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The tapestries of “The Lady and the Unicorn” at the Musée de Cluny in Paris have enchanted many ...
2021-08-24 09:00:00

The Lady and the Unicorn
Tapestries from the Musée de Cluny

“The Lady and the Unicorn”, Musée de Cluny
The Lady and the Unicorn
The Lady and the Unicorn

The best place to get lost would be among the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Agnieszka Drotkiewicz takes us on an extraordinary journey in the footsteps of George Sand (and others).

Read in 13 minutes

George Sand’s muddy shoes

The red is saturated and you can see the abundance of plants against it. Some of them are easy to identify, even for a moderately skilled naturalist: lily of the valley or daffodils here, wild strawberries there. Is this what the writer George Sand saw under her feet on a rainy day at Boussac Castle? It is hard to believe that Count de Carbonnière, one of the owners of the castle, would decide to place tapestries on the floor instead of carpets, but who knows?

There are some uncertainties and doubts surrounding the six tapestries depicting a lady and unicorn, exhibited today at the Musée de Cluny (or Musée National du Moyen Âge) in Paris. So perhaps this version is true: Sand, wiping her muddy shoes, looked carefully at the carpet on the floor. At that time, Boussac Castle was the seat of the sub-prefecture, and the writer came to settle official matters related to her house in nearby Nohant. The plant motif on the fabric reminded her of tapestries from the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. She forgot about the official business and asked whether there were any more tapestries. It turned out that yes, there were six – Sand’s notes mention eight tapestries; two of them were lost. Each one depicts a lady, her companion – both in gorgeous dresses – and a unicorn, as well as other animals and plants.

Were the tapestries really on the floor or did they hang on the wall, to warm the raw interior? They were certainly damaged by rodents and the damp in the castle. This, however, did not diminish their astounding beauty. “These tapestries show great craftsmanship and taste combined with the large knowledge of an artist whose name we do not know today. […] The texture, matte and shiny fabrics, the stylish cut of the garments, the glimmer of jewels, and even the transparency of the muslin are conveyed with awareness and lightness, that withstood the passage of time and neglect,” Sand wrote in an article for the magazine L’Illustration in 1847. She shared her discovery with Prosper Mérimée, with whom she had previously had an affair.

Mérimée was not only a writer (the author of, among others, the novel Carmen, which provided the narrative axis for Bizet’s opera), but also a historian, archaeologist, and inspector general of historical monuments. He persuaded Edmond du Sommerard, the chief curator of the Musée de Cluny in Paris, to acquire the tapestries. However, before they left for the city of lights, some years had passed, and in the meantime Sand negotiated a ‘fee’ for her discovery – occasionally she spent a few days in Boussac Castle (she occupied several rooms there), alone with the lady and the unicorn.

A thousand flowers

The light in the preceding rooms darkens gradually. A narrow semi-dark corridor leads to the room where the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn are now displayed. On the walls there are excerpts from novelists and poets who also relished the lady and the unicorn, including a passage from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Sometimes, discreet mediaeval music can be heard. Every time I enter this room, I am thrilled, moved, and glad that I can visit the unicorns again.

The backdrop of the tapestries is red – the silk and woollen threads from which they are woven were dyed with an extract obtained from the dyer’s madder. The yellow colour comes from dyer’s rocket (mignonette), and the blue from dyer’s woad (Asp of Jerusalem). Conservators also used these natural plant dyes during recent restoration work. Against the red background, there is a navy blue island that decorates all tapestries. On each of the islands there is the somewhat preoccupied lady, most often accompanied by another, slightly more modest (also in terms of size) woman, a unicorn, a lion, and many adorable little animals, including a dog, monkey and rabbit. Plants – flowers and trees depicted with the majesty of the Garden of Eden, provide the charm of the tapestries. Millefleurs – ‘a thousand flowers’ – is the name of the tapestries from this period, where genre scenes are presented against the background of the richness of flora. Another example of a millefleurs tapestry from this period is The Unicorn in Captivity, located at the Cloisters museum in New York.

