Do the Unicorn Tapestries Tell Christ’s Story?

Is the Story of Christ Portrayed in the Unicorn Tapestries?


The Unicorn Tapestries (known also as The Hunt of the Unicorn ) is a set of seven tapestries housed today at the Cloisters, in Fort Tryon Park, northern Manhattan, New York. Incidentally, the Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and America’s only museum dedicated exclusively to medieval art.

The Unicorn Tapestries is one of the best-known and finest pieces of artwork from the Middle Ages. Apart from its high quality, the Unicorn Tapestries are also an enigmatic pieces of art and which have generated much discussion, especially the origin and symbolism, among scholars for over a century.

The Unicorn Tapestries consists of seven tapestries, each measuring 12 feet (3.66 meters) in height, and up to 14 feet (4.27 meters) in width. One of the tapestries, which is known as The Unicorn is Captured by the Virgin was severely damaged in the past and survives today in two fragments. The six other tapestries are complete and are named as follows: The Start of the Hunt, The Unicorn at the Fountain, The Unicorn Attacked, The Unicorn Defends Itself, The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle, and The Unicorn in Captivity .

From the name of the tapestry set as a whole, as well as the individual ones, it is clear that the subject of this artwork is a unicorn hunt. For scholars and art historians, the tapestry set does not merely depict a hunt, but is filled with symbolic meaning , more of which will be discussed later on in the article.

The Origin of the Unicorn Tapestries

The history of the tapestries is as fascinating as its subject matter. Based on the materials used, and the clothes and fashioned depicted, the tapestries are thought to have been produced around the end of the 15th / beginning of the 16th century, i.e. between 1495 and 1505. It is also speculated that the tapestries were designed in Paris but woven in Brussels.

One tradition states that the tapestries were commissioned by Anne of Brittany to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII, the king of France. Unfortunately, no documentation about the tapestries is available from this period, so we know neither about its commission, nor its sequence of hanging.

Queen Anne in prayer, she may have commissioned the Unicorn Tapestries as a gift to her new husband. (Kaho Mitsuki / Public Domain )

The first documentation that we have today of the Unicorn Tapestries is from 1680, and states that they were hung in the home of François VI, Duc de la Rochefoucauld, a French nobleman and writer, in Paris. By 1728, five of the tapestries were moved to the family’s château in Verteuil, in the southwestern department of Charente, where they decorated a bedroom.

During the French Revolution, the tapestries were looted, but were fortunately spared from destruction, allegedly because they did not show any signs of royalty. Apparently, the peasants who came into possession of the tapestries used them as blankets for the potatoes in their barns to prevent them from freezing, and also to cover their espalier trees.

It is assumed that it was during this period that the tapestries were damaged, especially the one known as The Unicorn is Captured . During the 1850s, a countess, who was a descendant of the de la Rochefoucauld family, set out to collect the family’s objects that were lost during the French Revolution.

On one occasion, she found some ‘old curtains’ covering vegetables in a barn and realized that they were her family’s Unicorn Tapestries. She brought them back, and by 1856, the tapestries were restored, and hung in the château’s salon.

In 1922, the six complete tapestries were sent by the de la Rochefoucauld family to New York for an exhibition. There, they were seen and purchased by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the only son of John D. Rockefeller, an American business magnate widely considered to be one of the richest Americans in history. Rockefeller Jr. kept the Unicorn Tapestries in his apartment until 1937, when they were donated to the Cloisters.

Incidentally, the fragments of The Unicorn is Captured were purchased by Rockefeller Jr. separately from Count Gabriel de la Rochefoucauld. In 1938, the Cloisters was opened, and all seven pieces of the Unicorn Tapestries were displayed in the museum.

As a side note, the Cloisters is named as such due to the fact that the museum was built using parts obtained from five medieval abbeys in France – Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-sur-Baïse, and Froville. The stones of these abbeys were disassembled piece by piece, shipped to New York, then reconstructed and integrated as a new building, i.e. the Cloisters.

What Do the Unicorn Tapestries Represent?

The first piece of the Unicorn Tapestries is known as The Start of the Hunt or The Hunters Enter the Woods . In this tapestry, a group of five men are seen. Three of the men are standing together, the one in the center being the seigneur of the hunt, and the two beside him probably his guests.

The other two men are the attendants of the hunters. There is also a smaller figure of a man in the background, possible a scout of the hunting party, and hunting dogs are also depicted in the tapestry. The figures are set against a faunal background, like the rest of the tapestries.

The first tapestry of the Unicorn Tapestries - The Start of the Hunt or The Hunters Enter the Woods. (The Public Domain Review / Public Domain )

In the Start of the Hunt , the entire background is covered in trees with dark green leaves and flowers. Scholars have identified 101 species of plants in the Unicorn Tapestries, 85 of which are found in this first tapestry. The foliage in this tapestry serves not only an aesthetic purpose, but a symbolic one as well.

As an example, the walnut is supposed to be a symbol for Christ. The outer sheath is supposed to represent Christ’s flesh, the shell, the cross on which he was crucified, and the kernel, his divinity. Alternatively, the walnut may be considered to be a sign of durability.

While the first piece of the Unicorn Tapestry presents the hunter, the second one introduces the hunted. This piece is called The Unicorn at the Fountain , and is known alternatively as The Unicorn is Found , and The Unicorn Cleanses the Stream of Poison with its Horn . The central figure of this scene is the unicorn, a mythological animal which may be described as a horse with a single horn on its forehead.

In Europe, the earliest description of the unicorn is found in the writings of Ctesias, a Greek historian and physician who lived during the 5th century BC. In his Indica (now lost, but preserved as excerpts by other ancient writers), Ctesias wrote that in India, there were “wild asses as large as horses, or even larger”. The body of these animals was white, their head dark red, their eyes bluish, and “have a horn in their forehead about a cubit in length”.

