Revered as a French national treasure The lady and the unicorn tapestry series, often referred to as the ‘Mona Lisa of the Middle Ages’, will be making its exclusive appearance in Sydney at the Art Gallery of NSW through a generous and exceptional loan from the collection of the Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris.
Designed in Paris about 1500, the tapestries are considered to be some of the greatest surviving masterpieces of medieval European art. They depict a lady flanked by a lion and a unicorn, surrounded by an enchanting world of animals, trees and flowers. One of the most intriguing aspects of these six large-scale artworks is the mystery of their origin and meaning. For whom were these masterpieces made? What do they symbolise? What stories do they tell?
Often interpreted as a vivid meditation on earthly pleasures and courtly love, the tapestries showcase the sublime skill of medieval artisans. They can also be viewed as an allegory of the five senses – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell – as well as a sixth sense – heart or will – represented by the phrase ‘mon seul désir’ or ‘my sole desire’.
An engaging program of events and activities, including film, digital and tactile experiences for all ages, will help unravel this centuries-old mystery and illuminate the beauty and intricacy of these enigmatic masterpieces.
This exhibition is made possible with the support of the NSW Government through its tourism and major events agency, Destination NSW.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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