The lady and the unicorn
10 Feb – 24 Jun 2018Buy tickets
In an intimate scene that medieval viewers would readily have understood as an allegory of courtly love, the unicorn gracefully lays his forelegs in the lady’s lap.
According to the myth of the hunt of the unicorn, the fierce and swift unicorn could only be captured if tamed by a virgin. Here he is shown at the moment he succumbs to her charms.
Together with the hunt story, we are shown an allegory of the sense of sight that involves a subtle interplay of glances.
The lady holds up a beautiful gold mirror to the unicorn, who abandons his heraldic function to gaze at his own reflection. It is left to the lion, looking off into the distance, to be the standard bearer.
How to picture the sense of hearing? With music of course! The lady and her young companion are playing a small instrument known as a positive organ. Their audience – the lion and the unicorn – seem captivated by the sound.
Another lion and unicorn pair can be seen crowning the instrument’s ornamental uprights, the whole scene is set upon on an oriental carpet every bit as rich as the ladies’ gowns.
To be an accomplished musician was a noble attribute in an era of courtly manners that valued personal refinement.
The lady displays her skills on the keys, while her young companion squeezes the bellows, pumping air into the pipes to allow a note to sound.
Here the lady delicately takes a sweet – perhaps a sugared almond – from a bowl to feed her pet parrot. In front of her, mimicking her gestures, a monkey is also eating a treat.
Monkeys engaging in recognisably human activities were often depicted in medieval images. As our ‘cousin’, the monkey represented our baser instincts that needed to be controlled. Other animals include a young unicorn, who has not yet grown his horn, and a lion cub.
Behind the lady and her young companion is a rose-covered trellis, a motif of the hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, that was the scene for tales of courtly love. A pomegranate – a symbol of fertility and associated with the hunt of the unicorn story – adorns the lady’s belt.
Here we encounter the lady alone with her animals in the garden of love. The sense of touch is suggested by her actions: in one hand she holds an emblazoned banner, in the other she gently grasps the unicorn’s horn. Might the unicorn be a stand-in for her lover?
According to a courtly reading of the tapestries, she has tamed the unicorn and captured his heart. Collared animals in the background – monkeys, leopard, cheetah and more – emphasise the idea of capture.
The lady’s hair hangs loose, held only by a tiara. In medieval imagery, loose flowing hair indicated virginity.
She is clothed in a dark blue velvet gown, now faded, lined with ermine and edged with wide ornamental bands decorated with gold and precious gems, known as orphreys.
In this tapestry the lady is making a garland or ‘chaplet’ of fragrant carnations. A monkey sniffing a rose reinforces the allegory of the sense of smell.
The flower garland was a common motif in the symbolism of love. Crowning a lover with flowers was a popular romantic gesture and lonely lovers were often depicted weaving such chaplets in garden settings.
The carnation flower was an emblem of sacred as well as profane love, and very much in fashion. Also fashionable was the new way the lady wears her bracelets: at her wrists, not high on her arm.
The heraldic emblems in all the tapestries are those of the Le Viste family. Here the design on the coat of arms carried by the lion is running the wrong way.
My sole desire
What is the meaning of this mysterious scene that unfolds in front of a blue pavilion carrying
the cryptic inscription, ‘My sole desire’?
Read as part of an extended allegory of the senses, the scene is believed to illustrate a ‘sixth sense’. In medieval times this meant the soul, the mind or the heart – the origin of moral life as well as carnal desire.
The key to this allegory is the phrase ‘My sole desire’ which, while suggesting a courtly romantic reading, has also been understood as pointing to moral reason or ‘free will’.
Is the lady taking jewels out of the casket to wear? Or is she returning them in a gesture of renunciation? If she is rejecting the pleasures of the senses, it is by her own free will, her ‘sole desire’.