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20 December 2015 / leggypeggy

The lady and the unicorn—fabulous works of art

A mon seul desir—the Lady and the Unicorn

A mon seul désir—The Lady and the Unicorn

Poor John’s Aunt Esther lived with us for eight years—from when she was 89 until she went into demented aged care at age 97. In her younger years, she’d been a teacher, school principal, school inspector, avid traveller, art lover and fussy eater.

We won’t discuss the fussy eating now (because it carried on into her old age) and instead focus on her love of art and travelling.

The other day, I was rummaging through her art books (many collected on her travels) and came upon her magnificent copy of La dame à la licorne or The lady and the unicorn.

The book’s copyright date is 1989 and I’m sure she bought it in Paris when she visited the Musée de Cluny, which is now known as Musée National du Moyen Age or Museum of the Middle Ages.

Sight—The Lady and the Unicorn

Sight—The Lady and the Unicorn

The lady and the unicorn is a set of six tapestries woven, probably in Flanders, from wool and silk. The collection is often considered Europe’s greatest works of art from the Middle Ages.

I have to agree.

This museum was one of the last places we visited when we were in France in October, and we stayed for most of a day.

These amazing tapestries are something you can gaze at for hours on end. I circled around the room they are displayed in four or five times before someone was bored/courteous/fulfilled enough to leave a seat open for me. So I sat until I felt obliged to offer my seat to someone who was equally spellbound.

Hearing—The Lady and the Unicorn

Hearing—The Lady and the Unicorn

Esther’s book explains that five of the six tapestries are attributed to the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. The sixth one displays the words ‘À mon seul désir’ or ‘my only desire’. That tapestry’s core meaning is unknown, but it’s often thought to represent love or understanding.

The tapestries are made in the style of mille-fleurs, or a thousand flowers. The models for the works are thought to have been the work of a Parisian artist who was considered the master of a Christian devotional book of Queen Anne of Brittany.

Each tapestry shows a noble woman, wearing a different gown in each. A handmaiden appears in four panels. In each panel, a unicorn is on the noble woman’s left and a lion on her right. Other animals, such as monkeys, rabbits, dogs and foxes, appear in various panels. Each piece is heavily decorated with leaves, flowers and trees.

Taste—The Lady and the Unicorn

Taste—The Lady and the Unicorn

The coat of arms shown in the tapestries enabled historians to attribute the commissioning of the works to the Le Viste family, some of whom were key figures in the Paris parliament.

We’re lucky the pieces still exist today. They were located as early as 1814 in Boussac Castle and were slowly deteriorating thanks to damp and mould. They were rediscovered, still in the castle, in 1841 by the French writer Prosper Mérimée, who was also Inspector General of Historic Monuments. Novelist George Sand was the first to bring the tapestries to public attention after she saw them in 1844. She even wrote about them in her novel, Jeanne. Sand was also the first to date them, using the women’s clothing for reference.

Smell—The Lady and the Unicorn

Smell—The Lady and the Unicorn

The pieces continued to decline for almost another 40 years until the then Cluny Museum acquired them and brought them to Paris for conservation and display.

Today the pieces hang in a round room, which allows the tapestries to encircle visitors. I wish my photos were sharper and brighter, but you can find plenty of better images online.

Touch—The Lady and the Unicorn

Touch—The Lady and the Unicorn

The theme of each tapestry

Sight—The noble woman holds a mirror which reflects the face of the unicorn.

Hearing—The noble woman plays a portable organ while her handmaiden operates the bellows.

Taste—At the bottom of the tapestry a monkey puts a sweet into its mouth.

Smell—A monkey sits on a bench and sniffs carnation.

Touch—The noble woman holds the unicorn’s horn in her left hand and a spear in her right.

À mon seul désir—The exact theme of this panel remains unknown.

P.S. I’ll write about the rest of the museum in another post. In the meantime, please feel free to check out some of the tastes and smells on my cooking blog. 🙂

A mon seul désir detail—The Lady and the Unicorn

À mon seul desir detail—The Lady and the Unicorn

76 Comments

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  1. Carol / Dec 20 2015 10:18 am

    Hi my dear friends. Warmest wishes to you all for a very merry Christmas and your new year leads you to more of this worlds’ treasures for you to share with us. God bless and sending lots of hugs and live. Miss you

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 20 2015 4:35 pm

      Oh Carol, thanks so much. Sending lots of love, hugs, Christmas and New Year wishes to all the Roeders.

      Like

  2. Curt Mekemson / Dec 20 2015 10:36 am

    An incredible amount of work must have gone into their creation, Peggy. Interesting on the role the monkey plays. Wonder what the symbolism of using a monkey inspired the artist? –Curt

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 20 2015 4:18 pm

      The monkey seems an odd inclusion, but I guess the lion and unicorn are too.

