5 things you need to know about The Lady and the Unicorn

19 March 2018

Image: The Sixth Tapestry - My Sole Desire
Image: The Sixth Tapestry - My Sole Desire

Captivating in beauty, craftsmanship, mystery and origin, The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are considered to be some of the greatest surviving masterpieces of medieval European art. They are revered as a French national treasure and have even been called the "Mona Lisa of the Middle Ages".

Designed in Paris in about 1500, the tapestries are usually displayed in the Musée de Cluny - Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. In only the third time out of France in 500 years, the magnificent artworks are now in Sydney displaying at the Art Gallery of NSW until 24 June 2018.

While little is known of who created the tapestries, they were eventually rediscovered hanging in the Château de Boussac, a small castle in Creuse in central France. The six tapestries depict a lady flanked by a lion and a unicorn, surrounded by an enchanting world of animals, trees and flowers.

But what is the significance of the unicorn? And what is the meaning behind the tapestries?

In celebration of this rare masterpiece visiting Australia, 3rd year Bachelor of Arts (majoring in Art History) student, Imogen King, went along to the exhibition. Find out the 5 things you need to know about The Lady and the Unicorn, unravelled by Imogen.

1. Tapestry of a thousand flowers

The Lady and the Unicorn uses a particular tapestry style called Millefleur- literally 'thousand flowers'. It describes the embellishing of tapestry backgrounds with floral motifs. It's a very specific French style, only used over the relatively short period of one hundred and fifty years- though it's peak is around 1500- at the same time as The Lady and the Unicorn is made. Looking at the tapestry it is possible to identify dozens of distinct flower and plant types, including pansy, lily of the valley, daisy, carnation, and daffodil. They create the effect of a romantic garden, while also often holding symbolic meaning.

2. Why unicorns?

Unicorns were genuinely believed to exist at the time of this tapestries making. It was thought they could sense evil, and that their horn could purify poisons, unfortunately (and potentially conveniently) they were impossibly quick, and nearly impossible to catch. For people at the time they had strong associations with chastity, purity, goodness, and nobility. They had an affinity with virgins, it was believed that the only people who could catch unicorns were young, virginal women. We can assume the lady of the tapestries is a virgin through her ability to tame the unicorn. It's also signified through her unbound hair as married French women worn their hair up. The unicorn as a subject of the tapestries illustrates a sense of goodness and virtue in the action taking place.

3. On courtly love

The medieval nobility was obsessed with the notion of 'Courtly Love'. Inspired by romantic literature about knights in shining armour and princesses, courtliness evoked nobility, chivalry, moral goodness, refinement, and generosity. Throughout the first five tapestries, the lady illustrates her courtly refinement in her exploration of the senses. However, the presence of the unicorn also offers a reading of the work as a piece of romance. Knights being chivalrous and moral were represented metaphorically as unicorns, agents of good, only tameable by fair maidens. The relationship of the lady and the unicorn is sometimes read as a romantic narrative, the unicorn a representation of her knight in shining armour.

4. As seen in Harry Potter

The Sixth tapestry, 'My only desire', has a featuring role as the Gryffindor common rooms main wall décor in the 'Harry Potter and the Philosophers' stone film. In the film, it creates a sense of warmth and comfort. Quite fitting as part of the appeal of tapestries was that they functioned as insulation in draughty castles as well as pieces of art. It's a great piece of filmic design, as the tapestry too evokes notions of the courtly - that is the courageous, noble, and chivalrous, particularly through its motifs of the lion and the unicorn - symbolism that JK Rowling also draws upon five-hundred years later in her creation of the Hogwarts house of bravery and chivalry.

5. What does it all really mean?

Much of the nuance of the meaning of these tapestries has been lost to time. Symbolism changes, and no surrounding documentation exists. We know the first five tapestries refer to the five senses and courtliness. However, the final tapestry refers to a sixth sense, with phrase 'My only desire' emblazoned on the lady's tent. In this the lady seems to reject a chest of jewels featured in earlier tapestries. It seems her desire involves abandoning the sensory things that have categorised the previous five tapestries. The final sense is immaterial - something inwards, the soul, or heart perhaps. Perhaps her sole desire is the abandonment of the worldly, and the courtly. This meaning is up for debate, even amongst Art Historians, so take the time to interpret it for yourself.

For more information about The Lady and the Unicorn, read 'Explainer: the symbolism of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry cycle' in The Conversation written by Dr Mark De Vitas.

We're on Instagram! Watch our Instagram story highlight to see Imogen's day at The Lady at the Unicorn. Follow @artss_sydney.

Image: Imogen visiting The Lady and the Unicorn'
Image: Imogen visiting The Lady and the Unicorn'