The Unicorn in Captivity The Unicorn in Captivity (one of seven woven hangings popularly known as the Unicorn Tapestries or the Hunt of the Unicorn), 1495-1505, South Netherlandish, wool, silk, silver, and gilt (The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Unicorn in Captivity
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- [music playing]
- We're at the Cloisters, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
- and we're looking at a breathtaking series of tapestries that date to about 1500,
- give or take five years on either side.
- We're looking specifically at what we think is
- the last of the series of tapestries,
- except that we're not even sure of that.
- -We're sure of very little, except that
- the tapestries are very popular.
- -And gorgeous.
- -And the unicorn is very popular, and much loved.
- -So this is the unicorn in captivity.
- There have been many, many theories
- about the narrative, about the origin,
- about the patron, about the source
- of these tapestries, and we really know almost nothing.
- -It's one of those things that happens sometimes in art history,
- where we can find lots of clues,
- and sometimes the clues don't add up.
- -We do know we're looking at
- this extraordinary tall representation of a unicorn,
- captured in this circular fence that's so low,
- we imagine - if we look at it literally -
- -he could easily hop out.
- -He could hop out. But he's chained
- to a pomegranate tree, and I guess
- it's probably worth noting that
- although the pomegranate tree's fruit is identifiable,
- the leaves are not what a pomegranate's leaves look like.
- But, so much of the rest of the surface of the tapestry
- is taken up by these careful botanical studies,
- and I think that we've identified nearly everything,
- in terms of what kinds of plants.
- -The plant life is completely identifiable,
- in a long tradition of Northern Renaissance painting
- and manuscript illumination.
- Very close attention to actual species of plants -
- we see that in Northern Renaissance painting like van Eyck.
- -But actually, it's more than that here,
- because in this set of tapestries,
- the plants that are in the meadows are, in fact,
- the plants that one would find in the meadows.
- The plants that are by the water
- would be those that are water loving, et cetera.
- The shade plants are in the forest.
- And so there's a real attention to
- that being important information to convey.
- -But strangely, in this particular one,
- and in one other from the series,
- we're not in a real landscape at all.
- We have a very flat background . . .
- -Very abstract.
- . . . formed by these very real plants.
- So there's no hills, no landscapes,
- no architecture in the background.
- -Well, we are, after all, looking at a unicorn.
- -We are! But in the other panels,
- we do have figures, and castles,
- and sky, and water, and other animals.
- -So perhaps this is the most allegorical of all,
- and I think there's a lot of attention
- that has been paid to this particular tapestry
- and what its meanings might be.
- -Well, it doesn't quite fit, right?
- Because the rest of the story tells us
- of the successful hunt of a unicorn -
- -And even the killing of the unicorn.
- -Right. And so in this last, maybe last panel,
- is this the resurrected unicorn?
- Well, that's certainly one long tradition,
- that the unicorn is an allegory of Christ.
- -Right - a creature who is very pure-
- and who can only be caught by a virgin.
- -Who is symbolized, of course, as the Virgin Mary.
- And so in medieval stories, medieval mythology,
- the unicorn in a way comes to represent Christ,
- and the virgin who can capture the unicorn is Mary.
- -And so we've got that overlay,
- but we've got some contradictions here also, right?
- -We do, because in most of the series,
- the unicorn is being hunted.
- -And persecuted,
- -And captured.
- -But that works, you know, we have the Roman soldiers
- persecuting Christ, we have the . . .
- -Right, there are allegories there, parallels there.
- . . . we have the hunt here, and so that works.
- But here, we have the pomegranate tree,
- which is a traditional symbol of fertility.
- -And marriage.
- -The idea of the golden chain, often representing marriage.
- -You know, maybe the unicorn is the betrothed.
- -So, is there a kind of eliding of symbol here?
- Is there a kind of overlay of narratives?
- -It seems like there are two traditions coming together.
- A tradition where the unicorn is Christ,
- and this is interpreted in a very Christian context,
- and then a very secular context
- of the unicorn as the beloved,
- who is happy to be captured.
- So, it's sort of one of those things where it's got so much meaning,
- and it may be that it's a twenty-first century search for "the meaning,"
- but maybe it never had one meaning.
- Maybe its meaning was always multifarious.
- -And perhaps open. I think that that's right.
- Of course, it would help enormously if we knew the occasion,
- and the patrons for which this was made.
- -Perhaps a wedding. Who knows?
- -There is an A, and there's a backward E
- in each of the panels, each of the tapestries.
- There's been much scholarly disagreement as to who those are for.
- The tapestries themselves are gloriously rich,
- brightly colored; and in fact,
- in a recent restoration, the backing was taken off,
- and much of the richness of the color
- was photographed, and it's really breathtaking.
- Even the front of the tapestries are just glorious.
- -And of course, tapestries would have been hung
- in a room that was dark, like this one that we're in,
- and would've served as a way of insulating the room
- and keeping the warmth in.
- -Yes, they were quite practical.
- -But it's important to go up and look closely,
- because when you look at the flowers and the animals
- and really try to decode the narrative,
- there's a real richness that unfolds that is . . .
- -Just the sensuality of the surface!
- I think that that's absolutely right.
- And this is not only dyed wool, but it's also silk.
- And I think it's interesting,
- this idea of this creature that's imaginary,
- that's pure, that can't be caught, you know,
- we can't see it, we can't find it . . .
- -And maybe even our modern understanding.
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