Given by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in time for the opening of The Cloisters in 1938, the Unicorn Tapestries are its best-known masterpieces; yet, seventy-five years later, their history and meaning remain elusive. They have been seen both as complicated metaphors for Christ and as emblems of matrimony, and they are beloved as quaint indications of medieval notions about the natural world. This exhibition of some forty works of art drawn from the collections of the Metropolitan, sister institutions, and private collections invites audiences to see the Unicorn Tapestries anew, as the finest expression of a subject widely treated across cultures, and in both European art and science, from the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance.
"Well, now that we have seen each other," said the Unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?"
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
For more than two millennia men, women, and children have sustained an irrepressible belief in an elusive one-horned creature, possessed of magical powers. Spiraling horns like the one seen nearby seemed to offer tangible evidence of its existence. Stories embellished over the centuries and across the globe provided salient details about the unicorn's nature and habitat; the works of art seen here reflect these beliefs and bring this elegant creature to life.
Hebrew scripture repeatedly refers to a powerful, singled-horned animal called the re'em. It came to be a symbol of strength and piety in Jewish artistic culture. Classical authors like Ctesias (a Greek physician and historian of the fourth century B.C.), Aristotle, and Pliny all mention a one-horned beast, while the account of Julius Caesar's campaigns against the Gauls proclaims that unicorns live in the deep forest. The Physiologus (meaning "the scientist"), penned in Greek but translated into Latin in the fifth century, observes that the unicorn has the beard and cloven hooves of a goat, and could only be tamed by a maiden. This text echoed across the centuries, from Europe to India.
Christian authors, from Basil, bishop of Caesarea, in the fourth century, to Timothy of Gaza in the sixth, to Isidore of Seville in the seventh, speak of the unicorn. The Christian bestiary, relying on the Physiologus but drawing on Isidore and others, sees the unicorn as a symbol of Christ. Among the many curative properties ascribed to the unicorn are those put forth by the twelfth-century nun and mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who claims that unicorn liver mixed with egg yolk heals leprosy, and that shoes made of unicorn leather promote healthy feet.
As early as the thirteenth century, the unicorn became an emblem of worldly love and a common motif in works of art celebrating marriage. For example, when Catherine de Medici married the son of Francis I, king of France, in 1533, the bride entered Paris in a chariot drawn by two unicorns fabricated for the occasion.
Travel accounts and natural histories attest to intense scientific interest in the unicorn, and the animal's habitat was a particularly vexing question. Pilgrims swore to have seen them near Mount Sinai and reproduced the beast's image in their published journal. Jibra'il ibn Bakhtishu, author of a ninth-century Arabic bestiary, notes that unicorns were said to be common in Nubia and Abyssinia, while the Persian Shahnama indicates that Alexander the Great killed the one-horned creature in Habash (Ethiopia). The sixteenth-century naturalist Conrad Gesner cites the authority of a traveler who saw two unicorns near Mecca, but contemporary engravings of the Four Continents leave no doubt: they are typically American!
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.
The exhibition is made possible by the Michel David-Weill Fund and the Quinque Foundation.