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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:57

Video transcript

wertha cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and we're looking at a breathtaking series of tapestries the date to about 1500 give or take 5 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 very little except that the tapestries are very popular and gorgeous 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 now 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 the circular fence that's so low we imagine if we look at it literally that the he could easily hop that he could hop out but he's chained to a pomegranate tree and I guess it's probably worth noting that although the pomegranate trees fruit is identifiable the leaves are not what a pomegranates leaves look like by 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 the set of tapestries the plants that are in the meadows are in fact the plants that one would find in the meadow as the plants that are by the water would be those they're water allowing etc the shade plants are in the forest and so there's a real attention to that being important information to convey but strangely this particular one and in one other from the series we are not in a real landscape at all we have a very flat background very abstract warmed by these very real plans so there's no Hills no landscapes no architecture we are after all looking at a unicorn we are but any other panels we do have figures and castles and sky and water and under a summerhouse this is the most allegorical of all and I've made a lot of attention that's been paid to this particular tapestry and what its meaning is going to be 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 a creature who is very pure and who can only be caught by a virgin who is symbolized of course as the Virgin Mary right 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 we do because in most of the series the Unicorn is being hunted and persecuted but - but that works you know we have the Roman soldiers persecuting Christ we have right there are allegories there parallels there um and so that works but 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 a lighting of symbol here is there a kind of overlay of narratives seems like the two traditions coming together a tradition where the unicorn is 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 21st century search for the meaning but maybe it never had one maybe its meaning was always multifarious and perhaps open I think that that's right of course it would help enormous Lee if we knew the occasion and the patron which this was perhaps our wedding there is no a and there's a backward e'en each day one in each of the panels each of the tapestries there's been much scholarly disagreement as to who those are for streets themselves were 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 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 right that we're in and would have served as a way of insulating the room and keeping the warmth is 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 that's a bit that's absolutely right and this is not only dyed wool but it's also silk and I think it's interesting you this idea of this creature that's imaginary that's pure that can't be caught either we can't see it maybe even our modern understanding yeah