The Lady and the Unicorn

18th March 2022

Since we started sharing book recommendations, we’ve received a lot of emails from people who have read the books suggested and loved them. There does seem to be a natural affinity between stitchers and books  about stitching! A reader recently endorsed the book The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier which we were sure we had mentioned in All Stitched Up! However, a search showed us that perhaps we’d misremembered.

So, we thought we should redress that omission! Tracy Chevalier is known for her historical fiction novels, many of which are woven around famous works of art. A lot of people will know of her book The Girl With the Pearl Earring which was made into a movie in 2003. The Lady and the Unicorn is equally as good and traces the story of the famous tapestries woven in France in the 1490s.

Although the imagery on these tapestries is familiar, the story of their creation is still shrouded in mystery.

Tracy Chevalier combines her literary skills with the known facts to create a story filled with intrigue, romance and drama. But even without the additional story, the tapestries of La Dame à la licorne which now reside in the Musée de Cluny in Paris can still capture the imagination.

L- ‘Smell’ R- ‘Touch’ from the series ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ (source)

There are six tapestries in the collection. Five of them are usually interpreted as representing the five senses – taste, hearing, smell, sight and touch. The meaning of the sixth tapestry is more obscure. The words À mon seul désir appear on the tapestry which often leads to an interpretation of love or understanding.

‘Mon Seul Desir’ from the series ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’- Close up (source)

The lady in this latter tapestry appears to be putting a necklace into a chest, which could mean she is renouncing the passions aroused by the other senses and asserting her free will. It could also represent the sixth sense of understanding, which was made popular in sermons delivered at the time.

Whatever the meaning of these famous works, their details and workmanship are exceptional. Woven in a style known as Millefleur, which literally means ‘thousand flowers’, each panel is teeming with foliage, blooms and hidden animals. This style was highly specific in region and time, appearing in France over the course of only about 150 years, with the year 1500 marking the zenith.

‘Hearing’ from the series ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ (source)

Where the tapestries had been from their creation in the fifteenth century to their rediscovery in the mid-1800s, no-one really knows. Nor does anyone know why they were forgotten, left in storage where they were subject to damp and mould. Once they were rediscovered, their notoriety grew when the novelist George Sand mentioned them in her works.

George Sand was one of the people who correctly dated them, extrapolating their vintage from the ladies’ costumes.

No-one is entirely sure who commissioned these works or for what purpose. Most historians agree that they were commissioned by the Le Viste family, but which member of that family undertook the project is still unknown. 

The Le Viste coat of arms in ‘Sight’ from the series ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ (source)

It might have been Jean IV who wished to celebrate his new status in the 1490s, working for Parliament and later the king. Or they may have been commissioned by Antoine II in 1500 as a gift for his new bride to be. But the heraldic display, in particular the dominant colour red with three silver crescents on a diagonal band of blue, are undoubtedly from the Le Viste family.

Since their rediscovery, the six tapestries have served as a reminder of a period in French history which was marked by ideas of chivalry, romance and morality. It is difficult not to be captivated by the wonderful details, the elegant characters and the exquisite craftsmanship.

Little Stitcher Shop – The Lady and the Unicorn cross stitch pattern (source)

The images have been reproduced in a multitude of places, including in cross stitch and embroidery patterns, responding to the passion that needleworkers have for beautiful, historic textiles.

If you haven’t read The Lady and the Unicorn yet, it might be another book to add to your reading list.

And if you haven’t spent some quality time exploring the imagery of these tapestries, then it is also worth doing so. Fortunately, you don’t have to travel to France to appreciate these tapestries as there are plenty of images on the internet which you can discover, although seeing them in the flesh must be an experience unto itself.

‘Taste’ from the series ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’- Close up (source)

Have you been lucky enough to see these tapestries up close on one of their recent tours or in Paris itself? Have you read Tracy Chevalier’s book? Or have you paid homage to these historic works with your needle and thread, creating your own personal piece of history?

The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries installation at the Art Gallery of NSW (source)

Whatever your experience, there is no doubt that the La Dame à la licorne tapestries are works of art loved by needleworkers the world over and they are sure to capture the imagination of generations to come.

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