Some of the most spectacular surviving artworks of the Middle Ages are “The Unicorn Tapestries,” also known as “The Hunt of the Unicorn.” These seven wall hangings were created between 1495-1505 and are lavishly woven in fine, dyed wool and silk, with silver and gilded threads; they are also among the most mysterious artworks, in both meaning and origin.
Throughout the tapestries, richly dressed noblemen, accompanied by hunters and hounds, pursue a unicorn through forested landscapes, find the animal, appear to kill it and bring it back to a castle; in the last and most famous panel, “The Unicorn in Captivity,” the legendary creature is shown alive, chained to a tree in a field of flowers surrounded by a fence. Although there is no definitive meaning behind these tapestries, the unicorn was a symbol of many things in the Middle Ages, including Christianity, immortality, wisdom, lovers, and marriage, and it’s also a symbol of magic and enchantment. Added to this is the fact that every element in the tapestries, from flora and fauna to clothes and gestures, had a particular medieval meaning, so it’s not surprising that their significance is unclear to scholars.
Tapestry 1: Hunters Enter the Woods
This tapestry of a group of noblemen and hunters, like “The Unicorn in Captivity,” is set against a millefleurs background: a field of dark green spangled with blossoming trees and flowers. Of the 101 species of plants represented, 85 have been identified, including the prominent cherry tree behind the hunters and lush date palm in front of the sniffing hound. The cipher “AE” that is woven into each of the tapestries — and repeated here five times — alludes to their original owners, who remain unknown.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has the tapestries on display in Gallery 17 at its Cloisters museum in Manhattan, they were probably designed in Paris, but woven in Brussels. They were first documented in 1680, when they hung in the Paris home of François VI de La Rochefoucauld. By 1728, five of them decorated a bedroom at the family’s château in Verteuil, in western France. The tapestries, which are twelve feet tall and up to fourteen feet wide, were looted during the French Revolution but were recovered in the 1850s; by 1856, they had been restored and rehung in the chateau’s salon. In 1922, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., bought them for just over $1 million, and in 1937 he donated them to the Cloisters. Their monetary value today is virtually priceless.
It is not known who created the tapestries, but there is a small cipher, showing the letters A and E intertwined by some rope, which may signify the artist or the owner of the work. From this slight hint, some experts think that Anne of Brittany commissioned the works to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII, but there is no conclusive proof. Despite the mystery, art historians have reveled in the chance to decipher them.
Tapestry 2: The Unicorn is Found
In this tapestry, the unicorn kneels before a tall white fountain that has a pair of pheasants and a pair of goldfinches perched on its edge. Other animals both exotic and native to Europe lounge about, while twelve hunters in the back of the scene discuss the discovery of their quarry. Flora and fauna play a significant role in the narratives of the Unicorn Tapestries. Plants prescribed in medieval herbals as antidotes to poisoning, such as sage, pot marigolds, and orange, are positioned near the stream, which is being purified by the unicorn's magic horn.
Tapestry 3: The Unicorn is Attacked
According to tradition, the unicorn cannot be disturbed while performing a magical act. The attack by the hunters thus presumably begins soon after the action depicted in The Unicorn Is Found, and the scene is one filled with chaos and commotion. The ferocity of the battle is conveyed by the converging lances aimed at the animal, the sounding of the hunting horns, and the menacing hounds. Already wounded on his back, the unicorn leaps across a stream in a desperate attempt to escape his encircling enemies. The use of hounds to scout, chase, and eventually attack the quarry was typical practice in medieval stag hunts, and the palatial buildings in the background might be a further allusion to the hunt as a royal or aristocratic pastime.
Tapestry 4: The Unicorn Defends Itself
Here the injured unicorn is being held at bay by three hunters ready to pierce him with their lances. He pierces a greyhound with his horn and kicks at one of the huntsmen. The huntsmen and other figures are garbed in the fashions of the turn of the sixteenth century and their headdresses and hairstyles also reflect contemporary tastes. The mastery of the weavers is evident in the representation of different materials and textures in the costumes, such as brocade, velvet, leather, and fur.
Tapestry 5: The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn
In these two fragments of a single tapestry, the unicorn appears to have been tamed. He stares lovingly at the maiden who must have subdued him and seems oblivious to the dog licking the wound on his back. However, the presence of one of the hunters blowing his horn does not bode well. Most of the maiden’s figure is missing due to the damage incurred after the tapestries were looted in 1793.
Tapestry 6: The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle
In this tapestry, separate scenes are depicted. In the upper left-hand corner, the unicorn is killed, and shown front and center is the transportation of the dead unicorn on a horse’s back. In some contexts, the unicorn is an allegory for Christ; the large holly tree (often a symbol of Christ’s Passion) rising from behind his head may conceivably be linked to this association. In the other scene, at right, a lord and lady receive the body of the unicorn in front of their castle. They are surrounded by their attendants, with more curious onlookers peering through windows of the turret behind them. The dead animal is slung on the back of a horse, his horn already cut off but still entangled in thorny oak branches—perhaps an allusion to the Crown of Thorns.
Tapestry 7: The Unicorn in Captivity
This tapestry shows the unicorn alive and well, and entirely tamed. He is fenced in and chained to a tree, but the chain is less than secure and the fence is low enough to leap over. He has submitted to his captivity. The red stains on his flank, according to the Met, “do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from bursting pomegranates” — a medieval symbol of marriage and fertility. Many of the other plants represented here, such as wild orchid and thistle, echo this theme of marriage and procreation: they were acclaimed in the Middle Ages as fertility aids for both men and women.
Whatever their meaning, the Unicorn Tapestries are among the most impressive and beautiful medieval artworks in existence. The work of perhaps several (if not several dozen) designers, painters, and weavers, their rich beauty keeps fascinating us today.
You can learn more about the tapestries in two books published by the Met: The Unicorn Tapestries by Margaret B. Freeman (1976) that can be read online or downloaded as a PDF, and The Unicorn Tapestries by Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo (2005). There's also this interesting article, "The Fruits and Nuts of the Unicorn Tapestries," by Jules Janick and Anna Whipkey.