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A Closer Look at 'The Lady and the Unicorn'

We get more familiar with one of the art world's greatest enigmas, currently showing at the Art Gallery of NSW.
By Lucy McNabb
April 04, 2018
By Lucy McNabb
April 04, 2018

in partnership with

If you like your art medieval with a splash of mystery, you definitely need to see The Lady and the Unicorn exhibition at AGNSW this autumn. Since arriving (in separate planes at that) last month from the Musèe de Cluny — Musèe National du Moyen Âge in Paris, the six mind-blowingly exquisite wool and silk tapestries have been intriguing Sydney crowds. While art buffs know the wealthy Le Viste family commissioned them around 1500, no one knows exactly who designed them, or why, or for whom exactly. And although now widely interpreted as a meditation on courtly love and earthly pleasure through an allegory of the senses, the tapestries' potential to be read a variety of ways creates an enduring mystery that only adds to their charm. To help you get the most out of your visit, we spoke to Art Gallery of NSW curator and exhibition researcher Jackie Dunn about some of the symbols within the enchanting works, their varying interpretations and the pleasure of not ever being able to definitively solve the puzzle.

'Sight' c1500 (detail) from 'The Lady and the Unicorn' series, Musée de Cluny — Musée National du Moyen Âge, Paris Photo © RMN-GP / M Urtado.


The depiction of a beautiful woman holding a mirror could be interpreted as a symbol of vanity. However, within the Sight tapestry, things are a little unusual. The Lady holds the mirror up to the unicorn, who sits tamely with forelegs in her lap and seems very taken with his own reflection. Has she used the mirror to charm him into submission? Or does the mirror have, as Dunn terms it, "strong religious underpinnings"? Many engravings of the time feature a similar configuration involving the Virgin Mary holding a mirror up to Jesus, revealing his humanity. This, along with several other elements, has led certain scholars to argue that the entire tapestry suite is a religious metaphor. Dunn however, is unconvinced. "I don't think it means the tapestries are religious per say," she says, explaining that the artist who designed the tapestries (most likely the anonymous 'Master of Anne of Brittany') would have been unavoidably influenced by the religious art of the time. "Scenes like this are part of their image bank, what they would have been brought up on." Whether about vanity, seduction, religious metaphor or all three, the mirror is just one of the tapestry cycle's "rich, crazy, mixed-up bag of symbols".

'Hearing' c1500 (detail) from 'The Lady and the Unicorn' series, Musée de Cluny — Musée National du Moyen Âge, Paris Photo © RMN-GP / M Urtado.


At the centre of the Hearing tapestry, we find the Lady standing up and serenely playing a portative organ. Framed by unicorn and lion, she's assisted by what is most likely her maidservant (and a none-too-thrilled one at that) who stands working the bellows. Looking to modern eyes like a strange hybrid between panpipes, a keyboard and a small harp, a portative organ was a commonly used instrument within secular music at the time. If we go with the allegory of the senses interpretation, then we could argue the instrument, creating music, simply symbolises the sense of hearing. However, according to Dunn the presence of the instrument also tells us something notable about the Lady's class status and the period's new expectations of women of her social standing. "It was seen as important that women were getting a broader education in the arts," explains Dunn, including music, dance, languages and poetry. In this light, the musical instrument might represent that the lady is well educated and highly moneyed, but also that she has the ability to create music, to make beautiful things. "The instrument is interesting because, in a way, it's showing her capacity to make art."

'Taste' c1500 (detail) from 'The Lady and the Unicorn' series, Musée de Cluny — Musée National du Moyen Âge, Paris Photo © RMN-GP / M Orated.


Animals abound across all six tapestries, reflective of the era's fascination with the natural world. Aside from the lion and unicorn, within the Taste tapestry alone we can also see rabbits, a monkey, a bird, a sheep and several types of dog. Rabbits often symbolise fertility, but according to Dunn, here they could also be a warning about "the dangers of sex" and the likely consequences of breaching the chaste limits of the courtly love tradition, which dictated that "you could push the limits of seduction between a young man or woman to the point that they were completely filled with desire, but they never consummate it."

What about the tiny pet dog seated on the train of the Lady's dress? Gazing up at her adoringly, it most obviously conveys ideas of loyalty and fidelity. However, Dunn adds that a collared or chained animal (occurring throughout the tapestries) might also symbolise the containment of animal desire in favour of moral self-control. On another, more worldly level, the pet dog — along with the monkey — again displays the Lady's wealth and fashionable status to viewers: "Only people with money can have pets like that rather than a working dog or a scrounging hound at the back door!"

'My Sole Desire' c1500 (detail) from 'The Lady and the Unicorn' series, Musée de Cluny — Musée National du Moyen Âge, Paris Photo © RMN-GP / M Urtado.


When you stand in front of Mon Seul Desir, the sixth and final tapestry, ask yourself whether the Lady is lifting out the jewels or putting them away. Chances are you'll be undecided. "We're delighted that it's ambiguous," says Dunn. "For a long time it was thought that she was putting them on, but the way that it's now interpreted is that it's probably her renouncing the world of material things and returning the jewels to the box." Widely agreed to symbolise the Lady's purity and ability to control her earthly desires, the putting away of the jewels could also represent a more mature woman's rejection of the vanity of youth. There is a competing scholarly argument that the tapestry cycle depicts the various stages of a woman's life, with this tapestry portraying the Lady later in life.

But while finding that reading "quite a beautiful one," Dunn isn't convinced it makes sense for the suite as a whole, preferring instead to embrace a multiplicity of not wholly resolved interpretations — an approach far more in keeping with the tapestries' romantic, multi-faceted and richly poetic medieval context. "It's a world of all these symbols overlaid. They love complexity, they love cleverness, not being able to fully resolve things but to bounce between different layers of meaning. There's nothing straightforward about the way they thought about the world. It's actually very rich."

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until June 24.

Published on April 04, 2018 by Lucy McNabb
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