The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries
Last year I visited the Musèe de Cluny in Paris to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Little did I realise I would see them again so soon in Sydney at the AGNSW. However, their meaning is somewhat obscure. So, here are some ideas summary based on research by the Director of the Musée de Cluny.
The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries
The five senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight are commonly agreed to be the focus of the tapestries. But, the sixth tapestry is more difficult to explain. So, let us take a look at each tapestry.
There is a circular platform or ‘terrace’ common to each tapestry. It is like a stage where the action takes place. And, it has a green ground covered in flowers and animals. The lady is the principal player, and she is often attended by her lady-in-waiting. The lion and unicorn frame the lady and bear her coat of arms. It is is interesting to observe the behaviour of the lion and unicorn in each tapestry.
The lady stands alone with her animals in the garden of love. A sense of touch is implied by the way she holds the emblazoned banner with one hand and touches the unicorn’s horn with the other. Perhaps she has tamed the unicorn and captured his heart. Collared animals in the background emphasise this idea of capture. Her free flowing hair held in place by a tiara is a symbolic of virginity in medieval imagery. It would seem that she is a young woman in love.
In this scene the lady is attended by her servant who holds a bowl of sweets from which she feeds her pet parrot. The sense of taste is parroted by the monkey also eating a treat. The lady is engaging in the sweet taste of love. Courtly love is symbolised by the rose-covered trellis which encloses the garden. The hunt of the unicorn is also implied by the pomegranates, symbol of fertility, which adorn the lady’s belt. The lion is keen to taste the sweets, but the unicorn is clearly interested.
The lady is again attended by her servant who holds a bowl of flowers. The lady is constructing a flower garland which also symbolises courtly love. Crowning a lover with flowers was a popular romantic gesture. And the carnation was an emblem of sacred as well as profane love. The monkey has found a basket of roses, but it is carnations that she needs. And to her right, the unicorn understands this, but the lion has no part in it.
The lady and her young companion are playing a small musical instrument known as a positive organ. The lady is magnificently dressed and her hair style is most unusual. She plays the organ standing and her servant works the bellows on the other side. The lion is looking quite vexed by the sound, but the unicorn quivers with pleasure. The lady’s musical accomplishment is a noble attribute in an era of courtly manners and a sign of personal refinement. And she has clearly captured the unicorn’s heart.
This is an intimate scene focusing on the gazes between the lady and the unicorn. The lady is holding a beautiful golden mirror reflecting the unicorn’s intimate expression. According to myth the fierce and swift unicorn can only be captured if tamed by a virgin. The unicorn abandons his heraldic function to gaze at his own reflection. The unicorn in turn gracefully lays his forelegs in the lady’s lap. The lady has clearly captured the unicorn and his heart. The lion looks away into the distance taking the role of the standard bearer.
Mon Seul Désir
This scene is believed to illustrate the sixth sense. In medieval times, this was the soul, the mind or the heart giving rise to a moral life. On the other hand is was the seat of carnal desire. This dichotomy is shown in the tapestry where the lady can be either taking jewels from the casket to wear before entering the tent. Or perhaps she is returning them in a gesture of renunciation. Maybe she is rejecting the pleasures of the senses, by her own free will, or her ‘sole desire’.
The tapestries show each of the senses in a hierarchy relative to the highest sense, the soul located at the top of the head. So, the first tapestry, touch is the most distant. Next comes taste, then smell, followed by hearing. Sight is closest to the spiritual world of the mind. The lady becomes more beautifully adorned as she ascends through these senses to capture the heart of the unicorn. So the sixth piece, Mon Seul Désir, is closest to the soul or the spiritual world. The words on the tent give a clue to the meaning of the tapestries. They literally mean, my desire alone. This implies that she is using her free will to make a choice. She is either returning her jewels to the casket, or she is deliberately choosing them. Is she accepting the pleasures of love or is she rejecting them out of choice.
However, there are two letters ‘A’ and ‘I’ at each end of the inscription, which may be the initials of the two fiancés. So the inscriptions seems to refer to the two meanings of the heart, as the sixth sense.