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Studying for a test? Prepare with these 10 lessons on Northern Renaissance: 1400s.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: 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. And 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. SPEAKER 2: We're sure of very little, except that the tapestries are very popular. SPEAKER 1: And gorgeous. SPEAKER 2: And the unicorn is very popular and much loved SPEAKER 1: Yes. 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. SPEAKER 2: That'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. SPEAKER 1: 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, that the unicorn-- SPEAKER 2: He could easily hop out. SPEAKER 1: 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. SPEAKER 2: 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. SPEAKER 1: 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 there by the water would be those that are water loving, et cetera. The shade plants are in the forest. SPEAKER 2: Mhm. SPEAKER 1: So there's a real attention to that being important information to convey. SPEAKER 2: But strangely, in 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. SPEAKER 1: Very abstracted, really. SPEAKER 2: Formed by these very real plants. So there's no hills, no landscapes, no architecture in the background. SPEAKER 1: Well, we are, after all, looking at a unicorn. SPEAKER 2: We are. But in the other panels, we do have figures and castles and sky and water and other animals. SPEAKER 1: So perhaps this is the most allegorical of all. SPEAKER 2: Maybe. SPEAKER 1: And I think there's a lot of attention that has been paid to this particular tapestry and what its meanings might be. SPEAKER 2: Well, it doesn't quite fit, right? Because the rest of the story tells us of the successful hunt of a unicorn. SPEAKER 1: And even the killing of the unicorn. SPEAKER 2: Right. And so in this last, maybe, last panel, is this the resurrected unicorn? SPEAKER 1: Well, that's certainly one long tradition, that the unicorn is an allegory of Christ. SPEAKER 2: Right, a creature who is very pure and who can only be caught by a virgin. SPEAKER 1: Who is symbolized, of course, as Mary. SPEAKER 2: 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 SPEAKER 1: And so we've got that overlay, but we've got some contradictions here, also, right? SPEAKER 2: We do. Because in most of the series, the unicorn is being hunted. SPEAKER 1: And persecuted. SPEAKER 2: And captured. SPEAKER 1: But that works. We have the Roman soldiers persecuting Christ. SPEAKER 2: Right, there are allegories. There are parallels there. SPEAKER 1: We have the hunt here. And so that works. But here, we have the pomegranate tree, which is a traditional symbol of fertility. SPEAKER 2: And marriage. SPEAKER 1: The idea of the golden chain often representing marriage. SPEAKER 2: You know, maybe the unicorn is the betrothed. SPEAKER 1: So is there a kind of eliding of symbol here? Is there a kind of overlay of narratives? SPEAKER 2: 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 21st century search for "the" meaning. But maybe it never had one meaning. Maybe its meaning was always multifarious. SPEAKER 1: 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. We don't. SPEAKER 2: Perhaps a wedding, who knows. SPEAKER 1: There is an A and there's a backward E in each of the panels-- SPEAKER 2: In every one. SPEAKER 1: --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. SPEAKER 2: And of course, tapestries would have been hung in a room that was dark, like this one, right? SPEAKER 1: Yes. SPEAKER 2: That we're in, and would have served as a way of insulating the room and keeping the warmth in. SPEAKER 1: Yes, they were quite practical. SPEAKER 2: 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-- SPEAKER 1: Just the sensuality of the surface. SPEAKER 2: Yeah. SPEAKER 1: I think that that's absolutely right. And this is not only dyed wool, but it's also silk. SPEAKER 2: Silk. And I think it's interesting, this idea of this creature that's imaginary, that's pure, that can't be caught. We can't see it. We can't find it. SPEAKER 1: And maybe even our modern understanding. SPEAKER 2: Yeah. [MUSIC PLAYING]