A Hunting Fable, a Metaphor for Marriage,
I was a teenager on the back of a Kawasaki 300 the first time I visited the Cloisters, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum, to see the stunning late-Gothic pictorial textiles known as the Unicorn Tapestries. Given to the Met by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1937, the six panels, 12-feet tall and 8- to 14-feet wide (with two important fragments added later), had cost Rockefeller $1 million at New York’s Anderson Gallery in 1922.
Anderson had acquired them from château Verteuil-sur-Charentes north of Bordeaux, home to La Rochefoucauld family since the 11 th century, where they’d probably hung since 1680. Shrouded in mystery after disappearing when the château was looted in 1793 during the Reign of Terror, they were uncovered in 1856, minus any royal insignia, protecting potatoes and espaliered fruit trees from winter frost. French writers George Sand and Prosper Mérimée wrote tributes to their beauty and campaigned for their preservation. They are so priceless that after the bombing of Pearl Harbor they were removed from the Met and stashed away until after the war.
Despite decades of scholarly research, this medieval narrative of a royal unicorn hunt in wool, silk, silver, and gilt threads is still an enigma. No written records of their commissioning have surfaced, but based on hairstyles, bodices, and shoes it’s likely they were woven between 1495 and 1505 on looms in Brussels, Bruges, Tournai, or Lille; their provenance is simply designated as Franco-Flemish or Southern Netherlands.
The cipher of the knot-tied initials A and (reversed) E may indicate they were woven to celebrate the wedding of the very rich and much-married Anne of Brittany to King Louis XII of France, or of her daughter, Claude, to King François I. But a cryptic F and R monogram could be clues to another marriage altogether.
They’ve always been displayed together, and we’ve become accustomed to interpreting them as a single full-cycle set, whether seen as the death of a wild unicorn and its rebirth as a tame one, or as romantic love’s transformation into marital bliss, or of a divine Christ’s incarnation into mortal man. But small discrepancies in style and craftsmanship indicate they may have come from three different sets.
Substituting a unicorn for a stag, the tapestries portray a typical hunt “by force of hounds,” as described by Gaston Phébus comte de Foix (1331–1391) in his illustrated treatise, The Book of the Hunt. To medieval minds, the swift and wary unicorn was a real but rare animal, first described in a 400 BC book about India by Ctesias, a Greek physician to the Persian king Artaxerxes II, who also gave us the sphinx-like manticor, with its white donkey-size body and purple head graced by a single crimson-tipped spiral horn. Aristotle had his doubts about unicorns, and Julius Caesar noted that no man had actually seen one in their supposed home in the forests of southwest Germany. In his natural history, Pliny the Elder gave the unicorn elephantine feet and a boar’s tail.
For believers, the multiple references to unicorns in the Bible were proof of their existence. The translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew scriptures into the Septuagint, or Greek Bible, and its subsequent translation by St. Jerome into the Vulgate, or Latin Bible, transcribed re’em into monoceros into monocornus, or unicorn. Then, in the 4 th century, Saint Basil and Saint Ambrose forever linked the unicorn to Christ: “Who is this unicorn but the only begotten son of God?”
Medieval bestiaries specify that the unicorn cannot be bagged by traditional hunting methods, but it can be baited. Put a maiden in the forest, and it will be attracted by the scent of her purity. It will then kneel, put its head and forelegs on her lap, and fall asleep, allowing the hunters to approach for a mortal strike with a boar spear or sword. The maiden soon came to represent Virgin Mary, and the taming of the unicorn, Christ’s Incarnation.
By the 12 th century, there was a trade in unicorn horns for making drinking vessels and eating utensils that could test for poison. The German abbess, Hildegard of Bingen, wrote that powdered unicorn liver cures leprosy, and a belt of its tanned hide shields the wearer from pestilence and fever. British explorer Martin Frobisher found the horn of a “sea unicorn” in the waters off Baffin Island and presented it to Queen Elizabeth I in 1577. Eventually, some 60 horns, worth more than twice their weight in gold, were kept in European Cabinets of Wonder.
Of course, those unicorn horns were actually the extended incisor teeth of the narwhal. Although the Danish physician Olaus Wormius (1588–1654) is credited with identifying the narwhal, the debate about the unicorn’s existence ended only in 1827 with French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier.
The hunt for the unicorn starts with several noblemen and their lymerers (from “on a leash”), with their scent-hunting hounds and sight-hunting greyhounds finding their quarry. But the hunt stops (Tapestry II) while the party and various wild animals watch the unicorn dip its horn into a water fountain to clear it of poisonedserpent “spit” (Christ taking on the sins of Man to purify and redeem him). In Tapestry III, the dogs have been released; the chase is on. The unicorn’s ploy of throwing them off by fording a stream is foiled. Hunting horns sound, and the unicorn is confronted by stabbing spears and nipping hounds. Put at bay (Tapestry IV), it kicks the grim-faced hunters and slashes a dog with its horn.