      Like

      • Curt Mekemson / Dec 20 2015 4:30 pm

        Right. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • felicityglogan / Jan 18 2016 9:49 am

        Something that I have read about how tapestries were done, mentioned that although the person commissioning the work had the say as to the main content, it was up to the weaver to place natural objects/animals here and there to break up large areas of background.

        Like

      • leggypeggy / Jan 18 2016 6:19 pm

        Thanks so much for sharing that fact. I hadn’t read it before.

        Like

  3. susan@marsha'sbungalow / Dec 20 2015 11:01 am

    I’ve spent a lot of time with needles and thread, but nothing like these pieces ever resulted. Amazing craft and beautifully inspired!

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Dorothy / Dec 20 2015 11:16 am

    the mon desir panel shows her filling a box with golden jewellry so perhaps wealth was what she desired. Amazing to think of the hours of delicate embroidery that has gone into these. thank goodness they have been restored for people to enjoy.
    Dorothy

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 20 2015 4:21 pm

      According to Esther’s book, the woman is putting a necklace into the box. One interpretation is that she is giving up wealth.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dorothy / Dec 20 2015 11:21 am

    On closer inspection it is golden flowers she is putting in the box so she may have been a naturopathic healer.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 20 2015 4:21 pm

      I’m pretty sure it’s a necklace rather than flowers.

      Like

  6. Sy S. / Dec 20 2015 11:59 am

    In upper Manhattan in New York City there is a museum called “The Cloisters.” 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.
    http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/467642

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 20 2015 4:22 pm

      Oh wow, I hope I’m able to see those in person. Thanks for the link.

      Like

  7. Lynz Real Cooking / Dec 20 2015 12:02 pm

    So amazing and beautiful! I can see why you were spellbound!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 20 2015 4:22 pm

      Yes, I just wish my own pictures had been better.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lynz Real Cooking / Dec 20 2015 11:39 pm

        So beautiful and really i guess for me, magical!! you have done so much and been so many places Peggy! Your experiences are amazing, thanks for letting us have this beauty!

        Like

      • leggypeggy / Dec 21 2015 8:11 am

        What a perfect description, Lyn. They really are magical.

        Like

  8. circusgardener / Dec 20 2015 3:53 pm

    The tapestries are beautiful, so intricate, and their history and interpretation fascinating

    Liked by 2 people

  9. lmo58 / Dec 20 2015 5:04 pm

    Peggy, they are so beautiful! And your photos are really good too; as always. You’ve just presented me with yet another reason to visit Paris.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 20 2015 7:00 pm

      Thanks for the praise. They are wonderful tapestries.

      Like

  10. Neethu / Dec 20 2015 7:08 pm

    Very beautiful indeed..👌

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Worlds Biggest Fridge Magnet / Dec 20 2015 7:41 pm

    Quite amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. wfdec / Dec 20 2015 9:48 pm

    They really are magnificent but in the last one I do think she could have brushed her hair before posing.
    (And I must thank you for following johnsstorybook as faithfully as you do. It helps me keep my spirits up.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 20 2015 11:24 pm

      She must have been going for the wispy look. 🙂
      Your stories are excellent. Well worth reading.

      Like

      • wfdec / Dec 20 2015 11:28 pm

        Thank you Peggy. This blog won’t have any personal or incidental stuff just stories. or poems. And I will keep dredging up earlier ones so don’t be surprised if you have seen them before. And I will try to ‘fictionalise’ some of my earlier autobiographical ones.

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Dec 21 2015 8:12 am

        I read a familiar one this morning. Nice work.

        Like

  13. ganibey / Dec 20 2015 10:07 pm

    Very nice leggy… exciting!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. pagedogs / Dec 21 2015 12:28 am

    The detail in these is absolutely amazing. For some reason, I had thought they were embroidered rather than woven. This post prompted me to research the weaving process–fascinating. Also, Tracy Chevalier write a novel (called, unsurprisingly “The Lady and the Unicorn”) that is a fictionalized account of the making of the tapestries. I haven’t read it and it gets mixed reviews, but her books generally are a fun read, so I’m giving it a try!

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Dec 21 2015 7:26 am

      I’d never heard of the book and now two of you in a row have mentioned it. Must look out for it. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Yvonne / Dec 21 2015 4:56 am

    You obviously were enraptured by these tapestries, and with good cause!

    Now I must re-read The Lady and the Unicorn when I get back Down Under.

    Buon Natale a tutti!

