Posts Tagged ‘tapestry’

Towards the end of last year I went unicorn hunting. It opened up whole unknown areas for me, not least that of medieval art. I’m still exploring this and learning all the time and, frankly, its awe-inspiring. Well, here’s another part of that adventure. When I read about the unicorn hunt tapestries which are in Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (which are being re-created in Stirling Castle), I also read about the Lady and the Unicorn series which are in the Musee Cluny in Paris. I determined to go and see them, and, last week, I did.

One thing about Paris is that everything is further away than it appears on the map! So, although we set off to find the Cluny by opening time of 0915, it was only after stopping for a coffee at the Sorbonne, and scrutinising the map again, that we managed to actually track it down – only a couple of minutes away from where we had stopped.

musee cluny

The Cluny is one of those amazing small museums in Paris (there are many more for me still to discover!). It’s a rambling, ancient building which doesn’t have real corridors, just the occasional narrow passageway or set of stairs. I had come to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries so made my way through the various rooms following the signs to the tapestries.


This plan shows you the ground floor. You enter at the far right and make your way to the far left.

The rooms on the ground floor are either very dimly lit to protect the tapestries and ivories on display, or very brightly lit displaying statuary and parts of medieval buildings. One of the rooms has stained glass all around and all backlit which creates a beautiful effect. Having found my way to the staircase to the first floor, I climbed the stairs and walked through a doorway into the specially designed circular room where the unicorn tapestries hang.


The first thing you encounter is a wall. You can choose to enter the space either to the right or the left of the wall. I went right, and entered into a dimly lit room around which were hung the Lady and the Unicorn series of tapestries, five of them, each representing one of our senses. As you stand gazing at the incredible red and blue tapestries, working your way from the one to the next, you reach the furthest right hanging, “touch”, and turn right around and see behind you the largest of the six tapestries, the enigmatic “A Mon Seul Desir” hanging on the freestanding wall you walked around to enter the room. The overall experience is amazing. No photos, no words, will do it justice. You just have to go. For me, the last time I experienced art like this was when I went to see Monet’s Lily paintings in the Orangerie. There’s another place to put on your places I must see list. When you walk into those oval rooms of the Orangerie and find yourself in the middle of those incredible paintings, it’s completely amazing. You feel surrounded by them, enveloped by them, as if you are diving deep down into the art itself. The Orangerie does that, and so does the Lady and the Unicorn room in the Cluny. It’s pervasive and almost overwhelming. There are a few small stools fixed in the middle of the room and I sat down on one of them.

The first tapestry I looked at was “Taste”, on the far left. I don’t know if you have these experiences with art, but I find when I walk through galleries I can appreciate and admire many works but just occasionally one whacks me right in the heart. This tapestry did it for me. I felt my breath catch, my heart leap, and the tears well up in my eyes. I could hardly take my eyes off it. As I looked at the others, one after the other, they too impressed me but I have to say none of the others had the powerful emotional impact of the first. I’ve read a lot about these tapestries since then and it seems this is one of their key features. They bring out different reactions in different viewers. It’s as if there are deep archetypal truths in them and whoever you are, whatever place you happen to be in, in your life, they have the power to touch something in you, to reveal something of your soul. (no photos will convey even a smattering of the power and impact of these tapestries but if you’d like a quick look check out my collection here)

There are so many mysteries surrounding these tapestries. They are just over 500 years old and are quite astonishingly accomplished works of art, but unlike paintings of the same age, no-one knows who drew the original designs, who actually wove the tapestries, who commissioned and owned them, or what message they were created to convey. There are many theories, and Tracy Chevalier, the author of Girl with The Pearl Earring, is one of those to explore them.

Are all the tapestries portraying the same woman? Who is she? And what exactly is going on in the sixth tapestry, referred to as “A Mon Seul Desir”. Whose sole desire? And what is that sole desire exactly? Only in this last, and largest of the series, is she without a necklace, but is she taking it off and placing it in the casket, or is she taking it out of the casket to put it on?

Here are some of the theories. The tapestries were designed by the Master of Anne of Bretagne and woven in the North of France or in Belgium, having been commissioned by the wealthy Lyon family of Les Vistes. The medieval concept of the senses were that there were six. Taste, Hearing, Vision, Taste, Touch and Understanding (otherwise known as the heart or the intellect or, as we might now call it, intuition). It was this final, sixth sense, which controlled all the others.

I bought the guide book in the museum. It’s beautifully illustrated and lays out all the known facts, and the controversial guessed-at facts about the tapestries, but, frustratingly, I feel, makes only half hearted attempts to deal with the luxurious and abundant symbolism in the tapestries.

It’s this last feature which I find so appealing and intruiging. Someone looking at these tapestries in medieval times would see so much more than we do because the culture of that time was incredibly highly skilled at dealing with symbol, metaphor and allegory. In fact, no flower, no tree, no creature in these tapestries has only one possible meaning. Like the Hunting of the Unicorn they can be read in multiple ways. There just isn’t one answer, one interpretation which is the correct interpretation and even now with our somewhat impoverished skills in handling symbol and metaphor, they have the power to touch us really in the depths of our souls.

I’m fascinated. I’m intruiged. I’m hooked. I’ll tell you more if and when I uncover it. Don’t you just love a mystery?

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