Saturday, July 11, 2009

Some thoughts on the Unicorn Tapestries

“Within a flowering glade at the edge of a forest, one of the greatest adventures ever portrayed in the history of art is about to begin.” So begins The Unicorn Tapestries, a slim, yet very comprehensive volume published decades ago by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book’s talking about the Unicorn Tapestries: a series of seven wall hangings created in Flanders during the early Renaissance, each depicting a stage in the hunt of the unicorn.

A magnificent hunt, and a glorious story, it is. There is an air of mystery surrounding the tapestries: history has left us with no written explanation, or even narration, to accompany the evocative images. Historians have had to draw from knowledge of folklore and historical customs in order to interpret the subtle symbolism used in the tapestries.

The first tapestry, which my book calls “The Start of the Hunt”, shows a group of armed nobleman and their dogs setting off into the forest.

In “The Unicorn at the Fountain”, the huntsmen have discovered their prey. In a clearing in the woods, a little stream feeds a flowing fountain. Both the men, and the creatures of the forest have gathered around the fountain to watch the unicorn stoop and dip his horn into the stream. Medieval legend says that the unicorn’s horn contained magic that could remove snake venom from water – in this tapestry, the unicorn is making the water safe for the birds and beasts of the forest to drink.

In the remaining five tapestries -“The Unicorn Leaps the Stream”, “The Unicorn Defends Himself”, “The Unicorn is Capture by the Maiden”, “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle”, and “The Unicorn in Captivity”, we witness the death and miraculous, unexplained resurrection of the unicorn (unmistakably an allusion to Christ’s death and resurrection). The story ends with the unicorn tethered to a tree in a small, fenced-in pen – perhaps representing how Christ lowers Himself to be “captivated” by us and our severely limited love for Him? C. S. Lewis’ concept of “The Weight of Glory” comes to my mind…

Become a part of the story! Here is a link to the Met’s fantastic, interactive site devoted to the Unicorn Tapestries:

Cited in this post: The Unicorn Tapestries. Based on a study of the Unicorn Tapestries by Margaret B. Freeman, Curator Emeritus of The Cloisters; adaptation by Linda Sipress. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1974.