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The Lady with the Unicorn
Paris, Cluny Museum
National Museum of Medieval Arts

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No one can remain indifferent to the charm emanating from one of the most famous tapestries in the world, "La Dame à la Licorne.  Six large tapestries with a radiant vermilion ground sprinkled with cut flowers, illustrate six allegories of the senses -- Taste, Hearing, Sight, Smell, Feel.  The last of the series, the most enigmatic and marvelous, evokes the sense of Understanding, that of the heart.  

The National Museum of Medieval Arts in Paris -- Musée du Cluny -- is one of the places in France where the most magnificent examples of ancient tapestry is at display.  The remarkable collections reflect at the same time different techniques (production and decoration) from the grand centers of Ancient Times until the Middle Age.  Oriental carpets and tapestries from Iran, Egypt and the Byzantine Empire are shown alongside with western art from Italy, Spain and Great Britain.  

This page deals only with the famous Unicorn Tapestries, created by unknown artists during the 15th century, and depicting allegorically the five human senses.  

France 1964. Renaissance Tapestry. Lady with Unicorn.

France. Renaissance Tapestry. Lady with Unicorn at the Cluny Museum, Paris.

The tapestries were discovered in 1841 by Prosper Mérimée in Château de Boussac, at the time sub-prefecture of Creuse, and entered immediately into history thanks to the writings of George Sand.  The municipality of Boussac bought the château and all it contained in 1837 for about 1000 GBP.  In 1882, the French Government, who, for the same sum, acquired them from the municipal authorities of Boussac, presented the tapestries to the Cluny Museum.  They were woven, most likely in Tournai, about 1460.  The coat of arms on each of the tapestries is that of Le Viste, Lord of Fresne. 

The tapestries consist of six pieces, of which the five illustrate the five human senses.  They tell the legend of the unicorn, the fabled beast, pure white and having the head and legs of a horse and a long, twisted horn set in the middle of its forehead.  Symbolic of holiness and chastity, the unicorn was prominent in tapestries of the Middle Ages, and has been widely used in heraldic devices.  The images display the six hangings. The sixth, named "To My Sole Desire" is different from the others.  Please read below for a further explanation to the sceneries. 

The above images are all scanned from the excellent information book provided by the Cluny Museum in Paris, cf. the below source. An attentive visitor to this page has, all the same, pointed out that the second image immediately above ("Hearing") is reversed as opposed to the museum's actual display, and has sent me an interesting photograph to prove his point. Please compare the "Hearing"-image with the second panel from the left, and you will see that the scan from the Cluny-information is reversed. Thank you, Ian :-)

Lady with Unicorn. Panoramic view of five of the six panels displayed in the Cluny Museum, Paris.

Apart from the poetic appearance, the general reputation of "Lady with Unicorn" is also due to its harmonious colours, which in only very few hues manage to create a mythical enchantment; throughout the series there is suffused an atmosphere of romance and of mystery. The colours are extraordinarily well preserved, and still appear bright and clear, maybe because they haven't been exposed to daylight for nearly 100 years.  They are kept in the Cupola of the Cluny Museum with no windows, and only a minimum of lux from the necessary electric light. 

The tapestries were discovered in the nineteenth century in the Chateau de Boussac (Creuse), and became part of the Cluny Museum collection in 1882.  Each carries the arms of Jean Le Viste, who ordered them to be woven.  It was perhaps to celebrate his social advancement that he chose the most important center of tapestry at the time, Brussels, having them based on drawings by a French painter who remains unknown.  Even today, this "mille fleurs" tapestry doesn't cease to enchant the public.  

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