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The Lady and the Unicorn: Sight

The Lady and the Unicorn: Sight

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The Lady and the Unicorn: Sight – Source

This article was first published 28th May, 2020 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Unicorn Lore: Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, by zteve t evans

The Mythical, Magical Unicorn

The rare and elusive, mythical, magical unicorn has been part of folklore and legend for centuries, evolving spectacularly into the modern age. Despite its reputed elusiveness and rarity you do not need to go far to find one these days. Unicorns appear in a range of products such as toys or works of art sold in high streets and feature in literature, films, television and much more. In the distant past it was a very different creature but it has grown into the very embodiment of purity, elegance, innocence and beauty that we are familiar with today.

Many of today’s perceptions of the unicorn evolved from the medieval and Renaissance eras where they appeared in works of art, tapestries, and coats-of-arms of the rich and powerful. Presented here is a brief look at a set of six late medieval tapestries known as La Dame à la licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn. Today reproductions of these designs appear in various places but notably adorning the walls of the Gryffindor Common Room in the Harry Potter films.

Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn

The tapestries are believed to have an original meaning and purpose that has been lost over time and their interpretation is uncertain today. Medieval people would have understood what each of the figures, motifs and symbols in each scene meant and how they were all part of an extended allegory that came together to create an overall meaning or message …

Regarded as one of the most important works of art from medieval Europe, La Dame à la licorne (“The Lady and the Unicorn”) is a set of six tapestries that were designed in Paris around 1500 and woven in Flanders from wool and silk.

The inspiration behind the book The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) by American-British historical novelist Tracy Chevalier, the tapestries hang today at Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. The French novelist George Sand (1804–1876) also made references to these works in her writing, particularly in her novel Jeanne.

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (2003, Penguin, etc.)

The meaning of the tapestries is not totally clear but on the surface, it can be noticed that five of them depict the five senses of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. The sixth one contains the words À Mon Seul Désir (“To My One Desire”). Each tapestry shows a noble lady with a lion to her right and a unicorn to her left. The background is reddish, with an intricate and delicate spread of flora and fauna (this style is known as “mille fleur” ). The tapestries also contain flags bearing the armory of the sponsor, either Jean Le Viste, a nobleman in the court of King Charles VII or a descendant of his.

On her website, Tracy Chevalier explains:

The tapestries can be interpreted several ways – as a virgin seducing a unicorn, as a woman renouncing the physical world of the senses for the spiritual world, as the Virgin Mary with Christ. The first is the most popular interpretation, and refers to the old belief that the unicorn is so wild it cannot be tamed, except by a virgin. If she sits in the woods, the unicorn will come and lay its head in her lap.

The Unicorn Tapestries by Margaret B. Freeman (2013, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I have found some more details (on the sixth tapestry) in a fascinating book called The Unicorn Tapestries by Margaret B. Freeman, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The author observes:

In the tapestry inscribed “À Mon Seul Désir”, the unicorn and lion, supporting the banner and pennant with Le Viste arms, draw aside the rich fabric of a tent to disclose the lady inspecting her jewels. The meaning of the tapestry in relation to the others has not yet been satisfactorily explained. It may be that the set was commissioned for a marriage. The jewel box with its contents in the tapestry is perhaps a wedding present from the bridegroom to his bride, and the inscription an expression of his desire for the lady of his choice.

The lion and unicorn as a pair have already been seen on a German Minnekästchen and a French marriage coffret, the lion symbolizing the strength and courage of the man and the unicorn the chastity of the lady.

Sight, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Hearing, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Smell, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Taste, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Touch, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

À Mon Seul Désir (To My One Desire), Wikipedia [Public Domain]

The Tapestries in the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Ordering the Lady with the Unicorn tapestries

To order any of these tapestries simply click on a photograph below for full details and a larger image. Then click on the Add to Cart button to enter the securely encrypted shopping cart (as safe as online banking) and we will confirm your order. Please note that this selection includes tapestries from four different European weavers three of whom have several qualities and types of weaves and of yarn combinations – we can advise which match if you are considering a group display.