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 21 2015 7:27 am

      Happy Christmas to you too. Now I need to find a copy of the book. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Carol Ferenc / Dec 21 2015 6:16 am

    It’s hard to comprehend the amount of dedication and work that goes into art like this. I’m also intrigued by the monkey’s role in these tapestries. They’re so beautiful ~ thanks for sharing, Peggy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Dec 21 2015 7:29 am

      I wonder how long they took to make? The story behind these is so vague. Historians think they were woven in Flanders, but concede they may have been done in France. Ah the mysteries, but at least they’re still here to be enjoyed.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Forestwoodfolkart / Dec 21 2015 2:22 pm

    Beautiful work of art.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. thegreyeye / Dec 21 2015 7:06 pm

    They are beautiful peace of work. Grt you brought them to the post so that we can see as well. I didn’t see this museum, maybe next time. Have very happy Christmas and happy new year…

    Like

  19. sidilbradipo1 / Dec 22 2015 4:10 am

    The tapestries are absolutely breath-taking ❤
    Have a happy merry Christmas!
    Ciao
    Sid

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Dec 22 2015 11:19 am

      They really are wonderful. Thanks for stopping by. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

      Liked by 2 people

  20. poshbirdy / Dec 22 2015 10:22 pm

    Aren’t these wonderful. The detail is amazing

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Dec 24 2015 8:04 pm

      They are wonderful. Thanks for enjoying them.

      Like

  21. Opinionated Man / Dec 23 2015 2:02 pm

    Just wanted to drop by and say I hope you have a nice holiday! 🙂

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Dec 23 2015 8:47 pm

      Thanks for dropping by. Wishing the same to you.

      Like

  22. jazzyoutoo / Dec 24 2015 10:44 pm

    I wish you a wonderful Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Pupazzovi / Dec 24 2015 11:44 pm

    Auguri!! Buon Natale

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Snapshotsincursive / Dec 25 2015 11:01 am

    I agree with, Peggy. The tapestries are hypnotic!

    Like

  25. tony / Dec 27 2015 10:47 pm

    Great photos. The pinnacle of Cluny an amazing museum. Hard to believe that these beautiful objects in such perfect preservation are medieval.

    Tony

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Dec 27 2015 11:21 pm

      The tapestries have been beautifully restored. A real joy to see.

      Like

  26. Lina / Dec 30 2015 10:11 pm

    A very very interesting post…It had me glued till the end…your way of narrating is very captivating:) so glad I got to know this blog…beautiful pictures I’ve to say!

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Dec 30 2015 11:08 pm

      Oh my goodness, thanks so much for your interest. Your blog is great too.

      Liked by 1 person

  27. Joel F / Jan 2 2016 12:24 am

    Oh my, such a work of art. Truly fabulous.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Jan 2 2016 6:33 pm

      It really is fabulous. Thanks for stopping by.

      Like

  28. milliethom / Jan 3 2016 7:51 am

    Such amazing creations, Peggy. An unbelievable amount of work must have gone into each one of the tapestries. The themed idea is very interesting, too, especially as to how that last one fits into that theme. I’d never heard of ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ before and found your post fascinating. Wonderful post.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Jan 3 2016 4:02 pm

      Thanks so much Millie. That last tapestry remains a puzzle. Some historians think it might be part of another series.

      Liked by 1 person

      • milliethom / Jan 3 2016 10:48 pm

        Yes, that’s always possible, although I don’t suppose there’s any trace of others like it yet? Perhaps something wll turn up at some stage. It’s always interesting to speculate on these things.

        Liked by 1 person

      • leggypeggy / Jan 4 2016 5:54 pm

        If there is another series, it has probably disintegrated by now. 😦

        Like

  29. jollof / Jan 7 2016 9:05 am

    What I’d give to own a unicorn (if they truly once existed, lol)

    Like

  30. dougstuber / Jan 12 2016 1:28 pm

    Ode to Horace Mann
    Be ashamed to die until you have won
    Some victory for humanity. Horace Mann

    Be aware that energy is life, save some for your kids.
    Be afraid that our minds are bent by news not books.
    Be awed by the healing power of the simple purple cone flower.
    Be amazed that after four short years she knows so much.
    Be awake before the bombs drop, before the money rules.
    Be agile: live in a town that walks and bikes to work and play.
    Be amused by ants and birds, goats and potato fields, lilacs and sycamores.
    Be angry only long enough to solve the problem, then move on.
    Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Jan 13 2016 8:18 pm

      The Mann surname belongs to some of my ancestors.

      Like

  31. felicityglogan / Jan 18 2016 9:41 am

    We visited that museum, too, and were equally enchanted by the magical tapestries. I think those were the tapestries where I was following the theme of the monkey: free, then getting up to mischief, then tied up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jan 18 2016 6:13 pm

      Clever observation about the monkey. Thanks for pointing it out.

      Like

  32. vagabondurges / Jan 25 2016 9:36 am

    I heard someone talk about the “Touch” tapestry as being a rather saucy intimation of the erotic, and now, especially when I look at the lion, who seems to look out at us to make sure we’re sharing in the innuendo, I can’t help but agree. In that light, it’s a rather daring statement of the times, as the world moved towards humanism, the first step away from the sexual repression of the church.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Jan 25 2016 10:55 pm

      What a great comment. And that smug looking lion. What a great way to observe the Touch tapestry.

      Like

  33. Vicki / May 11 2017 6:41 pm

    Absolutely gorgeous, especially that last one with the dog 🙂
    Thanks for sharing…..

    Liked by 1 person

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