Some of the most spectacular examples of classical art featuring unicorns are the seven Unicorn Tapestries. Dating from 1495-1505, the tapestries are described as being South Netherlandish”. They tell the story of a unicorn being hunted and imprisoned. Made of wool with silk, silver and gilt, the tapestries are vibrantly colored and retain their beauty still today. The tapestries are on display at The Met Cloisters in New York City and were a gift from John D Rockefeller in 1937.
As part of the public access, open source program through The Met, we are able to share these beautiful images with you. To see a larger digital image, click on the title of the tapestry and it will take you to The Met website. However, if you ever have an opportunity, these tapestries and The Cloisters museum are well worth visiting in person.
The Hunters Enter the Woods (from the Unicorn Tapestries)
This tapestry is one of seven hangings at The Cloisters that depict the hunt of the unicorn, a mythical creature first mentioned by the Greek physician Ctesias in the fourth century B.C. In the Middle Ages the animal was best known for its supposed invincibility and for the therapeutic property of its horn. So strong was the belief in the horn’s miraculous cures that by the twelfth century the tusks of male narwhals, a small whale native to the Arctic, came to be regarded as “unicorn horns.”
The Unicorn Tapestries, as the group of seven is known, were probably designed in Paris but woven in Brussels. They are first documented in 1680, when they hung in the Paris home of François VI de La Rochefoucauld. By 1728 five of them decorated a bedroom at the family’s château in Verteuil, in western France. The tapestries were looted during the French Revolution but were recovered in the 1850s; by 1856 they had been restored and rehung in the château’s salon. No documentation sheds light on the early history of the tapestries, including either their commission or sequence of hanging. Striking differences in dimension and composition have prompted scholars to question whether the hangings constitute one set or are, in fact, from multiple sets.
The Hunters Enter the Woods, like The Unicorn in Captivity, is set against a millefleurs background: a field of dark green spangled with blossoming trees and flowers. Of the 101 species of plants represented, 85 have been identified, including the prominent cherry tree behind the hunters and lush date palm in front of the sniffing hound. The cipher “AE” that is woven into each of the Unicorn Tapestries—and repeated here five times—alludes to their original owners, who remain unknown.
The Unicorn is Found (from the Unicorn Tapestries)
In this tapestry the unicorn kneels before a tall white fountain that has a pair of pheasants and a pair of goldfinches perched on its edge. Other animals both exotic and native to Europe lounge about, while twelve hunters in the back of the scene discuss the discovery of their quarry. Flora and fauna play a significant role in the narratives of the Unicorn Tapestries. Plants prescribed in medieval herbals as antidotes to poisoning, such as sage, pot marigolds, and orange, are positioned near the stream, which is being purified by the unicorn’s magic horn.
The Unicorn is Attacked (from the Unicorn Tapestries)
According to tradition, the unicorn cannot be disturbed while performing a magical act. The attack by the hunters thus presumably begins soon after the action depicted in The Unicorn Is Found, and the scene is one filled with chaos and commotion. The ferocity of the battle is conveyed by the converging lances aimed at the animal, the sounding of the hunting horns, and the menacing hounds. Already wounded on his back, the unicorn leaps across a stream in a desperate attempt to escape his encircling enemies.
The use of hounds to scout, chase, and eventually attack the quarry was typical practice in medieval stag hunts, and the palatial buildings in the background might be a further allusion to the hunt as a royal or aristocratic pastime. Unlike The Hunters Enter the Woods and The Unicorn in Captivity, this and the other hangings are set in realistic landscapes that enhance the drama of the hunt.
The Unicorn Defends Itself (from the Unicorn Tapestries)
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.
The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle (from the Unicorn Tapestries)
Two episodes of the hunt narrative are brought together in this hanging. At left, two hunters drive their lances into the neck and chest of the unicorn, as a third delivers the coup de grâce from the back. It has been suggested that the doomed unicorn is an allegory for Christ dying on the Cross; the large holly tree (often a symbol of the Passion) rising from behind his head seems to reinforce this association. In the other episode, at right, a lord and a lady receive the body of the unicorn in front of their castle. They are surrounded by their attendants, with more curious onlookers peering through windows of the turret behind them. The dead animal is slung on the back of a horse, his horn already cut off but still entangled in thorny oak branches—probably symbolizing the Crown of Thorns. The rosary in the hand of the lady and the three other women standing behind the lord encourage a deeper reading of the scene, perhaps as a symbolic Deposition by the grieving Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and the Holy Women.
The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn (from the Unicorn Tapestries)
In these two fragments of a single tapestry, the unicorn appears to have been tamed. He seems so docile, in fact, that he is oblivious to the dog licking the wound on his back and stares loving at the maiden who must have subdued him. Most of her figure is missing, the result of damage incurred after the tapestries were looted in 1793. The remaining traces include the maiden’s right arm, clothed in red velvet and visible between the beard and throat of the unicorn, and her fingers, seen gently caressing the bottom of the animal’s mane. She sits in an enclosed garden (hortus conclusus), often a metaphor for the purity of a maiden. The more complete female figure may be signaling to the hunter outside the garden, who in turn sounds the horn to summon the others.
The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries)
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 in Captivity” 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.