The Unicorn Defends Itself (from the Unicorn Tapestries)

South Netherlandish
Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts
Overall: 145 x 158 in. (368.3 x 401.3cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Here the injured unicorn is being held at bay by three hunters ready to pierce him with their lances. The furious animal reacts with a gruesome attack on a greyhound before him, almost tearing the dog's body apart. The horn-blowing hunter at the lower left wears a scabbard with the inscription AVE REGINA C[OELI] (Hail, Queen of the Heavens). He is often thought to represent the Archangel Gabriel, who announced to the Virgin Mary that she is to give birth to the Christ Child. The huntsmen and other figures are garbed in the fashions of about the turn of the sixteenth century, including round-toed shoes and fitted bodices, and their headdresses and hairstyles also reflect contemporary tastes. The mastery of the weavers is evident in the convincing representation of different materials and textures in the costumes, such as brocade, velvet, leather, and fur.

    In order to make the tapestries, plain wool yarns (the warp) were stretched between two beams of a large loom; a bobbin then brought dyed and metallic threads (the wefts) over and under the warp threads to create the design. Chemical analyses reveal that the dye pigments used in the Unicorn Tapestries came from such plants as weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue), all of which are grown in the Bonnefont Cloister garden. With the aid of mordants, substances that help fix the dyes to fabric, these three primary colors were blended to achieve a dazzling spectrum of hues strategically highlighted by the addition of metallic threads.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Inscription: (center and on each corner): AE
    (on dog's collar, left): OFANGRE
    (on scabbard hanging from man, left): AVE.REGINA.C[OELORUM]

  • Provenance

    Comtes de La Rochefoucauld , France ; François VI de La Rochefoucauld , Paris (in 1680) ; François VIII de La Rochefoucauld , château de Verteuil, Charente (in 1728) ; Château de Verteuil (said to have been looted in 1793) ; Comtes de La Rochefoucauld , château de Verteuil, Charente (in 1856) ; Comte Aimery de La Rochefoucauld , château de Verteuil, Charente (until 1923) ; Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. (in 1923 through Edouard Larcade–until 1937)

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History