The Unicorn Tapestries

The Hunt for the Unicorn Tapestries, cartoons made in Paris, woven in the Southern Netherlands, c. 1495–1505, wool, silk, metal threads (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), including,

• The Hunters Enter the Woods, 368.3 x 315 cm
• The Unicorn Purifies Water, 368.3 x 378.5 cm
• The Unicorn Crosses a Stream, 368.3 x 426.7 cm
• The Unicorn Defends Himself, 368.3 x 401.3 cm
• The Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden, 198.1 x 64.8 cm
• The Hunters Return to the Castle, 368.3 x 388.6 cm
• The Unicorn Rests in the Garden, 368 x 251.5 cm

speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in their wonderful Unicorn Tapestries Room. These were woven, we think, at the very end of the 15th century or perhaps in the early 16th century. And we know that because of the fashions that the figures wear.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:23] We also know that they were designed and likely commissioned by someone in France, but likely made in the city of Brussels, which was known for its tapestry weaving.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] These are so luxurious.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] We are looking at a tapestry that was made for the highest levels of the elite of Europe. We can tell that by the way that they’re dressed — in velvet, in silks, with rich gold brocades.

Dr. Zucker: [0:52] We can also tell that by the fineness of the tapestries themselves. Not only are extremely expensive materials used, including metallic threads, silver, and wool, and silk, but this is weaving of the highest quality. We have very little information about who commissioned these or where they were originally intended to be.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] We do though know that interest in the mythical beast of the unicorn goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. There are numerous illustrations of a woman with a unicorn in the Middle Ages.

Dr. Zucker: [1:23] I think it’s important to remember in the late 15th century, Europe was still being introduced to exotic animals. It was still seeing for the first time new creatures from Asia and from Africa. And so the idea of a unicorn might not have seemed entirely implausible.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] You could read about unicorns in medieval bestiaries. The basic story is this: A unicorn was miraculous, it had healing powers, it was very difficult to hunt. And it could only be caught by a maiden, that is, by a virgin. The unicorn is attracted to the maiden, it puts its head in her lap, and is then able to be captured.

[2:02] This story also accrued religious meaning over time. The unicorn is associated with Christ and the maiden who attracts it is associated with the Virgin Mary.

Dr. Zucker: [2:13] We’re not entirely sure which order these tapestries should be viewed in, or indeed if there is an order at all.

Dr. Harris: [2:20] We’re going to follow the order that’s currently accepted, and therefore the first one is this scene of leaving for the hunt.

Dr. Zucker: [2:27] This is an enormous textile, and the figures are life-size. We see these figures who are very finely dressed. Even the dogs are wearing elaborate collars. The men are speaking amongst themselves and taking the dogs out, looking in various directions, but if you look in the upper right corner you can see that there’s a boy gesturing, perhaps he’s spied the unicorn and he’s gesturing, “come this way.”

Dr. Harris: [2:50] What we have here is a pattern known as “mille-fleurs,” or “a thousand flowers.” It is dense design of foliage and flowers so that there’s no sky, there’s no landscape going back into space, and what we notice is something that we see in virtually all the tapestries in this cycle, the initials A and E tied together with a rope.

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] Art historians have worked very hard to use those initials as identifiers for the person who commissioned these or for whom it was intended as a gift, but so far, we don’t have much to stand on and there are a number of conflicting theories.

[3:27] The second tapestry is among the most elaborate. At its center is this classicizing fountain, and a unicorn kneels, placing his horn into a stream fed by the fountain. There’s a menagerie of animals and hunters.

Dr. Harris: [3:41] The unicorn’s horn is purifying the stream. This idea that the unicorn had healing properties, especially in its horn, and we know that this water is purified by the unicorn because of the flowers that grow up around the stream.

Dr. Zucker: [3:57] We see this amazing array of animals. There are lions, a leopard, perhaps a hyena, and a large stag. And then at the fountain itself, two pairs of birds. But the upper half of the tapestry is occupied by humans. Here we see the hunters; they can’t interrupt the unicorn because it is engaged in a miracle.

Dr. Harris: [4:17] That was part of the myth, that when the unicorn was doing something miraculous it could not be hunted. One feels this arrested moment where the unicorn can’t be approached, so all the figures are talking and gesturing but nothing can actually be done.

