The Lady and the Unicorn

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The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir (Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris)

The Lady and the Unicorn (French: La Dame à la licorne) is the modern title given to a series of six tapestries created in the style of mille-fleurs (meaning: "thousand flowers") and woven in Flanders from wool and silk, from designs ("cartoons") drawn in Paris around 1500.[1] The set, on display in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, is often considered one of the greatest works of art of the Middle Ages in Europe.

The Dame à la licorne room of the Musée national du Moyen Âge (former Musée de Cluny)

Five of the tapestries are commonly interpreted as depicting the five senses – taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch. The sixth displays the words "À mon seul désir". The tapestry's meaning is obscure, but has been interpreted as representing love or understanding. Each of the six tapestries depicts a noble lady with the unicorn on her left and a lion on her right; some include a monkey in the scene.

History[edit]

The tapestries were rediscovered in 1841 by Prosper Mérimée in Boussac castle (owned at the time by the subprefect of the Creuse) where they had been suffering damage from their storage conditions. In 1844 the novelist George Sand saw them and brought public attention to the tapestries in her works at the time (most notably in her novel Jeanne), in which she correctly dated them to the end of the fifteenth century, using the ladies' costumes for reference.[2] Nevertheless, the tapestries continued to be threatened by damp and mold until 1863, when they were bought by Edmond du Sommerard curator of the Musée de Cluny in Paris where careful conservation has restored them nearly to their former glory and where it is still on display.

Content and themes[edit]

Taste, 3.75 m x 4.60 m (12 ft 4 in x 15 ft 1 in)

The subject of the tapestries are complex, and scholars "now (generally) agree that they present a meditation on earthly pleasures and courtly culture, offered through an allegory of the senses."[3]

The pennants, as well as the armor of the Unicorn and Lion in the tapestry appears to bear the arms of Jean IV Le Viste, a powerful nobleman in the court of King Charles VII and presumably its sponsor. The arms however appear to break the rules of French heraldry with an incorrect superposition of colors. A very recent study of the heraldry appears to lend credence to another hypothesis - previously dismissed - that the real sponsor of the tapestry is Antoine II Le Viste (1470–1534), a descendant of the younger branch of the Le Viste family and an important figure at the court of King Charles VIII, Louis XII and François I.[4]

Touch

The lady stands with one hand touching the unicorn's horn, and the other holding up the pennant. The lion sits to the side and looks on.

Taste

The lady is taking sweets from a dish held by a maidservant. Her eyes are on a parakeet on her upheld left hand. The lion and the unicorn are both standing on their hind legs reaching up to pennants that frame the lady on either side. The monkey is at her feet, eating one of the sweetmeats.

Smell

The lady stands, making a wreath of flowers. Her maidservant holds a basket of flowers within her easy reach. Again, the lion and unicorn frame the lady while holding on to the pennants. The monkey has stolen a flower which he is smelling, providing the key to the allegory.

Touch 3.15 m x 3.58 m (12 ft 14 in x 11 ft 9 in)
Hearing

The lady plays a portative organ on top of a table covered with an Oriental rug. Her maidservant stands to the opposite side and operates the bellows. The lion and unicorn once again frame the scene holding up the pennants. Just as on all the other tapestries, the unicorn is to the lady's left and the lion to her right - a common denominator to all the tapestries.

Smell 3.67 m x 3.22 m (11 ft 11 in x 10 ft 7 in)
Sight

The lady is seated, holding a mirror up in her right hand. The unicorn kneels on the ground, with his front legs in the lady's lap, from which he gazes at his reflection in the mirror. The lion on the left holds up a pennant.

À Mon Seul Désir

The sixth tapestry is wider than the others, and has a somewhat different style. The lady stands in front of a tent, across the top of which is inscribed her motto "À Mon Seul Désir", one of the deliberately obscure, highly crafted and elegant mottos, often alluding to courtly love, adopted by the nobility during the age of chivalry. It is variously interpretable as "to my only/sole desire", "according to my desire alone"; "by my will alone", "love desires only beauty of soul", "to calm passion". Compare with the motto of Lady Margaret Beaufort (1441/3-1509) Me Sovent Sovant (Souvent me souviens, "Often I remember") which was adopted by St John's College, Cambridge, founded by her; also compare with the motto of John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford (1389-1435) A Vous Entier ("(Devoted) to you entirely"), etc. These frequently appear on artworks and illuminated miniatures. Her maidservant stands to the right, holding open a chest. The lady is placing the necklace she wears in the other tapestries into the chest. To her left is a low bench with a dog, possibly a Maltese sitting on a decorative pillow. It is the only tapestry in which she is seen to smile. The unicorn and the lion stand in their normal spots framing the lady while holding onto the pennants.

