The Symbolism of ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ Tapestry Cycle

March 12, 2018 Updated: March 15, 2018

The arrival of “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestry cycle at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia from Feb. 10 presents a rare opportunity to see a work of art revered by specialists and enthusiasts alike. It has been called everything from the “Mona Lisa of the Middle Ages” to “a national treasure of France.”

Comprising six individual pieces, the tapestry cycle was made around the year 1500. Tapestries of such quality are rare, and few examples survive.

Materially, they are breathtaking. Their elaborate millefleur (“thousand flowers”) backgrounds form hypnotic patterns. The sumptuous stuff from which they are woven—wool and silk, dyed with rich, natural dyes—insulate the beholder (literally part of their original function). They muffle sound, creating an atmosphere of quiet meditation. The air is stilled, and light is enriched by their surfaces, generating a transcendental aura that draws the beholder into their complex internal universe.

“Sight,” circa 1500, from ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ series. Wool and silk, 122 7/8 inches by 130 inches. Musée de Cluny–Musée national du Moyen Age, Paris. (RMN-GP/M Urtado)

The cycle first came to public attention in the middle of the 19th century, discovered languishing in the decaying château de Boussac, located in central France. Gnawed at by rats and threatened by the dank conditions, they were rescued by the Musée de Cluny in 1882, bought for the princely sum (at the time) of 25,500 francs.

The amount paid by the Cluny museum would have represented just a fraction of the original cost of their production, however. Tapestries of such quality would have commanded more than the annual income of all but the richest members of the nobility, and far more than Michelangelo was paid to paint the Sistine ceiling.

Unsurprisingly then, the patron of the cycle came from a noble family with close ties to the French monarchy—the Le Viste [family]. This is made clear from the heraldic symbols shown in the tapestries themselves. They were most likely designed by the “Master of Anne of Brittany” (so called because he designed a book of hours for the French queen, Anne of Brittany), a preeminent artist of the day.

Though we might fixate on the artist who designed the composition, tapestries were made collaboratively, and “The Lady and the Unicorn” cycle was probably woven in the Southern Netherlands, not France, for the standard of weaving was higher there.

“Hearing,” circa 1500, from ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ series. Wool and silk, 145 1/4 inches by 114 1/8 inches. Musée de Cluny–Musée national du Moyen Age, Paris. (RMN-GP/M Urtado)

Given the effort and investment required to produce them, it is little surprise that the subject of the tapestries is complex—something worthy of more than a mere glance. The meaning of the cycle has been much debated. Experts now (generally) agree that they present a meditation on earthly pleasures and courtly culture, offered through an allegory of the senses.

Five of the tapestries each depict one of the senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight). Each shows a woman (the “Lady” of the title) performing some action intended to exemplify the sense in question. In “Smell,” the Lady is presented with a dish of carnations. In “Hearing,” she plays at an organ. In “Sight,” she holds a mirror, which reflects the image of a unicorn that rests in her lap.

Each of these gestures is presented with much charm and grace, conveyed through gently curving lines that show no sharp transitions. Yet, all is not as peaceful as it may seem. For there is a sixth tapestry. Though it is clear that all six are meant to form a unit, as each displays the same basic format and figures, the sixth work breaks the pattern of the other five.

Here, the Lady is depicted returning jewels (worn in the other tapestries) to a casket. She stands before a tent emblazoned with the words “mon seul désir” (“my only desire”). Her action does not connect with sensory or empirical experience, as with the other five, but is instead driven by some alternate force—cognition, moral reasoning, or emotion.

“Smell,” circa 1500, from “The Lady and the Unicorn” series. Wool and silk, 144 7/8 inches by 126 3/4 inches. Musée de Cluny–Musée national du Moyen Age, Paris. (RMN-GP/M Urtado)

A Sixth Sense

A sixth sense is represented in this sixth tapestry, which presents a further way of knowing the world. This sense seems to have not one, but multiple dimensions. Intellectually, it may be thought of as common sense, or “internal” sense. Morally, it may be understood to encapsulate neo-platonic philosophy’s emphasis on the soul as the source of beauty (read the “good”). In terms of courtly rhetoric, the sixth sense may be thought of as the heart, the source of courtly love and the home of complex or competing forces—free will, carnal passion, desire.

It is this sixth sense that leads the Lady to return her jewels to her casket. The gesture may be read as a sign of her virtue, an expression of the dominance of her reason over the physical sensations she experiences in the other tapestries, or of the will as the center of being. In this interpretation, the phrase “mon seul désir” could be read not as “my sole desire” but “by my own free will.”

This multilayered approach to interpreting the tapestries is echoed in other, localized features. For instance, the unicorn, which is represented in all six tapestries, embodies various, overlapping meanings. Unicorns were common heraldic animals and frequently appear in courtly literature. Since the 2nd century, they were understood to represent chastity or purity. Certainly, this meaning connects with the reading of the “Mon Seul Désir” tapestry offered above.

“Touch,” circa 1500, from “The Lady and the Unicorn” series. Wool and silk, 146 7/8 inches by 141 inches. Musée de Cluny–Musée national du Moyen Age, Paris. (RMN-GP/M Urtado)

The unicorn also acts as a canting emblem—that is, a pun on the name of the patron. “Le Viste” may be pronounced more like “Le Vite” in French, meaning fast. Fast, like a unicorn.

The inclusion of the unicorn also contributes to the sense that the tapestries intentionally encourage a viewer to evaluate types of knowledge or understanding. Representations of unicorns (both past and present, it could be argued) raise questions regarding how we come to know, and how empirical knowledge exists alongside tradition, culture, imagination, and creative expression.

More than a series of objects with remarkable aesthetic, historical, and economic significance, “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries offer an opportunity to confront how different forms of understanding and experience overlap to form beliefs, shape perspectives, and precipitate action.

“Taste,” circa 1500, from “The Lady and the Unicorn” series. Wool and silk, 148 3/8 inches by 183 ½ inches. Musée de Cluny–Musée national du Moyen Age, Paris. (RMN-GP/M Urtado)

Mark De Vitis is a lecturer in art history at the University of Sydney in Australia. This article was originally published on The Conversation.