We hold many tapestries in stock for prompt shipping which is free to North America or sent worldwide for $19 or $29. We make no charge on credit cards until we ship, and there are no sales taxes for customers outside Canada. All are woven in France, Belgium or Italy and they are lined with a rod pocket for easy hanging. We have been selling European tapestry wall-hangings for over 20 years.

If you are interested in the Lady with the Unicorn tapestries you might also like to view these other sections of medieval wall art:

The Lady and the Unicorn: Sight - History

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The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are among the most beautiful and captivating masterpieces of Medieval times. And almost as captivating as the tapestries themselves is their wonderfully chequered history.

These works of art were undiscovered until 1844 when they were found by French dramatist and historian Proper Merimee in Boussac Castle. The novelist Georges Sands brought them to public attention in her novels . Badly damaged by damp, they were bought by the Cluny Museum in Paris in 1853 and restored. They are now displayed in their own circular room at the museum.

The designer and weavers of the Lady and the Unicorn series are unknown but experts estimate they were woven in the late 15th century. It is thought that the series were commissioned by the Le Viste family, of which the head was Jean Le Viste, a nobleman in the court of King Charles VII, as the coat of arms on the standards, including the lion and the unicorn, represented the family.

The decorative floral background of each tapestry is the same. The Mille Fleurs pattern, meaning the “thousand flowers" is a style most associated with the Bruges and Brussels areas of Flanders in Belgium so it is widely thought that the tapestries were made there.

The beautifully woven tapestries use the L’halluin weaving techniques with bold colors and intricate detailing. Each tapestry features the same subjects, a beautiful lady and a mythical creature, a unicorn. A lion also appears in each scene. However the theme for each is slightly different. The inclusion of other animals a rabbit, birds, a monkey adds to the world of fantasy and complement the enigmatic images.

The six tapestries are said to represent the five senses taste, hearing, sight, smell and touch with the sixth often interpreted as “love".

In the sight tapestry a woman is seen holding a mirror, the ubiquitous unicorn reflected in its glass. The tapestry representing hearing sees the woman playing a musical instrument, the lion and the unicorn standing at either side framing the scene. In the third tapestry the lady is seen taking a piece of candy as a celebration of taste. The lion and the unicorn once again feature, lying on their back. Representing touch, in the fourth tapestry the lady holds the unicorn’s horn as the lion looks on. In the fifth tapestry we see the lady making a wreath of fresh flowers. The lion and unicorn once again frame the scene whilst a monkey smells one of the flowers demonstrating the theme.

Adorned by the words “A Mon Seul Desir" meaning “to my soul desire", the sixth tapestry in the series is larger than the rest and differs in theme. The tapestry depicts a lady holding a necklace whilst her maidservant holds an open chest. A tent in the image is said to represent the lady’s soul desire, which she is about to enter.

Some interpretations see the tapestries as representing virginity, based on an ancient myth that only a pure virgin could tame the unicorn. Others interpretation sees the lady putting the necklace into the chest as a denial of the passions aroused in the other tapestries. Yet another version sees this tapestry as representing a sixth sense of understanding or empathy. The latter explanation is taken from the sermons of Jean Gerson, a lecturer at the University of Paris around 1420.

The mystery surrounding the story of the tapestry has inspired works of literature. Best selling author of Tracy Chevalier, inspired by the layers of symbolic meanings in the series, decided the tapestries would make an ideal subject for a novel. Centering on a young artist man torn between Love and Duty, the story has all the passion and uncertainty of the images themselves. Her colorful and enchanting interpretation of how the tapestries came to be created did justice to the rich, vibrant tapestries.

The original Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are currently displayed in Paris’s Musee National du Moyen-Age Thermes de Cluny but reproductions are still being bought today to compliment home décor. The tapestries, rich in both beauty and history, make unique and creative wall hangings adding a touch of character to every home.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries bring mystery to the Art Gallery of NSW

By Shona Martyn

In a subtly lit, grey walled room in Paris' Musee de Cluny, The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, one of the world's most mysterious and influential series of artworks, throw a magnetic spell over their many visitors.

