The Lady and the Unicorn Musee de Cluny May 24 2014
(Photo from Wikipedia)
I remember when I was in Paris the first time, in 1961, going to the Museum of Cluny, and falling in love with the beautiful tapestries called “The Lady and the Unicorn.” Although I have been in Paris several times since then, I’ve either not had enough time to revisit the museum, or the museum has been closed, as it has been, for years at a time at various points in the 20th century, for repairs, renovations, or rehabilitation of the medieval pieces of art that it contains. Today, there was a guided tour of the tapestries advertised for 11:30 am, and we determined to go, not only to see the museum, but to learn more about that set of beautiful tapestries.
About a dozen people had bought tickets for the guided tour, and we each wore a special decal on our clothes to indicate that we were in the chosen group. At 11:30 promptly, a very efficient, pleasant looking woman, in businesslike clothing and carrying a clipboard (they must be universal, those clipboards) came into the foyer and greeted us.
We followed her upstairs, and she proceeded to tell us, in rapid-fire French, the historic and artistic perspectives on every tapestry In every room of the museum. It was useful, actually, because before we finally saw the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, we were able to develop a contextual appreciation for different facts about medieval tapestries in general.
Generally, they were used to cover the stone walls in cold, unheated houses, to create more comfort. The tapestries, being made of wool and silk, both held in heat and reduced the resonance of noises. They were extremely expensive, because of their size, the months and years it would take to weave them by hand, and the cost of fine materials such as woolen yarn, silk threads, good quality dyes from plant, mineral, or animal sources, and the cost of labor. A good number of weavers specialized in making tapestries. These were family owned workshops, with 5 to a dozen family members certified by the tapestry weaving guilds as master craftspeople. The guilds were assiduous in making sure that the work, the workmanship, the qualifications of the weavers, and the quality of the materials all met the standards set by the guilds. These specialized weavers differed from ordinary weavers because they wove original works of art, based on “cartoons” – patterns that were drawn by specialized artists to depict a specific scene, often with specific people. The work was exacting, as each thread had to be woven perfectly in the exact color required at that place in the cartoon.
The tapestries were woven on huge looms, with the cartoon on the floor underneath the boom. A weaver was stationed every 80 centimeters across the width of the loom. Where colors changed, slits were left by the discontinuity of thread, and at night someone in the family would be charged with crawling around under the work in progress and sewing together all the places where slits had occurred so that the entire tapestry was presented as one fabric.
When a wealthy patron wished to commission a tapestry – often for an important occasion such as the marriage of a daughter or son – he contacted a tapestry broker who maintained a relationship with at least one tapestry workshop and negotiated the terms of the contract – its components, its colors, its types of thread, the density of the weave, and the time frame in which it was to be completed.
Tapestries were an important part of a household’s furnishings, and whenever they moved, the tapestries were rolled and placed in special wood trunks to be transported to the next domicile. They were also important investments. Thus, when a patron needed money, he might sell a tapestry or a portion of one. As a consequence, many tapestries on exhibit had either been cut from the original whole, or had been pieced together, uniting two scenes that seemed related but were not from the same original fabric. The quality of finishing in these instances was quite astounding. You could tell from the fact that a story seemed incomplete, with missing figures, or from the discontinuity of motifs across the seam uniting two tapestries that they had been manipulated in these ways. But you wouldn’t know from the edges or ends of the resulting fabrics because they had been so well finished.
When we finally reached the room of the Lady of the Unicorn, the room in its present arrangement did not correspond at all to my memory of it. The tapestries were in a different order, and they were much higher up than when I had originally seen them. At the time of my 1961 visit, , it was possible to walk by them, in a continuum, at eye and body level. I remember having felt drawn into them, feeling intimately connected with the figures and the animals depicted – feeling somehow part of the story. Now they seemed more remote, further removed from the eye. I asked the guide about this, and she confirmed that since the 60s, the tapestries had been taken down, restored, and then hung in this new room, arranged in a different order and following a different set of hanging specifications. They are still an exceptional piece of work, of course – with very fine details and beautiful colors and shapes. But the present configuration is less satisfying to the soul, somehow, or at least that’s what it felt like.
The meaning of the story depicted is controversial. The unicorn, of course, has a sexual connotation, with its goatlike hooves and its long, slender horn. I hadn’t realized previously that the unicorn was depicted as hovering somewhere between resembling a horse or a goat. Regardless of the form it takes in a specific representation, it always has the horn and the cloven hooves. But the verbal legend of the unicorn has it being a manifestation of Christ Jesus in its purity, and only a young girl who was sexually pure would be able to attract it, as did the girl in the last tapestry. So it certainly is surrounded by sexual innuendo. The presence of may recognizable species of flowering plants and both familiar and wild animals certainly refers to a great appreciation for nature on the part of medieval people. And imagine my surprise, upon coming to the last of the tapestries, the one called “mon seul desir” (my only desire), to see, sitting on a stool next to the girl, a perfect representation of a Maltese dog from the 1400s!
Yes, we do miss our dogs from home, including our Maltese, Deva!
We were really happy to have the opportunity to participate in this event, appreciate a lot of beautiful and very old art works, and learn a significant body of facts about tapestries in general and about this favorite set of tapestries in particular.
And then we had a delicious lunch in a café neighboring the museum, and even succeeded in finding a round battery for the “Fit Bit” that we’d been using to determine how much we had walked each day — to replace the battery that had suddenly decided to die. All in all, it was a successful outing. And we were proud to be up and out of the house on time while it was still morning, to ride the bus to the museum on time for the guided tour.
To view the six tapestries entitled “La Dame a la Licorne” from the Museum of Cluny, go to this site:
(Photo from Wikipedia)