A thousand flowers attract attention. Visitors examine individual leaves, fruits and flowers – white and pink lilies of the valley, carnations and roses, pine trees with cones, holly with its red fruit, an oak and an orange tree. However, back then it was not the tree-giving fruit that we know today. The only orange tree known in Europe at that time was one giving bitter orange flower water. Its botanical and symbolic peculiarity is that it produces flowers and fruits simultaneously. The white of the flowers symbolizes purity, while the fruit symbolizes fertility. Because of this symbolism, wedding headdresses were woven from orange flowers. The art historian Sophie de Gourcy notes that it is very likely that this series of tapestries was intended as a gift for a fiancée or a kind of tribute to a wife.

Each of the tapestries features banners with the coats of arms of the Le Viste family. Heraldry experts note that in this coat of arms the colours are combined in violation of the strict rules of this art – and this is one of the many secrets related to these pieces. Another uncertainty is which of the Le Viste men could have ordered their creation around 1480–1500. These tapestries are luxurious objects – both because of their dimensions (each is slightly different, but they are all more than three-metres high and almost three to five metres wide) and the amount of effort that had to be put into making them. First, a cardboard design was created in Paris, and later they were woven in Flanders. Work could only take place during daylight, and changing the colours of the thread was enormously time-consuming.

The Le Viste family from Lyon did not lack the funds for such purchase – they made their fortune in the silk trade. Ordering expensive tapestries was believed to be one way of confirming the family’s standing, their advancement on the social ladder, and their rise to aristocracy. Tracy Chevalier, the author of best-selling historical novels (including the Girl with a Pearl Earring, turned into a film), describes the threads of love woven into these tapestries in her novel The Lady with a Unicorn. Chevalier combines historical and fictional themes, but love certainly must have been involved in the creation of these tapestries. Another example of the presence of The Lady and the Unicorn in popular culture is the film adaptation of the Harry Potter novels. On the walls of the Gryffindor common room, we can see a millefleurs featuring a red background and the silhouettes of a lady and unicorn – exact copies of the tapestries that delighted Sand, on display today in the Paris museum.

Who controls the senses?

Svelte and slender, with small breasts, long fair hair and light eyes – the lady depicted in these tapestries embodies the ideals of late mediaeval beauty. She seems to be an image of an ideal woman, a ‘beautiful lady’ known from mediaeval court literature, rather than a representation of a real person. Her dresses are extremely sophisticated: they are made of shimmering brocade, with a tasteful cut, combined with rich jewellery. My guess is that they may have been among the inspirations for the Game of Thrones costume designers – especially when it comes to Cersei Lannister’s dresses. The dresses of our lady’s companion are more modest, but still beautiful – she appears much smaller in accordance with the mediaeval principle that people of lower social rank should be depicted just so.

What scenes are playing out on the individual tapestries? In one of them, the lady is reaching for a sweet, while the parrot sitting on her other hand is about to eat a small fruit. The monkey sitting at the lady’s feet also bites into a fruit. On another, the lady is making a garland of flowers, while a monkey sits on a basket full of cut roses, sniffing one of the flowers. In the next one, a lady is playing organetto. The lion and the unicorn seem to be listening attentively (interestingly, the images of the lion and the unicorn also embellish the portative organ). In the final two tapestries, the lady is the closest to the unicorn – on one she is touching the unicorn’s horn with her hand, on the other it is resting its hoofs on her knees, while she is embracing its neck and showing the unicorn its reflection in the mirror; the unicorn is probably glad of what it is seeing, smiling at the reflection. What we are seeing are allegories of the five senses: taste, smell, hearing, touch and sight.

De Gourcy believes that the series of tapestries has pedagogical overtones – the female figure on it is a teacher who shows the viewer how to control their senses. According to De Gourcy, the senses that were particularly important at the time were sight and hearing, the ‘noble’ senses linked to aiding and preserving memory. The other three ‘bodily’ senses – taste, smell and touch – were regarded as less important. She draws attention to the ideals of perfection present in the Middle Ages and various morality plays aimed at reaching this ideal. On one of the tapestries we can see a monkey on a chain, and the monkey in mediaeval iconography depicted a lack of control of the senses, indulgence – notes de Gourcy. Another clue that would seem to confirm this interpretation is the rope-like belt on one of the lady’s dresses (she is dressed differently in each of the tapestries). De Gourcy sees this as a reference to Saint Francis of Assisi and his enthusiasm for modesty.