Author Tracy Chevalier followed up her best-selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring with The Lady and the Unicorn, a fictionalised version of the tapestries' creation around 1500. She says: "I have spent hours in that room I've been unable to leave. Watch the behaviour in front of those tapestries. There is a magnetic pull which keeps sucking people back."

"My Sole Desire" from The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series, c1500.

Sydney writer Charlotte Wood, who drew on the tapestries when writing her award-winning novel The Natural Way of Things, found the tapestries "utterly transfixing" and overwhelming — and not just because of the amazing richness of the colours, the incredibly fine stitching and the mystery around them. "Are they a tribute to love or understanding? When I saw them I just sat in the room for as long as I could and wrote a few little fragments of thought into my book," she told Radio National's Books and Arts program. Celebrated German-Austrian writer and poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his influential novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: "…there are six tapestries, let us pass slowly in front of them. But first of all take a step back and look at them altogether. Are they not tranquil?"

During my own visit, escorted by the curator of tapestries, Beatrice de Chancel-Bardelot, I remember asking: "Is it OK if I just have a few minutes more to walk around the tapestries again?" Two days later, I returned to sit quietly and ponder in front of the tapestries. I had felt the magnetic pull and I was not alone. Many middle-aged French visitors are pilgrims to the tapestries as the most puzzling of the tapestries, A Mon Seul Desir, was long featured on the cover of an iconic high school literature textbook. "When you see the size of the tapestries there is a very strong emotion," says one Cluny staff member. "It does not depend on age. Everyone from the oldest to the youngest can find something special for them in these tapestries – the lady, the jewellery, a monkey, the flowers…"

"Touch" from The Lady and the Unicorn series, c1500

Sydneysiders will be able to experience the extraordinary tapestries early next year at the Art Gallery of NSW as renovation work at the Musee de Cluny means the series can make a rare trip away from France – flying on separate planes for safety's sake, accompanied by a platoon of museum staff to oversee their hanging.

The all-pervasive alllure of The Lady and the Unicorn has touched every art form. There's a ballet by Jean Cocteau, a clarinet concerto by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, a literary novel by France's award-winning Yannick Hanael, a contemporary dance work choreographed by Gaelle Bourges in which masked nude dancers represent the tapestry's foxes and rabbits and, in the art world, artist Suzanne Husky's 2016 tapestry La Noble Pastorale, which sees the rural idyll destroyed as diggers replace the Lady and the Unicorn. The Lady and the Unicorn even pops up on the walls of the Gryffindor common room in the Harry Potter movies, although set designer Stephenie McMillan reveals on J. K. Rowling's Pottermore site that they were chosen because they were in the house colours – red and gold – rather than anything more significant.

Fittingly, it was the 19th century French writer George Sand who was influential in popularising and rescuing the tapestries. In the 1840s she was staying in a crumbling chateau in Boussac, central France, where the hangings had been languishing in obscurity for several centuries, chewed by rats and riddled with damp. "Some of the edging was made into draught excluders!" says Chevalier. A minor local official has made a "foot rug", wrote Prosper Merimee, a French dramatist, responsible for the first written mention of the tapestries in 1814. Sand recognised the immense significance of the "remarkable artefacts", "the curious enigmatic tapestries", writing: "these finely worked scenes are masterpieces and, if I am not mistaken, quite a curious page of history." Her interest threw a spotlight on a tortuous decades-long negotiation between the bureaucrats of the town of Boussac and France's minister of state education and fine arts culminating in their purchase in 1882, for 25,000 francs, for the Musee de Cluny, which specialises in medieval art. Rainer Maria Rilke's interpretative analysis of the meaning of each tapestry, published in 1910, added much to their mystique.

What is it about The Lady and the Unicorn that has so enthralled modern viewers? Musee de Cluny director Elisabeth Taburer-Delahaye says: "in part it is the extreme quality of the design, the drawing, the weaving – each one is exquisite. The general composition is simple but also refined. Also, there are the questions around the tapestries that give them a mystery appeal. What is the meaning of the tapestries – we have the five senses, but what does the sixth tapestry mean? There is the mystery of the iconography and of the unicorn which is a fantastic creature for the human mind. Then, going back to antiquity, there is the mystery of the history. We now know which family they were woven for but we don't know for which family member or when or even where they were woven. Then there is the drama of their rediscovery by famous writers."


