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The Unicorn in Captivity (1495-1505)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

 
       
 

The Hunt of the Unicorn

 
 

A Manhattan Mystery!

   

 

  

 

We recently took a trip uptown to the Cloisters -- the branch of the Metropolitan Museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe -- to view the seven tapestries known as The Hunt of the Unicorn, quite possibly the most beautiful tapestries in the world. (The Cloisters, of course, were recreated, amalgamated, in the New World -- one walks amidst old stone and green of trees and all the colors of flowers and looks down from the Heights on the wildness of the Hudson far below as if one were George Washington himself….)  Of silk and dyed wool threads, about twelve feet wide and of varying widths, the marvelously detailed, lush, and luxurious (some of the threads are wrapped in gold and silver) tapestries were created some time between 1495 and 1505. 

In an age when relatively few people were literate, tapestries illustrated tales of love, religious allegories, stories of fantasy and adventure.  As in a roman à clef, symbols and metaphors were cleverly hidden in plain sight -- there for all to see -- a challenge to one's interpretative acuity.  A medieval mystery that has never quite been solved, The Unicorn Tapestries may have come from two separate sets of hangings, but have been displayed as a series as early as the 17th century - together they illustrate the hunt for the mysterious unicorn and are replete with an elaborate symbolism that can be seen as secular (the pursuit of a lover) or sacred (the unicorn was also a symbol for Christ).  The tapestries conceal several secrets, including the meaning of a recurring monogram made from the letters 'A' and 'E'.  Some have theorized that the tapestries were woven to celebrate a marriage, perhaps that of Anne of Brittany and King Louis XII of France.  In one of the tapestries, three fleurs-de-lis, the lilies in the royal arms of France, appear on two of the hunting dogs' collars.  Another collar displays the letters OFANCRE, a possible abbreviation of OF[R]ANC[ORUM]RE[X], a salute to the king of France.

In the last tapestry, The Unicorn in Captivity, the bloodied animal is shown captured, tethered to a tree and encircled by a fence. But look closely: there are no wounds on the placid unicorn, the blood is really pomegranate juice dripping from the pomegranate tree (pomegranates were long a symbol of marriage and fertility), the chain is easily broken, the fence is easily leapt over, the encirclement, that of marriage, is a blissful one here -- the lover is docile, happy to be tamed!  It is, after all, a field of flowers!  The monogram nestles in the foliage above the unicorn, the 'A' and 'E' (which is backwards) are entwined with  a silken rope with tasseled ends.

The unicorn has variously been seen as a symbol of Christ, wisdom, marriage and immortality: the first Western account of the unicorn was by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias in his book, Indica, written in the 4th century BC, where he sets down accounts he heard on his travels of this mysterious one-horned creature seen in India.  

 

 

See: The Unicorn Tapestries, The Cloisters   

Tags:  india


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