Lavishly woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads, the seven wall hangings collectively known as “The Unicorn Tapestries” are certainly amongst the most spectacular surviving artworks of the late Middle Ages. They are also amongst the most enigmatic, in both meaning and origin. They appear to have been designed in Paris, produced in Brussels or Liège, and for centuries were owned by the La Rochefoucauld family before being purchased by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who donated them to The Met Cloisters in 1937. For a long time now, scholars have noted that the letters “A” and “E” are in several places woven into these pictures, but despite a string of theories — such as the debunked idea that Anne of Brittany commissioned them to celebrate her marriage — no one knows what these letters stand for.
The tapestries themselves tell a story, which is likewise mysterious. “The unicorn was a symbol of many things in the Middle Ages,” as Richard Preston writes, including Christianity, immortality, wisdom, love, and marriage. Add to this that every least element in the tapestries — from flora and fauna to clothes and gestures — had a particular medieval meaning, and it’s little wonder that their significance is unclear to us. Certainly, the unicorn is a proxy for Christ. But he is also an image of the lover brought down like a stag in the allegorical hunts evoked in medieval works like Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess and Gottfried von Straussburg’s Tristan and Isolde. He is both a creature of flesh and spirit, earthly longing and eternal life.
In the first tapestry, we see a group of noblemen and hunters leading their dogs into a lusciously forested landscape, represented by a millefleurs background. A page — apparently posted up in a tree (though to medieval eyes, he would have been understood to be standing in a grove) — is here to signal that the unicorn these men are hunting has been sighted.
The second tapestry gives us our first glimpse of the unicorn himself. He is, as Magaret B. Freeman (a former curator of the Cloisters) says, “extremely handsome — from the tip of his spiraled horn to his curly beard and exquisitely plumed tail.” All around the unicorn, the hunting party stands and talks, watching their quarry as he dips his purifying horn into the water that pours forth from a fountain into a stream. (It was, in the Middle Ages, considered unsportsmanlike for huntsmen to pursue their prey until it had begun to run.) The image is notable especially for its many animals — above all the pairs of goldfinches and pheasants perched on the lip of the fountain. So fine was the textile-makers’ art, it is possible to make out the male pheasant’s reflection in the water.
The third tapestry is the most gruesome. It shows the hunters plunging their pikes into the unicorn at full gallop, struggling to escape the men and dogs just as a stag would — by cooling off and obscuring his tracks in a stream.
In the fourth, the unicorn defends himself. He gores a greyhound with his horn and kicks at one of the huntsmen.
The two remaining fragments of the fifth tapestry reveal a surprising turn of events. A maiden has beguiled the unicorn, who is now so docile he doesn’t even seem to mind the dog licking at the wound on his back. However, the presence of one of the hunters blowing his horn does not bode well.
And indeed, in the sixth tapestry two separate scenes are depicted — the brutal killing of the unicorn (in the upper left-hand corner) and the transportation of the dead unicorn on a horse’s back (front and center). Here the unicorn’s wound is clearly Christ-like, and the expressions on the faces of those gathered round suggest they are at the very least ambivalent about the success of this hunt.
The seventh tapestry shows the unicorn alive and well, and entirely tamed. He is fenced in and chained to a tree, but the chain is less than secure and the fence is low. He has submitted to his captivity. The red stains on his flank, in the words of the Met’s catalog, “do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from bursting pomegranates” — a medieval symbol of marriage and fertility.
The Cloisters’ current curator posits this last tapestry “may have been created as a single image rather than part of the series.” But a former curator, Margaret B. Freeman thought like many others that it may have been the mystical conclusion of the series, in which the “unicorn, miraculously come to life again,” stands for both the risen Christ and the “lover-bridegroom, at last secured by his adored lady.”
Whatever their meaning, the Unicorn Tapestries are among the most impressive medieval artworks in existence. The work of several (if not several dozen) designers, painters, and weavers, their rich beauty startles us into attention even today.
You can also buy a print of the wonderful final tapestry in our online shop.