The Lady and the Unicorn


The six medieval French tapestries known collectively as The Lady and the Unicorn cycle are a conundrum. They are a familiar pop-cultural phenomenon: we’ve seen them in the Harry Potter films, or have read about them in works by writers as diverse as George Sands, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Tracy Chevalier. Yet they remain resolutely enigmatic.

Maud Page, deputy director of AGNSW, acknowledges that it is impossible to totally comprehend The Lady and the Unicorn today: the medieval European mindset was simply too different. As she explains, “The tapestries are riddled with allegorical meanings that have changed over time; in our age many of them have disappeared.”

Smell c1500, from the The lady and the unicorn series, wool and silk, 368 x 322cm. Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris. Photo © RMN-GP / M Urtado.

Made circa 1500, what we do know, Page says, is that as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, The Lady and the Unicorn “charts human thought, society, and politics of the time.” Five tapestries seem to illustrate the senses: touch, taste, smell, vision, and hearing. Page points out that while this may indicate a cultural shift from strict moral codes towards earthly love, the sixth is perhaps the most intriguing. It bears the inscription, À mon seul désir (my only desire) which Page says may emphasise the individual and “a little bit of free will.”

Of course we can’t be sure this was the artist’s intention, we aren’t even really sure who the artist was or which studio in Flanders completed the work.

But the fact that we can’t fully understand these vibrant red tapestries with their millefleur (thousand flowers) backgrounds makes them more interesting, not less. “I think we get a little bored when everything is so dictated, predicted, or totally known,” Page says. With The Lady and the Unicorn “people come in and really create their own narrative about the work.”

The tapestries are on loan from the Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris.

Preview Words by Tracey Clement