SPOTLIGHT STORIES

Unraveling the Unicorn Tapestries

The seven individual hangings known as "The Unicorn Tapestries," are among the most beautiful and complex works of art from the late Middle Ages that survive. Luxuriously woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads, the tapestries vividly depict scenes associated with a hunt for the elusive, magical unicorn.

THE UNICORN IN CAPTIVITY (from the Unicorn Tapestries) by Unknown maker (1495-1505) (collection: The Cloisters Museums and Gardens)

In this instance, the unicorn probably represents the beloved tamed. He is tethered to a tree and constrained by a fence, but the chain is not secure and the fence is low enough to leap over: The unicorn could escape if he wished.

Detail of THE UNICORN IN CAPTIVITY (from the Unicorn Tapestries) 

Clearly, however, his confinement is a happy one, to which the ripe, seed-laden pomegranates in the tree—a medieval symbol of fertility and marriage—testify. The red stains on his flank do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from bursting pomegranates above.

Detail of plants and monogram initials in THE UNICORN IN CAPTIVITY (from the Unicorn Tapestries) 

Many of the other plants represented here, such as wild orchid, bistort, and thistle, echo this theme of marriage and procreation: they were acclaimed in the Middle Ages as fertility aids for both men and women. Even the little frog, nestled among the violets at the lower right, was cited by medieval writers for its noisy mating.

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