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Unicorn, mythological animal resembling a horse or a goat with a single horn on its forehead. The unicorn appeared in early Mesopotamian artworks, and it also was referred to in the ancient myths of India and China. The earliest description in Greek literature of a single-horned (Greek monokerōs, Latin unicornis) animal was by the historian Ctesias (c. 400 bce ), who related that the Indian wild ass was the size of a horse, with a white body, purple head, and blue eyes, and on its forehead was a cubit-long horn coloured red at the pointed tip, black in the middle, and white at the base. Those who drank from its horn were thought to be protected from stomach trouble, epilepsy, and poison. It was very fleet of foot and difficult to capture. The actual animal behind Ctesias’s description was probably the Indian rhinoceros.

Certain poetical passages of the Bible refer to a strong and splendid horned animal called reʾem. This word was translated “unicorn” or “rhinoceros” in many versions of the Bible, but many modern translations prefer “wild ox” (aurochs), which is the correct meaning of the Hebrew reʾem. As a biblical animal, the unicorn was interpreted allegorically in the early Christian church. One of the earliest such interpretations appears in the ancient Greek bestiary known as the Physiologus, which states that the unicorn is a strong, fierce animal that can be caught only if a virgin maiden is placed before it. The unicorn leaps into the virgin’s lap, and she suckles it and leads it to the king’s palace. Medieval writers thus likened the unicorn to Christ, who raised up a horn of salvation for mankind and dwelt in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Other legends tell of the unicorn’s combat with the elephant, whom it finally spears to death with its horn, and of the unicorn’s purifying of poisoned waters with its horn so that other animals may drink.

Cups reputedly made of unicorn horn—but actually made of rhinoceros horn or narwhal tusk—were highly valued by important persons in the Middle Ages as a protection against poisoned drinks. Many fine representations of the hunt of the unicorn survive in medieval art, not only in Europe but also in the Islamic world and in China.

Imprisonment and Death of Mary, Queen of Scots

Three years after Elizabeth became Queen, Mary returned to her Scottish kingdom, newly widowed after a short reign as Queen consort of France.

The coddled royal was neither prepared for the coarse Scots, nor the coldness of her cousin Elizabeth. As the “second person” in the line of succession, she expected Elizabeth to name her heir to the British throne. But Elizabeth refused to formalize the arrangement.

Mary’s second marriage was to her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, a match that enraged Elizabeth I, who had not been asked permission for the marriage. After Darnley’s assassination, Mary wed James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who may have been responsible for Darnley’s murder. The public found the marriage shocking, and Mary was denounced as as an adulteress (Bothwell had been married previously, so Catholics considered the marriage to Mary unlawful) and a murderer. Soon, Mary was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favor of her one-year-old son and imprisoned.

For Mary, her 19 years in captivity would be dull and repetitive, as she was shuffled from one minor English castle or manor to another. Due to her rank, Elizabeth demanded Mary be kept in relative luxury with a small retinue of loyal servants to keep her company. But her years of boredom gave Mary ample opportunity to write her cousin letters, hoping to convince Elizabeth that they could be partners instead of enemies.

“Little is known of Elizabeth’s inner feelings for Mary,” Fraser writes, “since the English queen had learnt in childhood to hide all inner feelings, those dangerous traitors, within the breast.”

However, when Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth and take the English throne was discovered, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant with a flurry of other papers, and wished for her cousin&aposs execution to take place without her knowledge.

It was nothing personal: in Elizabeth’s mind her hard-won crown𠅊nd therefore the security and prosperity of England itself—was in jeopardy if Mary stayed alive. 

Mary, Queen of Scots was convicted of treason on October 25, 1586. She was executed by beheading on February 7, 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle, a week after Elizabeth signed the death warrant for the troublesome cousin she had never met. 

Since her birth, Elizabeth had repeatedly been taught the most important lesson for any successful royal ruler. Almost all relationships𠅎specially familial ones𠅊re in the end, only political.

Watch the video: The Lady and the Unicorn - Musée de Cluny - Paris - France (May 2022).