The Lady and the Unicorn

A mon seul désir
The Lady and the Unicorn — To my only desire.
Cluny Museum of Middle Ages, Paris.

The Hôtel de Cluny, in the Quartier Latin (the Latin Quarter) in Paris, was built in the 14th and 15th century. It is a beautiful structure that combines Gothic and Renaissance architecture. It is worth seeing as a building then, yet essentially it is the French Museum of the Middle-Ages. It houses many early Medieval sculptures, wonderful illuminated manuscript, and an important tapestry collection, that includes one of the greatest works of art of the whole Middle Ages, the famous series of tapestries named 'La dame à la licorne''The Lady and the Unicorn'.

The Lady and the Unicorn — Taste
Taste (detail)
Click for the whole image

The Lady and the Unicorn
by John Renbourn

I went there again yesterday, for the tenth time maybe, because they have just opened new rooms to the public, dedicated to art and life in the Middle-Ages. Also, I wanted to see the red tapestries again, a few months after I went to the Cloisters in New-York and watched the green series of Unicorn tapestries they hold there [This series was the topic of the last blog I published on Yahoo. I might post an emended version of it here some day].

The Lady and the Unicorn — Sight
Sight (detail, click)

Both series are dated back to the 15th century. They are so-called 'Tapisseries mille fleurs' ('Thousand flowers tapestries'), named that way because they contain thousands of details, flowers and small animals especially.

While the Unicorn is the main character of the green tapestries held in New-York, that tell the story of the Hunt of the Unicorn, the Lady is the centre of the red tapestries displayed in Cluny Museum. My eyes this morning remain filled with visions of the beautiful, enigmatic Lady.

The Lady and the Unicorn — Touch
Touch (detail, click)
There are six tapestries in the series. Five hang side by side on a same larger curved wall in front of the only door. They are really huge, several meters wide and high. You see nothing but them when you enter the room. They depict the five senses: Taste, Sight, Touch, Smell, Hearing, in that order. Touch is situated in the middle, a very sensual picture where the Lady holds a standard in her right hand and the horn of the unicorn in her left one.

The Lady and the Unicorn — Smell
Smell (detail, click)
After you have looked at the five senses for a while, you turn round to the exit door, but then you have a view of the sixth tapestry, that has been hanging alone on the straight wall behind you from the beginning. In this tapestry, the Lady places her necklace into a case held out by her servant.  The Lion and the Unicorn are here, and many little animals. She will leave then soon though, and enter the tent behind her of which the door is wide open for her. 'A mon seul désir' ('To my only Desire'), an inscription on the tent says.

The Lady and the Unicorn — Hearing
Hearing (detail, click)

Nobody knows for sure what this tapestry means. I have the feeling that the Lady has experienced many things in her life already, using her five senses, and she has reached the end of this path now.

The wise, beautiful Lady, might have decided to renounce pleasures of the world. Or she knows she will pass soon perhaps. Whatever the reason, she now leaves her jewels forever, as a symbol of her physical life, before she enters the tent, as a symbol of her inner spirituality, a convent, or the Other World.

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