Lady and the Unicorn

This week the restored tapestries were unveiled in all their glory at Musée de Cluny

A few years ago a thorough inspection of the famous tapestries in the Musée de Cluny depicting the Lady and the Unicorn uncovered significant traces of dust plus serious tension caused by the hanging of the tapestries. This led to the launch of a restoration-campaign, which began in 2012. The five restorers, who have worked on the project began by removing the old lining. Secondly they vacuum-cleaned it using a technique called micro-aspiration. Following this, weaker spots were identified and repaired. Analyses made during the renovation project revealed the original colour-scheme and the vegetal dyes used: madder for red, woad for blue, weld for yellow and orcein, extracted from lichen, for the purple. This procedure was different from the one used in 2005 when the Metropolitan had another precious circle of tapestries, the Hunt for the Unicorn,  restored. Here they were simply washed in purified water.

The six tapestries were discovered in 1841 at the Boussac castle in Creuse and were acquired by the first director of the Musée de Cluny in 1882. Already at the time of their discovery they were an inspiration for a series of authors. Thus George Sand set her first novel, “Jeanne” at the castle, while Rainer Maria Rilke was so inspired in the beginning of the 20th century that he wrote a long letter home describing the textiles, which later was turned into one of his famous sonnets.

dame de la Licorne - 1

Historians generally agree that the tapestries depict the five senses. More controversial is the sixth and final tapestry – be some regarded as the first. It bears the motto “Mon seul désir”, the understanding of which has continued to puzzle scholars and art-historians. In the tapestry the lady stands under a tent interacting with a servant who offers her an opened shrine in which the lady either places some jewellery or takes it out. Some believe that this tapestry – framing the other five – is meant as a call to rise above material pleasures; others consider it as a coded tribute to courtly love. Either way the tapestries may also be a poetic rendering of a marriage between a woman and her future husband – presumably from the family of Le Viste from the city of Lyon, whose coat of arms figures in the tapestries. It is generally believed that the artist responsible for the design of the tapestries is identical with the masters of “Petites Heures de la reine Anne de Bretagne. 1401-1500”: Jean d’Ypres and his son.

The scenes are placed on a background of late medieval “mille fleur” with a profusion of flowers, herbs and tiny animals like rabbits, squirrels, birds and lambs. However, set on a background of blazing red, the landscape has an eerie character different from the corresponding landscapes of the circle at the Metropolitan: The Hunt for the Unicorn

Lady of the Unicorn detailOriginally the tapestries were exhibited in a rotunda designed by Jean Trouvelot and equipped with optical fibre lightening. This autumn a new show-room was built by the architect Paul Barnoud, mimicking the type of space in which the tapestries were originally hung. The scenography takes an intimate approach favouring direct contact between the visitors and the tapestries. A discrete LED lighting system in the ceiling contributes to the new atmosphere. The tapestries are hung with Velcro on a slightly reclining frame covered with velvet; hopefully this will help to relieve the stress in the fabric.

State-of-the-art educational material and audio guides provide visitors with a better understanding of the tapestries and their broader historical context without disrupting their contemplation of the masterpiece. The installation of a ramp allows access to people with reduced mobility. The graphic elements installed along the visiting path are an invitation to discover the poetics connected with what has been termed the “Mona Lisa” of the Middle Ages.


catalogue Dame á la Licorne

The Lady and the Unicorn
Musée de Cluny (National Museum of the Middle Ages
6 place Paul Painlevé, 75005 Paris
Every day except Tuesday, December 25, January 1 and May 1, 9:15 to 5:45 p.m.

READ MORE (A Selection):

La Dame à la licorne/The Lady and the Unicorn
Published by RMN in 2007
ISBN-10: 2711850358
ISBN-13: 978-2711850358

Les secrets de la licornelas secrets de la licorneBy Michel Pastoureau and Elisabeth Delahaye
Paris Éd. de la Réunion des musées nationaux-
Grand Palais 2013
ISBN-10: 2711861120
ISBN-13: 978-2711861125

About the Sequence of the Tapestries in the Hunt of the Unicorn and the Lady with the Unicorn
By Helmuth Nickel
In: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin

Rilke and the Tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn
By Dora Edinger
In: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin

O dieses ist das Tier, da es nicht gibt
By Rainer Maria Rilke
from: Sonnette and Orpheus 1923

The Unicorn Tapestries in The Metropolitan Museum of Art
By Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo
Series: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Metropolitan Museum of Art 2005
ISBN-10: 0300106300
ISBN-13: 978-0300106305


La Dame à la Licorne
De Anaël Dang et Pierre Évrard – 2013, documentaire en couleur. La Camera s’insinue dans les fibres de la tenture pour en presenter la restauration sur des commentaires d’ Élisabeth Taburet Delahaye, Michel Pastoureau, Raphaëlle Dejean et Thalia Bajon-Bouzid


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