Tapestry weaving expanded during the 14th Century in Brussels, Antwerp, Tournai, and Arras, towns in the Low Countries of Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxemburg. Tapestries were extremely expensive; they were commissioned only by the very wealthy. Tapestries were hung on the stone walls of rooms to provide warmth, but also to decorate the room. At the time they were the only means to decorate walls. Designs were woven according to the instructions of the family. The designs (cartoons) for tapestries were drawn in Paris by one of the distinguished artists or workshops of the time.
The Le Viste family, Jean IV Le Viste or his relative Antoine II Le Viste, both important figures in the Courts of Charles VII and VIII of France, commissioned the six Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Their coat of arms is prominently displayed in the six tapestries. The theme is courtly love and is based on codes of conduct for knights and married ladies developed in 11th Century France. The knight on holy crusade was honorable, courteous, and brave, and he worshipped his chosen lady as if she were the Virgin Mary. In each of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries the characters of a virgin, lion, and unicorn are depicted. Themes of the individual tapestries represent the five senses: “Touch,” “Taste,” “Smell,” “Hearing,” and “Sight.” The sixth tapestry, “A mon seul desir,” causes the viewer to contemplate the direction of their life.
The tapestries were woven of wool and silk, with gilded threads; the background was mille-fleurs (thousand flowers) design, the popular style of the time. It was intended to represent a lush paradise garden, where all flowers grew regardless of the season, and grew in such profusion they covered the dark green grass. The background is the color rose madder. In order to teach its unschooled members, the Roman Catholic Church assigned Christian meaning to earthly objects. In the Lady and the Unicorn series, each of the animals and plants added meaning to the tapestry.
In “Touch” (10.3’x11.7’), both the unicorn and the lion represent Christ. The unicorn represents innocence and power. It was thought to be a gentle animal with inner strength and wisdom, but it was a fierce protector of those it loved. The horn had healing powers. A unicorn only could be captured by a virgin. The lion has a long history as a symbol of great power, bravery, and dignity. In the Old Testament, the tribe of Judah was led by King David; Christ was the heir of David, and He was called the Lion of Judah.
The blond-haired lady wears an elaborate dark blue gown with a gold brocade inset. The hem, sleeves, and bodice are decorated with gemstones and pearls set in gold. She wears a gem encrusted crown, and around her neck an elegant gold pendant necklace. The lion smiles at the viewer. He bears a shield with the insignia of the Le Viste family, and the lady holds onto a pole bearing the Le Viste pennant. She touches the horn of the unicorn, also wearing the Le Viste shield. The unicorn looks up adoringly at the lady.
To lady looks to her left at a small brown monkey, chained to a weight and unable to move. Another monkey, just behind her head, wears a belt locked around its waist. Is it a chastity belt? Among other things, monkeys represented base instincts, deceit, and betrayal. Several rabbits, birds, and other animals also are present. The four trees in the four corners of the tapestry are pine (top left), orange (bottom left), holly (top right), and oak (bottom right).
“Taste” (12.3’x15.1’) depicts the lady sampling sweets from a dish held by her maidservant. The lion and the unicorn stand on their hind legs; they wear cloaks with the Le Viste half-moon insignia, and their front paws and legs support pennants on poles. The unicorn looks at the viewer. The lady’s gown is a rich gold fabric with a black brocade border. She wears the same necklace as in “Touch,” but with a simpler crown. Sitting on the train of her gown, a small white Maltese dog looks up at her. A green and yellow bird perches on her hand. The small brown monkey is unchained. The larger brown monkey sits at the lady’s feet, enjoying a sweet she has given it. Baby rabbits run around the scene. A white goat sits behind the lady’s head, a white lamb and white dog are at her left. A brown fox sits at the right side of the tapestry.
“Smell” (12’x10’) presents the lady holding a white carnation that she has taken from the tray of flowers presented by her maidservant. The white carnation is a symbol of purity and love. When the Virgin Mary saw Christ crucified, she cried, and white carnations grew where her tears fell. Carnations also represent fidelity to one’s destiny and in paintings the Christ Child can often be seen holding carnations. Behind her on a bench, the monkey also enjoys smelling the flowers. The lion and unicorn balance on their hind legs wearing the shields and holding the pennants. The long-legged white and gray bird above the lady is a heron, a symbol of elegance and sociability. Zeus said the heron had super human strengths, and in Christianity it represents Christ because it eats eels and snakes, symbols of Satan.
The oak tree, at the top left of the tapestry is one of the four trees repeated in the six tapestries. The oak tree has a long symbolic history. It is tall, strong, and stable, a symbol of longevity and endurance. It also represents power and justice. The tree below is an orange tree, symbolic of prosperity, luxury, and happiness. Orange trees are evergreen and live long. The fruit is the color of the sun; it is sweet and the scent is beautiful. The orange tree bears fruit and flowers at the same time, symbolic of the Virgin Mary who remained a virgin although she also was a mother.
“Hearing” (12.1’x9.5’) portrays the lady playing an organ placed on a table that is covered by an oriental rug. Her maidservant pumps the bellows. The lion and unicorn are at her side, resting on the ground with their backs to her. Both hold the poles with the pennants and listen to the music. The four trees are included, but with altered positions. The holly tree, with its red berries and sharp leaves is placed behind the lion. The sharp leaves represent the crown of thorns worn by Christ, and the red berries represent His blood. Hollies are evergreen and therefore represent eternal life. The abundance of the berries also represents fertility. The sharp leaves were believed to ward off evil spirits, witches, and bad luck.
At the top right the pine tree can be identified by its numerous pine cones. “The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the fir tree, the pine, and the box tree together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of my feet glorious.” (Isaiah 60:13)
The fifth tapestry “Sight” (10.2’x10.8’) finds the lady seated and holding a gilded mirror. The unicorn sits next to her, its feet on her lap. She caresses the unicorn’s neck while it admires itself in the mirror. Smiling, the lion holds the pole and standard of the Le Viste family. The oak tree and the holly tree, the rabbits, dogs, and birds fill the scene.
The sixth tapestry “A mon seul desir” (12.3’x15.5’) takes its title from the motto embroidered across the top of the elegant circular pavilion at the center of the composition. The rich blue fabric contains a flame design that may be a symbolic reference to passion.
The pavilion is surrounded by the trees, animals, and flowers that populate the other tapestries. The Maltese dog, seen on the train of the lady’s gown in “Taste,” sits upon the pillow on top of a simple wood table. The Maltese was a popular breed in the 15th Century. Symbolic of affection and devotion, dogs form protective relationships with their humans.
The lion and the unicorn hold the poles and pennants. They also hold the flaps of the pavilion, perhaps anticipating the entrance of the lady. The maidservant holds an open chest into which the lady may be placing the gold necklace she wore in each of the tapestries. She no longer wears a jeweled crown.
Some of the possible English translations of the motto “A mon seul desir” (e.g. “to my only/sole desire,” “by my own free will,” “love desires only”) suggest the lady is faced with, or perhaps has made her choice between the life of sensuality and a life of virtue. In each of the first five tapestries, her facial expression suggests she is contemplating these sensual experiences. In the last tapestry, she smiles for the first time. We are left to speculate about her choice.
The Virgin and the Unicorn tapestries were rediscovered in a storeroom in1841. The writer George Sand (Aurore Dupin) saw them in 1844, and she wrote about them in her novel Jeanne. However, they were not rescued from the damp, mold, and gnawing rats until 1882, when Edmond Du Sommerand, curator of the Musee de Cluny, purchased them for 25,500 francs. Restored to their original beauty, they now hang in a new (2015) installation in the Cluny Museum in Paris.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.