy.
  • The tapestry "The Unicorn is Found" appears in one of the last scenes in the movie Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Adolph S. Cavallo (1998). The Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications. Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 21. ISBN 9780870998683. 
  2. ^ How the tapestries came to the Met at
  3. ^ The Unicorn Tapestries were made for Anne of Brittany (PDF)
  4. ^ "Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 2008-01-09. 
  5. ^ Margaret B. Freeman (1976). The Unicorn Tapestries. Metropolitan Museum of Art/Dutton. pp. 156 ff. ISBN 0-525-22643-5. 
  6. ^ E. J. Alexander and Carol H. Woodward (1947). The Flora of the unicorn tapestries. 
  7. ^ Bibliotheque National, Paris, Ms. fr. 616
  8. ^ Freeman (1973), 241
  9. ^ Preston, Richard (2005-04-11). "Capturing the Unicorn". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  10. ^ Cavallo, 15
  11. ^ a b "The Stirling Tapestries". Stirling Castle. 
  12. ^ "Day Fourteen...". Singing Weaver. April 2013. 
  13. ^ "Historic Scotland". The Edward James Foundation. Retrieved 2009-04-22. 
  14. ^ "Stirling Tapestries Factsheets". Historic Scotland.