The Unicorn Defends Itself (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505. South Netherlandish. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.4)
The Unicorn Tapestries tell of the hunt of the unicorn in much the way a stag hunt would have been represented—with hunters and dogs setting off in pursuit, a feverish attempt at escape through a stream, an agonizing climactic fight, and, finally, a victorious hunting party lugging the dead prey back to the castle. Here, however, are additional scenes that are unique to the story of a unicorn: its initial stop at a stream to purify water and, ultimately, its entrapment by a maiden, leading to its demise.
The Cloisters' tapestries were first recorded nearly two hundred years after they were woven. A 1680 inventory of the Paris residence of François VI de la Rochefoucauld listed tapestries of the "hunt of the unicorn in seven pieces." When his grandson François VIII died, fewer than fifty years later, tapestries "called of the Unicorn" were cited in the family's castle at Verteuil, more than two hundred miles southwest of Paris. Five in the bedroom were described as "almost half worn out"; two more, "torn in various places," were found in a storage room. These and other tapestries in the castle, including the story of Jerusalem and scenes of wine making, attest to the rising prominence of the family, which was closely linked to the crown (François I de la Rochefoucauld was godfather to King Francis I in 1494).
The entwined letters A and E recur in each of The Cloisters' hangings, suggesting a married couple, the first and last names of an individual, or the letters of a motto. These initials, alas, have not been matched convincingly to any members of the family. The tiny coats of arms on the collar of one of the dogs in the first tapestry, perhaps a clue to the original ownership of the tapestries, do not correspond to the Rochefoucauld blazon.
While the presence of the cipher "AE" in all the hangings indicates that they were made for the same patron, The Cloisters' tapestries are difficult to read as a single story. It may not be necessary to do so, however, as patrons besotted by the story of the unicorn sometimes owned more than one set. The inventory of the possessions of James V of Scotland (r. 1513–42), for example, includes two sets of unicorn tapestries that he had inherited from his father.