Amongst 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 amongst 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.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which has the tapestries on display 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.
Whatever their meaning, the Unicorn Tapestries are among the most impressive medieval artworks in existence. The work of perhaps several (if not several dozen) designers, painters, and weavers, their rich beauty keeps fascinating us today.
For more information about the tapestries, visit www.metmuseum.org; or they can be seen in person in Gallery 17 at the Met’s Cloisters.