Ctesias goes on to describe the creature’s horn and its magical property, “The lower part of the horn, for about two palms distance from the forehead, is quite white, the middle is black, the upper part, which terminates in a point, is a very flaming red. Those who drink out of cups made from it are proof against convulsions, epilepsy, and even poison, provided that before or after having taken it they drink some wine or water or other liquid out of these cups”.

In The Unicorn at the Fountain , the unicorn is shown sticking its horn into a stream of water and may be an allusion to its anti-poison property of its horn, as mentioned by Ctesias. Like the first tapestry, various plants can be seen in this one, and are connected to the magical property of the unicorn’s horn. There is, for instance, sage, which is believed to function against poisons, in silhouette against the fountain.

An orange tree is also depicted in the lower right of the tapestry. It was believed that orange seeds in hot water and wine provided resistance against poisons. Additionally, there are various animals around the unicorn, including lions, a stag, rabbits, and pheasants, each of which have their own symbolism.

The second tapestry of the Uni corn Tapestries - The Unicorn at the Fountain . (The Public Domain Review / Public Domain )

Interestingly, those who argue that the Unicorn Tapestries were commissioned to celebrate a marriage point to such elements as the orange tree and rabbits, both of which were regarded to be fertility symbols. Finally, one can see that the unicorn is surrounded by the hunters.

The third piece of the tapestry is entitled The Unicorn is Attacked or The Unicorn Leaps into the Stream . The hunt is underway and the unicorn leaps into the stream in an attempt to escape from the hunters. The pomegranate tree makes an appearance in this scene.

On the one hand, it could be seen as a symbol of fertility, and on the other, a Christian symbol . The former dates to pre-Christian times , while the latter, can be taken as a symbol of Christ, where one has to open the fruit, and to look inside, so as to understand His suffering.

The third tapestry of the Uni corn Tapestries - The Unicorn is Attacked or The Unicorn Leaps into the Stream . (The Public Domain Review / Public Domain )

The next tapestry is known as The Unicorn Defends Itself and shows the creature fighting back against its pursuers. A hunting dog is gored by the unicorn’s horn, while one of the hunters is kicked. Lots of fruit and nut trees, including cherry, orange, walnut, strawberry, and peach, are depicted in this scene. Once again, these may be interpreted as symbols of fertility , in line with the view that the tapestries were a wedding gift.

The fourth tapestry of the Uni corn Tapestries - The Unicorn Defends Itself . (The Public Domain Review / Public Domain )

The Final Pieces of the Unicorn Tapestries

The hunters were unable to capture / kill the unicorn with brute force and therefore resorted to trickery. This is the subject matter of the fifth tapestry, which is known as The Unicorn is Captured or The Unicorn is Tamed and Betrayed by the Maiden . Unfortunately, this piece survives only in two fragments, which shows a maiden taming the creature within a rose-covered fence.

In the fragments, two hunting dogs are seen attacking the unicorn and there is a member of the hunting party hidden in the foliage. One interpretation of this scene is that Christ surrenders his divinity (as the unicorn surrenders its fierceness) to become human (as the unicorn becomes tame) by means of the Virgin Mary (or the deceptive maiden in the case of the unicorn). Of course, the only small problem with this interpretation is that the element of deception is absent in the story of Christ.

The fifth tapestry of the Uni corn Tapestries - The Unicorn is Captured or The Unicorn is Tamed and Betrayed by the Maiden . (The Public Domain Review / Public Domain )

The sixth tapestry is known as The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle . The unicorn, which has been the central figure in the last few tapestries, is pushed to the edge a little. In the top left corner of the tapestry, the slaughter of the unicorn is shown. Interestingly, the tapestry combines two scenes, as the bottom half shows the corpse of the unicorn being presented to the lord and lady, who lead a throng of people outside the gates of their castle.

The corpse of the unicorn is hornless, as the precious horn has been cut off, and is in the hands of one of the hunters. Presumably, it would be presented to the lord of the castle. Once again, the scene is filled with symbolism.

The sixth tapestry of the Uni corn Tapestries - The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle. (The Public Domain Review / Public Domain )

For instance, a dove-cot is seen in the castle, doves being associated with chastity and mating for life. On the other hand, the dove also has associations with the Holy Spirit.

The last tapestry is called The Unicorn in Captivity . While some are of the opinion that this tapestry is not part of the series, but made separately (the dimensions of this piece, for instance, are quite different from the rest), others are of the opinion that it is the conclusion of the unicorn hunt.

In this scene, a living unicorn is shown chained to a tree and surrounded by a fence. In addition, there is a red stain on the animal’s flank. One interpretation is that this is blood.

The seventh tapestry of the Uni corn Tapestries - The Unicorn in Captivity. (The Public Domain Review / Public Domain )

On the other hand, it has been claimed that this is pomegranate juice, as there are no visible wounds like those depicted in the hunting scenes. If this tapestry was created separately, then the unicorn in it might not be the same as the one that was hunted and killed. On the other hand, if one were to accept that this is the last tapestry in the set, then it may be interpreted as a resurrection scene and draws parallels to the Resurrection of Christ .

To conclude, the Unicorn Tapestries is a spectacular example of medieval art , not only for its workmanship, but also for the mystery that surrounds it. It is evident that this work of art can be interpreted in various ways, which has contributed to the generations of much interest around it.

Top image: The third tapestry of the Uni corn Tapestries - The Unicorn is Attacked or The Unicorn Leaps into the Stream .   Source: The Public Domain Review / Public Domain

By Wu Mingren            


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