Storytellers have power. They’re like mapmakers who help your mind go to places you’ve never been to before. Historical fiction has a magic of its own. Like a time machine, it can turn the past into the present. And I’ve just returned from the Middle Ages.
“The Lady and the Unicorn” by Tracy Chevalier is about the tapestries of the same name. In 1841, the tapestries, in terrible condition, were found in a decaying chateau in central France. Gnawed by rats, eaten by mould, and mutilated by destructive people, the once magnificent tapestries were on the road to a terminal experience. Luckily, they were saved and restored. The tapesteries, now hanging in the Parisian Cluny Museum, have a somewhat mysterious past. So Chevalier attempts to clarify that mystery by writing a biography for them.
Commissioned in c. 1490 by the wannabe aristocrat from Lyon, Jean Le Viste, the tapestries exist only thanks to the existence of others—the man who commissioned them, his emissary in having them actualized, the artist who designed them, the weavers who wove them and so on and so on. They represent, above all, the warp and weft of everyday life. As many people are needed to make a tapestry, the stories of many lives must be told.
“The Lady and the Unicorn” is mix of fiction and fact.
There are six huge tapestries five of which represent each one of the senses. The sixth and most enigmatic represents “À mon seul désir”, that is, My Only Desire. The meaning behind these tapestries has been debated since their discovery. But, no doubt, it is a mediation on earthly pleasures hence the reference to the senses. In each tapestry, there is a lady and a unicorn. Although a unicorn is considered to exist only in legend, he appears in art even in 2000 B.C. The Greeks believed that they actually existed and gave them the name μονόκερος (monokeros) meaning “only one horn”. But it was a magical horn and had much power. For example, if you were to stick a unicorn’s horn into a glass of water laced with poison, the poison would disappear making the water potable once again.
At the time of the tapestries’ making, knights who professed courtly love were often metaphorically represented as unicorns. To catch a unicorn, you needed a virgin because only a fair maiden could distract the unicorn from its ferocious instinct. So all a damsel had to do was sit and wait until a unicorn showed up and, Voila! Once he appeared, he was compelled to put his head on her lap totally abandoning himself to her.
But the French were not the only ones mesmerized by a virgin’s hold over a unicorn. The Italian painter, Domenichino, also painted the unicorn but in a completely different context as those of the French tapestries. Domenichino’s virgin is placed in a pastoral landscape. She is simply dressed and barefoot.
Not all virgins are the same. But all unicorns are—they all need a lap to lay on.
Related: Lady and the Unicorn: Mona Lisa of the middle ages weaves a new spell + Lady and the Unicorn tapestry brought back to life + Re’em, the unicorn in the Bible + Courtly Love + The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries bring mystery to the Art Gallery of NSW + Images of tapestries from Wikipedia