But is The Lady with the Unicorn really a strict Christian morality play? And what does it mean to ‘control one’s senses’? To abandon all pleasure that comes from the senses? Or rather, to learn how to make use of them? Other scholars, including Élisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, the long-time director of the Musée de Cluny (that is, the ‘home’ of The Lady and the Unicorn), believe that one of the characteristics of the Middle Ages was ambiguity, so several interpretations can be valid. The date of creation of the tapestries, i.e., the turn of the 16th century, is closer to the early Renaissance and humanism that celebrated humanity in all its dimensions, including those related to the body. The charm that emanates from these tapestries, the subtlety with which the lady, the unicorn and other protagonists of the depicted scenes move around their world, and the joy they express seem to me to be an affirmation of the senses, an invitation to explore them.

My only desire

“The five senses have been of interest to philosophers since antiquity, Plato and Aristotle wrote about them. In the Middle Ages, many texts focusing on the senses were written. They were combined with four elements, and so: earth is touch; water is taste, air – smell and hearing, and fire – sight,” we can read in the Musée de Cluny, in the room leading to the tapestry collection. There are, however, five senses and six tapestries.

So what does the sixth tapestry represent? The ‘sixth sense’, intuition? The sixth tapestry is the biggest mystery – it may have been part of a triptych (along with the two missing tapestries). In this sixth, the largest tapestry, the lady takes off her jewellery and puts it back in the box that her companion is holding. Behind them, we can see a tent made of expensive fabric with the inscription ‘À Mon Seul Désir’ (‘To my only desire’). Some people believe that the ‘À’ is part of the initial, so you can read it as ‘My only desire’. What is this desire? Disconnecting from material goods, rising above them – this is one of the interpretations. A Christian reading would see the Lady as Mary and the unicorn as Christ. A number of legends claim unicorns can only be captured by virgins – this is the theme of the Unicorn Tapestries housed at the Cloisters museum in New York. In one of the tapestries from this series, The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (or The Unicorn in Captivity), it is confined in a garden against the background of the millefleurs below a tree laden with pomegranates – a mediaeval symbol of fertility and marriage. So the unicorn is also a symbol of love, sex, and its horn seems to be a not-so-subtle allusion to an erection.

“The Lady and the Unicorn”
“The Lady and the Unicorn”

The Lady with the Unicorn is so enigmatic, that it is sometimes called the Gioconda of the Middle Ages. What appeals to me is the notion of inscribing the senses into a greater order, connecting them with the four elements, but also with colours, planets and atmospheric phenomena. Nearby, a dozen or so metro stations away, is the André Citroën Park designed by the outstanding gardener, philosopher and landscape architect Gilles Clément. The park features six closed, small gardens reminiscent of mediaeval hortus conclusus, each represented by a different colour, sense, planet and ore.

Perhaps there is more mystery and uncertainty in the story of these tapestries than there are hard facts – but therein rests the seductive power of The Lady and the Unicorn.

 

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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Agnieszka Drotkiewicz

is a writer. She has published several novels (“Paris London Dachau”, “Dla mnie to samo”, “Teraz”, “Nieszpory”) and collected interviews (two conducted along with Anna Dziewit: “Głośniej! Rozmowy z pisarkami” and “Teoria trutnia i inne”; and two by herself: “Jeszcze dzisiaj nie usiadłam” and “Piano rysuje sufit”). Agnieszka also published “Dusza światowa” – an extended interview with Dorota Masłowska. Together with Ewa Kuryluk, she wrote a book in the form of a conversation (“Manhattan i Mała Wenecja”), for which they received the Warsaw Literary Premiere Award.