Dr. Zucker: [4:32] The next scene is the largest of the tapestries. Here, the unicorn makes a mad dash to escape the hunters, but is surrounded.

Dr. Harris: [4:40] He dashes across a stream, chased by dogs, completely surrounded by the hunters, who aim lances at him.

Dr. Zucker: [4:48] This scene contrasts with the previous, which was quiet and still. This image is all action, and it’s not just the hunters and the unicorn.

Dr. Harris: [4:56] If we look at the bottom of the stream, we can see animals who have clearly been disturbed by the hunt that’s taking place.

Dr. Zucker: [5:03] These two tapestries present the landscape in a different way. They don’t present foliage from top to bottom, but give us some sky, give us a bit of a horizon line.

Dr. Harris: [5:12] And here in this fourth tapestry, which the Met calls “The Unicorn Defends Itself,” we once again see the unicorn surrounded by hunters, but this time the unicorn is attacking with its horn, it pierces a dog and it lashes out toward a hunter with its hindquarters. We can also see that it’s been wounded in its side.

[5:32] And I think it would have been very natural for a medieval viewer to look at that wound in the side of the unicorn, a creature which is understood to be very pure, and think about the wound in Christ’s side when he was crucified.

Dr. Zucker: [5:46] Art historians have been trying to untangle the relationship between the narrative of the hunt and allusions to the Passion of Christ.

Dr. Harris: [5:53] Well, we do know that all these things were conflated together in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance — love, the hunt, ideas of chivalry, and the unicorn.

Dr. Zucker: [6:04] The next tapestry shows two scenes simultaneously. On the upper left is the culmination of the hunt. The unicorn is slain. The dogs have reached the unicorn, two spears pierce it, and a sword is cutting at the back of its neck. Clearly this is the end of the unicorn’s life.

Dr. Harris: [6:20] We see the unicorn being carried to a chateau on the back of a horse, its neck wreathed with oak leaves, and a couple with a crowd of people behind them emerge from the chateau to come to receive the slain unicorn.

Dr. Zucker: [6:34] This is one of the most elaborate landscapes of the series. Not only is the chateau more elaborate than any of the architecture we’ve seen thus far, the hill continues beyond that and we see yet another castle in the distance.

Dr. Harris: [6:46] And here’s where the narrative seems to get a little complicated. We have two surviving fragments. Here, we see the unicorn enclosed in a garden. That idea of the enclosed garden is itself a symbol of virginity, often associated with the Virgin Mary.

Dr. Zucker: [7:05] These fragments pose real problems to the linear narrative being told in the previous textiles. Here is a unicorn, but now in a garden. We see dogs, one of which seems attracted to the wounds on the animal’s back. And then we see more dogs in the distance and two human figures. But if we look very closely, you can see the sleeve of yet another woman.

[7:27] Presumably, this is a maiden whose purity has attracted this unicorn.

Dr. Harris: [7:31] She has her arm around its mane and appears to be caressing it. So is this an alternate ending, one which shows us an entrapped unicorn instead of a slain unicorn? Or is this a moment when the unicorn is entrapped by the maiden and hunters will come, perhaps called by the man blowing the horn, to slay the unicorn?

Dr. Zucker: [7:51] The most famous tapestry in the collection stands alone. It shows the unicorn domesticated, with a collar around its neck, attached to a pomegranate tree by a delicate chain and surrounded by a fence. And like the fragments that we spoke of a moment before, this throws into question the linear narrative of the hunt.

[8:11] And this tapestry is more vertical in its orientation. So was this tapestry meant to stand alone?

Dr. Harris: [8:16] In the literature, unicorns are often associated with someone who is so over-the-top in love that they’ve given up everything, that they’re completely subdued. That seems to be the case with the unicorn here. He’s surrounded by a low fence. He could certainly leap over that fence if he wanted to, but he is subdued, he’s captive to his love for the maiden.

[8:42] That’s one interpretation here.

Dr. Zucker: [8:44] The unicorn stands directly beneath a pomegranate tree, a traditional symbol of love, and matrimony, and fertility. And so do two narratives exist here simultaneously?

Dr. Harris: [8:56] Perhaps all of these associations to Christ, to the Virgin Mary, to love, to the hunt, come together and overlap in this series, which still continues to puzzle art historians.

[9:10] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”unicorntapestries,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Unicorn Tapestries," in Smarthistory, November 29, 2015, accessed July 19, 2024,