This tapestry has elicited a number of interpretations.[5] One interpretation sees the lady putting the necklace into the chest as a renunciation of the passions aroused by the other senses, and as an assertion of her free will. Another sees the tapestry as representing a sixth sense of understanding (derived from the sermons of Jean Gerson of the University of Paris, c. 1420). Various other interpretations see the tapestry as representing love or virginity. It is also debated whether the lady in "À Mon Seul Désir" is picking up or setting aside the necklace.

A new proposal from artist Heidi C. J. Hallett suggests that "À Mon Seul Désir" translates to "with my unique desire", meaning that mankind is the only species to covet material objects even as we share the five senses with animals. Whether the lady is taking the necklace from the box or putting it away doesn’t matter – the point is that she treasures it.[6]

In the first five tapestries, one or more of the animals are shown using the represented sense along with the woman. (In "Touch", the unicorn can presumably feel the lady’s hand touching its horn; in "Taste," a monkey is eating a sweetmeat; in "Smell," the monkey is sniffing a flower; in ”Hearing”, the animals presumably all hear the music; and in ”Sight”, the unicorn is gazing at itself in a mirror.) In the final tapestry, only the women engage with the necklace. The blue tent in the last tapestry also serves to separate the human figures from the natural world, including the mythical unicorn, and is not present in any of the previous tapestries.[6]

Gallery[edit]

Popular Culture[edit]

Gryffindor Common Room at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London; Taste and Sight can be seen on the right and left respectively.
  • All six tapestries are used to cover the bare stone walls in the Gryffindor Common Room as seen in the Harry Potter (film series).
  • The sixth tapestry, "À Mon Seul Désir", is prominently featured in the Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn OVA and the Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn RE:0096 TV anime series.
  • The cover art for the UnChild music album from 2014 by Sawano Hiroyuki and Aimer, which features songs from the aforementioned OVA, is based on the tapestry, replacing the lion with a black and gold unicorn, mirroring the white unicorn.
  • A fictional account of the creation of the tapestries is described in the novel "The Lady and the Unicorn" (2003) ISBN 978-0007140909, by Tracy Chevalier.
  • The tapestries are also featured in the British drama film The Escape (2017).
  • The tapestries are also described in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ See the six tapestries at the Musée du Moyen-Âge website
  2. ^ Ralls, Karen (March 2014), "Medieval Mysteries: A Guide to History, Lore, Places and Symbolism: Karen Ralls PhD, p. 180: 9780892541720: Amazon.com: Books", Amazon.com, ISBN 978-0892541720
  3. ^ De Vitis, Mark (8 February 2018). "Explainer: the symbolism of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry cycle". The Conversation. Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  4. ^ Carmen Decu Teodorescu, "La tenture de la Dame la licorne : nouvelle lecture des armoiries", in Bulletin Monumental, Société française d'archéologie, n° 168-4, 2010, pp. 355-367. The coat of arms that appears on the tapestry was attributed by specialists to the older branch and to the chief of the Le Viste family, Jean IV Le Viste, but it blatantly breaks the rules of French heraldry with an incorrect superposition of colours (blue on red). While underscoring the weakness of the arguments in favour of the name Jean IV Le Viste as the patron of the tapestry, this new study suggests the probability of the intervention of Antoine II Le Viste, the descendant of the younger branch of the family, in ordering the Lady and the Unicorn. The incorrect superposition of colours could have been a deliberate choice intended to apprise the observer, in an explicit et well known manner, that he was faced with a familiar phenomenon, that of the modification of the coat of arms by a mark of cadency. Documentary sources appear to lend credence to this hypothesis
  5. ^ Cavallo, Adolfo Salvatore. The Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York:Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998. pp. 99-100. Print.
  6. ^ a b Hallett, Heidi C. J. "Aqua Art Ideas". Archived from the original on 20 August 2020. Retrieved 23 December 2020.

References[edit]

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