The Lady and the Unicorn

The Cluny Museum (The Medieval Museum) houses the fabulous tapestries known as the Lady and the Unicorn. A quote from the English newspaper, The Guardian: Now the tapestry, which is in fact a series of six wool and silk tapestries woven in Flanders in the 16th century, can be seen in an entirely new light after a major clean and restoration.

Nearly two years ago, the hangings – five believed to depict the five senses and a sixth bearing the motto “A mon seul désir” (To my only desire) – were taken down from display at the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris, where they had been since 1882.

Time and decades of dust had taken their toll on the colours, and the lining from which the tapestry was hung was deforming its shape and designs.

Over the following few months, a team of five restorers removed and replaced the linings and cleared the dust using a form of micro vacuum cleaner. Finally, all six of the panels were rehung in a newly designed room at the museum.

“The tapestry has really come to life again,” Audrey Defretin, a spokeswoman for the museum, told the Observer. “Already the panels were exceptional and emblematic because of their famous history and the mystery of their meaning, but now they have been cleaned and rehung we have some idea of how they might have looked in the Middle Ages. They are really extraordinary.”

Each of the six separate hangings features a slim, blonde woman with a unicorn to her left and a lion to her right. Their exact provenance remains a mystery, though they are believed to have been commissioned by a member of the prosperous and noble Le Viste family in the late 1400s and created from designs, or “cartoons”, drawn in Paris.

We were delighted to see them again-I saw them about ten years ago. They are still in a dark room but, to my disappointment, there aren’t any benches to sit on so you can enjoy looking at the tapestries. The room was packed with school children getting lectures as they sat on the floor so, if you want to visit, I would do so late in the afternoons when school is out or on the weekend.

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Here is a rather blurry photo of the room. It is kept dark to protect the tapestries. When you get close you can see what looks like sun damage and, it is said, rats chewed off parts. The owners of the chateau where they were hung, felt free to cut off hunks for rugs or other uses. There were probably more now lost.

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Five of the tapestries depict the senses. This one is sound as you can see. The lady is playing an organ.

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Seeing. The unicorn is a symbol of chastity.

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This tapestry is called, “To My Only Desire” and experts still argue about what it means. It is probably the loveliest, if you go by my opinion.

4 thoughts to “The Lady and the Unicorn”

  1. Thank you so much for introducing us to the Cluny Museum and these wonderful tapestries. I had heard of them but doubt I’ll ever see them.

  2. This was a wonderful post. I am fascinated by art restoration. I watched many videos and read many articles about the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, which is also kept very dark, and no photos allowed.

    I was just exploring this topic and found that Tracy Chevalier wrote a novel entitled “The Lady and the Unicorn”. Will be getting that from the library. If you go to her website, you can find a link to the book and read the first chapter. Of course, she wrote the book prior to the latest restoration.


  3. I was surprised to hear that there were no benches. There were benches in summer of 2012 (not that that means anything). The benches were the only way that I was able to get a decent photo since I was able to sit the camera on the bench. Of course, it took forever for people to clear and give me a quick window of opportunity! 🙂

  4. Fascinating post. It’s horrifying to learn that the original owners felt free to hack them up into smaller pieces…at least the rats were just being rats! It’s wonderful how modern techniques can restore old masterpieces.

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