Published  21/11/2018

Magical Unicorns

Magical Unicorns

Throughout history, unicorns have borne the power of intrigue and attraction, and this brief chronology, centring on the Musée de Cluny’s six medieval tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn, showcases some of the highlights of artistic response

Miguel Branco. Untitled (Unicorn). Polymer clay, wood and metal wires. Collection Victor Pinto da Fonseca. Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. © Miguel Branco, Fred NS.

Musée de Cluny, Paris
14 July 2018 – 25 February 2019


One might be forgiven for presuming us to be at the zenith of unicorn mania, with the proliferation of cute, rainbow-coloured stationery items, cuddly toys, horned hoodies and woolly hats for children – and adults (in particular, as a symbol of the LGBTQI community) – not to mention the myriad ranges of bath and shower products, soaps and perfumes. Don’t be fooled, however, for the unicorn as a “brand” has been all the rage since the middle ages, and, in fact, even dates back as far as antiquity, with the Greek physician Ctésias describing the creature, at the end of the fifth century BC, as “a large donkey with a tri-coloured horn”.

Woman with unicorn, attributed to Giovanni della Robbia or his workshop, 1490-1530. Glazed terracotta. © Métropole Rouen-Normandie, musée des Antiquités.

The unicorn’s previous highpoint of popular fame was in the 1500s, however, when, as a symbol of virginity, it was integrated into the religious iconography of the annunciation, where the archangel Gabriel was frequently depicted as a hunter, urging the unicorn forward towards the Virgin Mary. It was also at the start of the 16th century that the Le Viste family, members of which held key positions in the Parisian parliament of the time, commissioned a set of six tapestries – wool and silk on a sumptuous red millefleurs background and boasting about 30 different shades and colours of dye. Rediscovered around 1814, the tapestries came into the collection of the Musée de Cluny in 1882. These tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn, form the centrepiece of this small but enlightening exhibition, which traces the history of the mythical beast from, well, when it wasn’t considered mythical, to the present day.

St Stephen's wall hanging, scene 8: Wild animals pay their respects to the body of St Stephen. Tapestry with woollen and silk thread, circa 1500. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée de Cluny - musée national du Moyen Âge) / J-G. Berizzi.

The tapestries, which have been displayed in a special rotunda gallery on the first floor of the museum since 1956, and were dusted and given a new lining in 2013, portray a beautiful maiden in a garden with her “pet” unicorn and lion. Five of the six are thought to represent the five senses, with the sixth naturally sparking curiosity as to its interpretation. In one, while holding a pennant in her right hand, the maiden fondles the horn of her unicorn with her left (touch). In the next, she samples a sweet from a bowl, while a monkey in the background eats fruit (taste). The monkey reappears in the third, smelling a rose, while the maiden makes a wreath of flowers (smell). In the fourth, the pennant is now held by the unicorn, while the maiden plays a portative organ, with a female companion operating the bellows (sound). Finally, in my favourite composition, the unicorn sits with his front feet on the maiden’s lap – more like the reclining posture of a favourite family dog – and gazes at his reflection in a hand-held mirror proffered by his mistress (sight).

The Lady and the Unicorn: sight. Tapestry, circa 1500. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée de Cluny - musée national du Moyen Âge) / M. Urtado

The sixth tapestry, then, depicts the various figures before a tent, on which the motto “mon seul désir” [“my only desire”] is written, bookended by the initials A and I. Perhaps a marriage dedication, there has also been hypothesising that it might illustrate a sixth sense, which, according to a theory developed by Jean de Gerson in 1402, was considered to be the heart itself.

Wild woman with unicorn, circa 1500-1510. Wool tapestry with silk and gold threads. © Historisches Museum Basel, M. Babey.

These tapestries have been taken directly as inspiration for artists of later generations, most notably beginning with Gustave Moreau, and the final room of the exhibition focuses on some of these. Among them are costumes and a photo from the ballet of the same name, by the writer Jean Cocteau, performed at the Opéra in Paris in 1959, and a contemporary tapestry response by Jean Picart Le Doux from 1964. Five blurred and abstracted tapestries – something like a Gerhard Richter-esque take using a squeegee on the colours – was made by Claude Rutault in 2016-18. What happened to the sixth here is anyone’s guess. On the floor, a “unicorn skin” by Nicolas Buffe (2010) might be enough to terrify any small children brought for a Sunday outing by their indulgent parents. Sophie Lecomte’s plaster Unicorn Droppings (2006), on the other hand, are likely to appeal to all those with a taste for such merchandise as chocolate reindeer droppings.

Nicolas Buffe. Unicorn skin, 2010-11. Porcelain, wool and silk. Weaving: Atelier Patrick Guillot, Aubusson. Porcelaine: Craft, Limoges. © Cité internationale de la tapisserie.

The historical room, through which one enters the exhibition, is filled with medieval treasures, including a 16th-century Swiss tapestry on loan from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, exemplifying the aforementioned unicorn-annunciation conflation; a beautifully illuminated 15th-century Book of Hours, in which the image of the wounded unicorn alludes to the death of Christ, while the maiden receiving him signifies the incarnation; and an aquamanile (Nuremberg, c1400) in the shape of a unicorn, used for washing hands during Mass or before a meal – appropriate since the unicorn was also a symbol of purification, with its horn believed to possess the power of detecting and neutralising poison.

The Book of Hours said to belong to Yolande of Aragon: The Virgin Mary and the unicorn hunt, circa 1460 – 1470. Illumination on parchment © Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence.

Throughout the middle ages, there was never really any doubt that the unicorn did exist. Sightings were reported, including one in the 13th century, by Marco Polo, who noted that the animal he saw, on the island of Sumatra, could not, contrary to popular belief, be captured by a virgin. It is now thought most likely that he was observing a rhinoceros. In 15th-century France, the unicorn was thought to be half-goat, half-horse, with a white coat, while in Italy at the same time it was believed to be light brown with long hair. All that was universally agreed on was the animal’s hybrid and magical nature. So, in many senses, perhaps, except for the fundamental question of acceptance as a reality, not so much has changed to this day. Who, after all, wouldn’t like to believe that the horn – labelled somewhat disappointingly as a narwhal tusk – mounted, at the exit of the show, in a model unicorn head (based on one made by the Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini for Pope Clement VII), really might stem from such a mystical and powerful creature?

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