“The Lady and the Unicorn”: Franco-Flemish Tapestries on Desire and the Senses (c.1500)

Regarded as one of the most important works of art from medieval Europe, La Dame à la licorne (“The Lady and the Unicorn”) is a set of six tapestries that were designed in Paris around 1500 and woven in Flanders from wool and silk.

The inspiration behind the book The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) by American-British historical novelist Tracy Chevalier, the tapestries hang today at Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. The French novelist George Sand (1804–1876) also made references to these works in her writing, particularly in her novel Jeanne.

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (2003, Penguin, etc.)

The meaning of the tapestries is not totally clear but on the surface, it can be noticed that five of them depict the five senses of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. The sixth one contains the words À Mon Seul Désir (“To My One Desire”). Each tapestry shows a noble lady with a lion to her right and a unicorn to her left. The background is reddish, with an intricate and delicate spread of flora and fauna (this style is known as “mille fleur” ). The tapestries also contain flags bearing the armory of the sponsor, either Jean Le Viste, a nobleman in the court of King Charles VII or a descendant of his.

On her website, Tracy Chevalier explains:

The tapestries can be interpreted several ways – as a virgin seducing a unicorn, as a woman renouncing the physical world of the senses for the spiritual world, as the Virgin Mary with Christ. The first is the most popular interpretation, and refers to the old belief that the unicorn is so wild it cannot be tamed, except by a virgin. If she sits in the woods, the unicorn will come and lay its head in her lap.

The Unicorn Tapestries by Margaret B. Freeman (2013, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I have found some more details (on the sixth tapestry) in a fascinating book called The Unicorn Tapestries by Margaret B. Freeman, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The author observes:

In the tapestry inscribed “À Mon Seul Désir”, the unicorn and lion, supporting the banner and pennant with Le Viste arms, draw aside the rich fabric of a tent to disclose the lady inspecting her jewels. The meaning of the tapestry in relation to the others has not yet been satisfactorily explained. It may be that the set was commissioned for a marriage. The jewel box with its contents in the tapestry is perhaps a wedding present from the bridegroom to his bride, and the inscription an expression of his desire for the lady of his choice.

The lion and unicorn as a pair have already been seen on a German Minnekästchen and a French marriage coffret, the lion symbolizing the strength and courage of the man and the unicorn the chastity of the lady.

The gorgeous images –

Sight, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Hearing, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Smell, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Taste, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Touch, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

À Mon Seul Désir (To My One Desire), Wikipedia [Public Domain]

The Tapestries in the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]