While I had no particular tapestry in mind when I included one in Part 6 (the chapter entitled “Forced March”), I surely had in the back of mind the famous Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cluny Museum in Paris. The sumptuous Paris apartments of Madame de Gramont d’Aster (former lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette and mother of the famous Eugénie) would surely have boasted a Flemish tapestry or two.
The six tapestries that reside in the Cluny Museum have exerted an enormous influence on the imagination of writers, musicians, and visual artists. Often analyzed as representing the five senses and the notion of love (A mon seul désir), each features a lady, a lion and a unicorn. Depicted in order below: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and A mon seul désir.
The symbolism of the unicorn is vast. I go briefly into it in the chapter entitled “A Garden Enclosed” (also in Part 6), where Sophie meditates on the meaning of unicorns; she, Philippine and Thérèse Maillucheau are discussing a passage from Song of Songs in an acacia grove at Ste. Marie d’en Haute. The unicorn was a tremendously popular symbol during the medieval period, and the notion of the unicorn as an avatar of Christ was widespread. One of my favorite details (presented to me in a Dante seminar at Stanford many years ago) is that unicorns were not only drawn like magnets to virgins, but that they subsisted on the milk of lactating virgins . . .
This idea that “only a virgin can capture the unicorn, and that to do so she must sit in a garden and wait” is expressed in this chapter—information that Sophie has supposedly heart from Madame de Gramont. The image I may well have also had in mind when writing this episode is one of those found at the Cloisters in New York City, The Unicorn in Captivity.
For more information on the Cloisters collection and the symbolism of the unicorn, go to http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/medny/albertini2.html
For detailed information on The Unicorn in Captivity, go to http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/70007568
For more information on the Cluny tapestries, go to http://www.musee-moyenage.fr/ang/homes/home_id20393_u1l2.htm