The most famous and most intriguing exhibit in the Cluny Museum is “La Dame à la licorne” (The Lady and the Unicorn). This exhibit consists of six large tapestries on display in a room with subdued light.
Five of these tapestries show the five senses; Taste, Sight, Touch, Smell and Hearing, all illustrated by a mysterious lady with a unicorn on her right and a lion on her left.
The sixth tapestry (or is it the first?) is larger and shows the lady in a tent which is labeled “À mon seul désir”, meaning something like “To my only desire”. But what is her only desire? We don’t know. Is it something religious? Or something amorous? (She doesn’t look particularly amorous, but you never know. Maybe she’s smoldering.)
She seems to be putting a necklace into a box that her servant is holding.
(Renouncing worldly pleasures?)
Or perhaps taking it out?
(Embracing worldly pleasures?)
It must have taken years to weave these tapestries, following exact paintings (“cartoons”) that were sent from Paris. So nothing is shown just by accident or on whim.
This is the tapestry about the sense of sight. Here it is the unicorn who is seeing something, namely its reflection in the mirror the lady is holding. This is obviously a friendly and docile unicorn, since it has its front paws on the lady’s lap. You can’t really tell from my photo, but the lion also looks very friendly in a bemused sort of way.
The lion (or in some cases the unicorn) is holding a pole with something attached to the top. At first glance I thought the lion had a wind sock or wind cone at the top of the pole, like the ones you see at small airports to show the wind direction, but of course that’s silly because they didn’t have airports in the Middle Ages, not even small ones.
What the lion really has is a flag at the top of the pole, and the design is said to be the coat of arms of Jean Le Viste, the man who (presumably) commissioned and paid for the six tapestries. In some of the tapestries the animals also wear armor with this same design on it.
Not much is known about the tapestries — when and why they were made, who determined the subject matter, who painted the ‘cartoons’, who did the weaving. Several years ago, the American author Tracy Chevalier (who lives in England) did some research and collected the few facts that are available, then wrote a novel called The Lady and the Unicorn incorporating these facts and fleshing them out with imaginary details.
In real life, Jean Le Viste married a woman called Geneviève de Nanterre, whose father was the president of the Paris Parliament. They lived first at Notre Dame des Champs and then on the Rue du Four near St. Germain des Prés. They had three daughters — Claude, Jeanne, and Geneviève — but no sons, which (as the author Tracy Chevalier notes on her website) “was unfortunate for a man so concerned with the family coat of arms.“ When Jean Le Viste died in 1500, his “inheritance would have gone primarily to Claude — we know she inherited the Château d’Arcy. It’s not known what happened to Geneviève de Nanterre.”
In the novel, Geneviève de Nanterre is portrayed as being highly dissatisfied with her life as the wife of the cold and power-hungry Jean Le Viste. Her one desire — “Mon seul désir” —, as she tells her confessor at church, is to become a nun and join the convent at Chelles.
Her confessor advises her to go home and forget about becoming a nun. “You have three lovely daughters, a fine house, and a husband who is close to the King. These are blessings many women would be content with. Be a wife and mother, say your prayers, and may Our Lady smile down on you.” (Page 55.)
The oldest daughter, Claude, is portrayed as being in puberty and having constant conflicts with her mother, also as being strongly attracted to men — especially the painter Nicolas des Innocents, who has already seduced one of the servant girls in the Le Viste household. Claude’s seul désir, at one point, is to see Nicolas again, when he comes to show his sketches for the tapestries.
The tapestries, in the novel, are intended by Jean Le Viste to commemorate his appointment as president of the Cour des Aides, and he wants them to show scenes from a battle, namely the Battle of Nancy from the year 1477. Both his wife and the painter are opposed to this idea, for different reasons, and the painter manages to convince Jean Le Viste that for a man of his high standing at court it would be more appropriate to have tapestries showing noble women and unicorns, with a fashionable millefleur (thousand flower) background.
This novel was highly recommended by several people back on VirtualTourist, and now that I have finally read it I agree that it is entertaining and plausible or at least not implausible, and historically accurate in the sense that it correctly describes the techniques used by the weavers (in Brussels) as they produce the tapestries.
(I once took a tour of the Gobelin manufactory in Paris, where tapestries are still made using traditional techniques that have changed very little over the centuries.)
In a note at the end of her book, Tracy Chevalier recounts what happened later to the tapestries: “By 1660 they had been hung in a château at Boussac in central France. They were rediscovered there in 1841 by Prosper Mérimée, inspector of historical monuments. He found them in poor condition, for they had been gnawed at by rats and in some places cut up — apparently people in neighboring villages used parts of them as tablecloths and curtains.” (Page 277.)
Since then, the tapestries have been carefully restored.
Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870) is best known today as the author of the novella Carmen, which formed the basis of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet.
This is how the tapestries used to be displayed, before the Cluny Museum was closed for repairs and expansion. They were in a rounded room where visitors could sit and observe them. When your eyes got accustomed to the subdued light you could easily take in the details (in the room, not from my photo).
Updates from July 2021:
- The Cluny Museum has announced that the six tapestries comprising La Dame à la licourne (The Lady and the Unicorn) will be on display from 30 October 2021 to 16 January 2022 at the Abattoirs de Toulouse (Slaughterhouses of Toulouse), a museum of modern and contemporary art. “The six tapestries,” according to the announcement, “will be put into dialogue with works of contemporary artists around the question of respect for nature and the representation of women and will highlight the influence of the Middle Ages on contemporary art. The wall hanging will also be compared with the textile masterpiece of Les Abattoirs, Picasso’s stage curtain, ‘The Minotaur’s Body in a Harlequin Costume’, produced in 1936.”
- The Cluny Museum has also produced a video (viewable here) showing how the six tapestries of ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ were cleaned and restored in 2020.
Location and aerial view of the Cluny Museum on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2021.