The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in a Museum

The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

The Lady and the unicorn Desire

The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, is over 500 years old, and has inspired books, songs and movies and have stirred debate amongst historians. “The Lady and the Unicorn” is regarded as the Mona Lisa of woven artworks due to its symbolism, history and mystery. The tapestry’s meaning is obscure but has been understood to represent “love or understanding”.

Woven in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium), from wool and silk, the “Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries” consist of six tapestries designed from drawings that originated from Paris. Five of the tapestries, illustrate the five senses using a woman to interact with a unicorn, a lion and a monkey. The sixth tapestry remains more of a mystery with the prominent wording “À Mon Seul Désir” (To my only desire) on the tent.

Five of the tapestries are commonly interpreted as depicting the five senses – taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch. In the “Touch Tapestry”, the lady stands with one hand touching the unicorn’s horn, and the other holding up the pennant.

The Lady and the unicorn Touch

In the “Sight Tapestry” the lady is seated, holding a mirror up to the unicorn.

The Lady and the unicorn Sight

In the “Taste Tapestry”, the lady is taking sweets from a dish.

The lady and the unicorn Taste

In the “Smell Tapestry” the lady stands, making a wreath of flowers and the monkey has stolen a flower which he is smelling.

The Lady and the unicorn Smell

In the “Hearing Tapestry” the lady plays an organ on top of a table. In all the tapestries, the unicorn is to the lady’s left and the lion to her right, a common theme to all the tapestries.

The Lady and the unicorn Hearing

The “À Mon Seul Désir” Tapestry is wider than the others, and has a somewhat different style. The lady stands in front of a tent, across the top of the entrance to the tent is written “À Mon Seul Désir”. An obscure motto, the unicorn and the lion stand in their normal positions framing the lady while holding onto the tent pennants.

A large part of the charms of the tapestries is the strangely captivating unicorn as it confidently poses through the various scenes and the flower motifs throughout the tapestry.

Tapestry weavers use to create the design as they progressed using their imagination, from the fourteenth century onward they copied from a broad sheet of paper (cartone) or from a drawing or painting (cartoon). “The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries” are one of the greatest surviving examples of tapestry art from the Middle Ages.

Historians argue that in five of the six panels, the mysterious lady with the unicorn is Mary Tudor, third wife of Louis XII and sister of Henry VIII, who was Queen of France from August 1514 to 1 January 1515.

Lady and the Unicorn 1.jpg

This Middle Ages masterpiece was “rediscovered” in poor condition in 1841 in the castle of Boussac. In 1882, Edmond du Sommerard, curator of the Musée de Cluny, bought the tapestries and since then they have been on display at the Musée National du Moyen Age.

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                       The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries
  • Artist:                     Woven in Flanders based on drawings from Paris
  • Year:                       1500
  • Medium:                Wool and Silk
  • Dimensions          H: 3.68m  w: 2.00m
  • Discovered:           1841
  • Museum:               Musée National du Moyen Age

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“A bad craftsman blames his tools.” French Proverb

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Photo Credit: 1) See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 2) See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) CC BY 2.5, Link