The seven individual hangings known as "The Unicorn Tapestries," are among the most beautiful and complex works of art from the late Middle Ages that survive. Luxuriously woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads, the tapestries vividly depict scenes associated with a hunt for the elusive, magical unicorn.
"The Unicorn Rests in a Garden" may have been created as a single image rather than part of a series. In this instance, the unicorn probably represents the beloved tamed. He is tethered to a tree and constrained by a fence, but the chain is not secure and the fence is low enough to leap over: The unicorn could escape if he wished. Clearly, however, his confinement is a happy one, to which the ripe, seed-laden pomegranates in the tree—a medieval symbol of fertility and marriage—testify. The red stains on his flank do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from bursting pomegranates above. Many of the other plants represented here, such as wild orchid, bistort, and thistle, echo this theme of marriage and procreation: they were acclaimed in the Middle Ages as fertility aids for both men and women. Even the little frog, nestled among the violets at the lower right, was cited by medieval writers for its noisy mating.
#69. The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries)
Medium:Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts
Dimensions:Overall: 144 7/8 x 99 in. (368 x 251.5 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937
Inscription: (center and three corners): A [image of a knot] E [reversed] (unidentified)
Comtes de La Rochefoucauld, France ; François VI de La Rochefoucauld French, 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. American (in 1923 through Edouard Larcade–until 1937)
Anderson Galleries. "Exhibited by Edouard Larcade," 1922.
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New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Unicorn Tapestries," July 1–September 6, 1998.
New York. The Cloisters Museum & Gardens. "Search for the Unicorn: An Exhibition in Honor of The Cloisters' 75th Anniversary," May-14-Aug-18-2013.
Breck, Joseph. "The Tapestry Exhibition: Part I." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, o.s., 23, no. 6 (June 1928). pp. 147–50.
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Siple, Ella S. "French Gothic Tapestries of about 1500." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 53, no. 306 (September 1928). p. 145.
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Boehm, Barbara Drake. "A Blessing of Unicorns: The Paris and Cloisters Tapestries." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 78, no. 1 (Summer 2020). pp. 21–2, 38, 43–4, fig. 2.
Publishing and Marketing Assistant Rachel High sits down with How to Read Medieval Art author Wendy Stein to learn some of the meaning behind art of the Middle Ages and uncover the value of looking closely.
Philippe de Montebello, former Director of The Met, guides viewers through The Cloisters, pointing out Romanesque and Gothic architecture and artwork, beautiful tapestries, and the diverse species in the gardens. He outlines the history of the building and its many influences and highlights significant works of art in the collection.
Produced for the 1974 exhibition Masterpieces of Tapestry, this short form recounts the tale depicted in “The Unicorn Tapestries” and explains the symbolic meaning of these mythic creatures, including their purifying and restorative powers.
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