Perched atop a hill in the northern tip of Manhattan, The Met Cloisters is a jewel box museum filled with medieval European art treasures. One of its most iconic works is the “Unicorn Tapestries.” These hangings depict both a sacred and secular narrative in a series of seven tapestries, and they are beloved for their beauty and craftsmanship as well as for the mystery surrounding their creation and ownership.
The tapestries, likely designed in Paris and woven in Brussels, are dated 1495–1505. An initial examination of their scenes shows a clear and gripping narrative of hunters employing bloodhounds and greyhounds to capture a unicorn. The mythical unicorn was considered to be a real animal with powerful healing properties.
Foliage and Fabrics
Authors Peter Barnet and Nancy Wu in “The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture,” explain how the tapestries’ narrative is depicted in woven wool yarns highlighted with metallic threads. The medium’s rich colors were dyed from plants: Weld (which creates yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue).
Kassia St. Clair, in her book “The Secret Lives of Color,” mentions that another use for madder was as a dye for medieval wedding garments. Woad, ideal for coloring absorbent wool fibers, was a dependable dye in creating a colorfast hue of blue. However, St. Clair explains that when it was mixed with less stable elements, as was done to make green dye, those other components could fade over time. That is why it is common for foliage depicted in tapestries to now appear blue.
Examples of these very plants can be seen in the museum’s own Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden. Barnet and Wu state that there are 101 different plant species rendered in the tapestry cycle, with 84 having been identified, including sage, pot marigold, rosebush, holly tree, cherry tree, pomegranate tree, date palm, orange, orchid, bistort, iris, Saint Mary’s thistle, and Madonna lily. The tapestries’ exquisite craftsmanship, evidenced by this realistic representation of botanicals, is further appreciated when examining the sumptuous fabrics, including brocade, velvet, leather, and fur, depicted in the figures’ fashions. These aspects help date the tapestries.
Medieval art is often filled with simultaneous references that at the time were seen as acceptable coexisting symbolism. Thus, deeper exploration of the “Unicorn Tapestries’” iconography reveals both religious and amorous interpretations. Barnet and Wu theorize that the unicorn represents Christ and the narrative scenes of the hunt parallel the Passion of Christ. In the tapestry “The Unicorn Purifies Water,” the 12 hunters could symbolize the apostles and the rosebush behind the unicorn may represent Christ’s martyrdom.
In the tapestry “The Hunters Return to the Castle,” there is an intriguing double narrative depicting two stages in the killing of the unicorn. In the first, the large holly tree above his head can be seen as an allegory for Christ’s death on the cross. The subsequent scene, equally rich with religious symbolism, includes a reference to the Crown of Thorns; the unicorn’s horn has been chopped off and is shown entangled in thorny oak branches. His body is presented to the lord and lady of a castle and their attendants. This grouping could be an allusion to the Deposition, with the lady holding a rosary as the Virgin Mary, her lord as John the Baptist, and the others as grieving Holy Women.
When viewing “The Unicorn Rests in a Garden,” striking with its lush millefleur background, one can read the scene as depicting Christ’s resurrection: The unicorn, previously killed, has come back to life. Indeed, some of the plants depicted in this tapestry reference the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ. There is a hint of blood on the unicorn’s body, a reference to the brutal wounds he received. Closer examination of the droplets reveal it is a mixture of juice and pomegranate seeds. Pomegranates during the Middle Ages could symbolize Christ, and indeed a pomegranate tree is growing above the unicorn.
An equally viable interpretation of the “Unicorn Tapestries” is a secular one, where the hunt symbolizes courtship and the unicorn represents a bridegroom. In “The Unicorn Rests in a Garden,” one can understand the unicorn as a man ensnared in matrimony. Likewise, the pomegranates bursting with seed and juice are a fertility symbol, along with other plants in the hanging. This suggests the tapestries may have been made to commemorate a marriage.
Art historians once believed they were woven to celebrate the marriage of Anne of Brittany and King Louis XII of France, although this is now seen as less plausible. Scholars also wonder whether the “AE” cipher on the tapestries represents Adam and Eve or some type of motto.
The original owner of the “Unicorn Tapestries” remains unidentified. The tapestries’ earliest written record, dated 1680, reveals they were hanging in the Parisian residence of François VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld. The tapestries are mentioned again almost 50 years later in an inventory of a descendant, stating their residence at the family’s château in Verteuil. In 1790, at the start of the French Revolution, the nobility was abolished in France and art from these families was put at the disposal of the people.
The tapestries were removed from the château during the Reign of Terror, and one account states that they were used to cover a peasant’s potatoes to keep them from freezing. In the mid-19th century, the La Rochefoucauld family recovered their lost “Unicorn Tapestries” from a peasant family and reinstalled them in their château. In 1923, they were sold to John D. Rockefeller Jr., who later gifted them to the Museum, their current safe haven.
The “Unicorn Tapestries,” a profound example of artistic achievement, complex symbolism and fascinating history, weaves an enduring spell that continues to delight and inspire viewers today.