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The Lady and her Unicorns

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series is a set of six tapestries that have captured the imagination of art lovers for centuries. These tapestries were woven in Flanders in the late 15th century and are widely considered to be one of the greatest works of art from the Middle Ages.

The tapestry series can be seen in Musee de Cluny.

We are talking about six tapestries, not just one. Yet, they are all called "La Dame à la Licorne" (The Lady and the Unicorn). Above we see 'A mon seul Désir' (My Only Desire).

Each of the six tapestries features a different scene, but they are all centered around a lady and a unicorn. The lady is depicted in different poses, often holding or interacting with the unicorn, while a lion and other animals look on. The backgrounds are filled with intricate floral and geometric designs, giving the tapestries a sense of richness and depth.

All tapestries are about 3.7m high and vary in width (2.9 - 4.6 m). The figurative images are made from wool and silk, so without the use of more valuable threads.

On each tapestry, a lady appears with on her left a lion and on her right a unicorn. These animals obviously show some heraldic meaning, but their true meaning has been a mystery for years.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series is the level of detail that has gone into each of the scenes. The weavers have taken great care to ensure that every element, from the folds in the lady's dress to the texture of the animals' fur, is rendered with precision and accuracy.

Every time, all characters are placed on a blue island on a red background covered in various flowers and animals. This was typical 'millefleurs' (1000 flowers), a specific background pattern used in all sorts of tapestries and other arts during the Middle Ages, filling all small spaces.

Two large (oak, pine) and two low trees (holly and orange) are depicted, except on 'The Face'.

Five carpets form an allegorical representation of the senses. According to the hierarchy common in the Middle Ages, these are:

  • The lady who touches the mythical beast's horn and straightens a flagpole refers to the sense of touch.

  • The lady who takes a sugar bean from her servant and apparently wants to feed it to the parakeet on her hand, refers to the taste. At her feet is an eating monkey.

  • The monkey smelling a flower, taken from a basket behind the lady who is making a fragrant wreath, refers to the sense of smell.

  • The lady playing a portable organ while her servant operates the bellows refers to hearing.

  • The lady holding up a mirror to the unicorn refers to the face. An additional theme is the capture of the unicorn, which was traditionally done by a young virgin.

The sixth carpet has given rise to the most speculation. The lady slips a precious necklace into her jewelry box, presented by a servant. On the open tent behind her is the slogan A mon seul désir ("To my only wish"). This may be a representation of free will, which allows man to lay aside his passions and control his senses.[8] The letter after the motto is then the Y, according to the Pythagoreans the symbol of the choice between Good and Evil.[3] Previously it was thought that the lady is just taking the necklace out of the box (George Sand gave it the title "Choix des bijoux").

The symbolism of the tapestries has been the subject of much debate over the years. Some experts believe that the lady represents the five senses, with each tapestry depicting a different sense. Others have suggested that the tapestries are allegories for the virtues of love and understanding, as well as the dangers of lust and temptation.

Despite the fact that the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series is over 500 years old, they have retained their beauty and allure to this day. They have been displayed in museums around the world, including the Cluny Museum in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and have inspired countless artists and writers.

In conclusion, the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series is a true masterpiece of medieval art. The level of detail and symbolism that has gone into each tapestry is a testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the weavers who created them. These tapestries are not just beautiful works of art, but also important historical artifacts that offer a glimpse into the culture and beliefs of the Middle Ages.


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