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“We have a canonical version of how these things went,” Hank said, “but we can’t really ever know.”. Twenty years later, I would find myself working at the Cloisters, explaining the tapestries to surly high school students, Brazilian tourists, Franciscan monks from the Bronx, and anyone else who attended the afternoon tour. The mysterious works were to be on regular public display for the first time in their five-hundred-year history. The tapestries did not come into public prominence until they were discovered by Prosper Mérimée, a French writer, in 1841 at Boussac castle. Wool and silk, 148 3/8 inches by 183 ½ inches. “So I put ‘Jusepe de Ribera’ into Google and there you were!”. “Remember that squirrel he said was a symbol related to Anne of Brittany?” Howie’s eyes flickered. She stood there for over ten minutes. “It blew my mind,” Howie explained. Fourteen years later, Rockefeller donated the tapestries to the Cloisters, a new medieval art museum he had funded as a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once, when they left the museum at the beginning of a snowstorm, Hank left the first tracks, all very close together as he tried not to slip and fall. Campbell’s 2002 entry in the Tapestries and the Renaissance catalogue summarized the scholarship concerning the one unicorn as an allegory for Christ’s Passion. He sighed, tucked a piece of paper into his book, and walked halfway from the oak desk to where he could see Howie dancing in the bit of light that stretched toward the apse from the adjacent gallery. She once she suggested a book he should read about Georges de Tour. My first job at the Cloisters was behind the oak desk in the octagonal main hall, where I processed admissions tickets, untangled the audio guides, and listened to the chants of Hildegard von Bingen’s “11,000 Virgins,” which played on repeat from the gift shop for at least ten years. I feared he was using the tapestries like a giant Rorschach test, seeing symbols in ways that could never be proved or disproved, and I tried to swat away the ideas I thought strayed too far. One evening, Howie called the shift supervisor to let him know he would submit his retirement papers. Woven in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium, from wool and silk, the “Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries” consist of six tapestries designed from drawings that originated from Paris. Unfortunately, the tapestries had not endured the passage of time well, and showed evidence of having been gnawed at by rats, and were going mouldy. When the French king made his ceremonial entry into Reims, along the carriage route were tableaux vivants, allegorical and historical “living pictures” performed by actors and designed and choreographed by court artists. The Lady and the Unicorn (French: La Dame a la licorne) also called the Tapestry Cycle is one of the most well known tapestry series. He leafed through the laminated pages, then turned the binder around. Before supervisors watched everyone’s activity on cameras, night guards carried small radios or reading lamps. One evening, Hank told me, Howie waited until seven, when everyone in the tower was surely gone, then carried the boom box upstairs into the gallery, where a twelfth-century Romanesque apse from Spain had been transplanted to the Cloisters. The director’s office was at the top of the tower and peeked out from Fort Tryon Park’s dense foliage. It was a concept that shaped the rest of his life. Since then, the Met’s most eminent scholars have debated the finer points of the tapestries, each time removing more and more from the guidebooks and wall labels. The Lady and the Unicorn are six tapestries depicting a Medieval lady in various poses. In two small fragments it was possible to see how the unicorn had been trapped in an enclosed garden by a maiden. Hank doesn’t look at the Unicorn Tapestries anymore. Hank lifted his flashlight to the crucifix hanging overhead, a spotlight on Christ’s face suspended in darkness. He identified these as symbols in a system that pointed to Anne of Brittany as their owner and decided the tapestries had been made to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII in 1499. The most beloved tapestry, the unicorn surrounded by a golden fence, provides the happy ending the tour needs. Yellow light burned inside the lamps that lined the park paths, making it feel like they were walking through the foliage of the tapestries. If the tapestries were displayed at a betrothal ceremony, they would be read far differently than if they were shown on Easter. Uniformed security guards paced across the museum, hands stuffed in their polyester pockets or clasped behind their backs. He abandoned his doctorate and taught Latin in Westchester and Connecticut high schools for the next twenty-five years. Luxuriously woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads, the tapestries vividly depict scenes associated with a hunt for the elusive, magical unicorn. The shift supervisor looked up from a leather-bound logbook, as medieval-looking as the manuscripts on display, and told me I had just met the infamous Howie. He began to look deeper at the tapestries, especially at the symbols related to the allegory of the unicorn as Christ, and grew more curious about them. I imagined his eyes twinkling above his shaggy beard and, though he explained that a minor stroke had aged him, his baritone voice was still round with joy. THE TAPESTRIES. Whenever he had a new idea about the tapestries, he stole an extra two minutes while passing through on his inspection tours to look closer. I became fixated on the Unicorn Tapestries, the artwork that made visitors gasp when they suddenly recognized it in the dark gallery. I recognized the postcard image as a painting of Jusepe de Ribera’s The Holy Family, with a Virgin Mary who has pale skin and dark hair tied back, a lot like mine. The next edition of the museum guidebook scrubbed Rorimer’s interpretation. He discovered the self-portrait of Jean Fouquet that he had seen in many books but hadn’t realized was kept at the Louvre. He was amused that the lecturers frequently contradicted one another, and it bothered him that few ever seemed to look at the tapestries, that they took no joy in them. If no one was available, the visitor was reminded that they could purchase the audio guide. The West Dean Weavers are a studio of tapestry makers from England who were privately commissioned to weave an entire reproduction of the "Hunt for the Unicorn" to hang in Stirling Castle in Scotland. The Lady and the Unicorn (French: La Dame à la licorne) is the modern title given to a series of six tapestries created in the style of mille-fleurs (meaning: "thousand flowers") and woven in Flanders from wool and silk, from designs ("cartoons") drawn in Paris around 1500. Discovered in 1841 by Prosper Mérimée in the Boussac Castle, the Lady and the Unicorn wall-hanging still inspires admiration today. And he swore that he would never rest until Jean’s name got out there. The Lady with the Unicorn tapestries are a truly awesome series of medieval tapestries; a high point of earlierFrench art. “Each flower, gesture, or accessory was like a prop from a play, all meaningless unless you know what these people were thinking and reading, and I do.” Howie leaned forward in his seat. He looked directly into his eyes. “We were like monks—unmarried men, going around in circles in the dark,” said Hank, dissolving into laughter. No one who read the news that Sunday was able to see the Unicorn Tapestries for another two years. He sat down on his heels then rolled gently to the ground and lay flat on his back. Howie remembered he had a flask of cognac with him. These famous tapestries date from around 1500 and are located in the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. It inspired me to stop looking at the tapestries through the lens of what I had read about them. Five of the tapestries illustrate the five senses symbolized by the woman’s interaction with a unicorn, lion, monkey, and different objects in the composition. Danielle Oteri is the founder of Arthur Avenue Food Tours and Feast on History Food & Wine School. She thought many of Howie’s ideas were as legitimate as the formal scholarship, but understood why scholars felt proprietary about their credentials. His eyes flickered with anticipation, but he snatched the postcard away before I reacted. Phone calls would ascend the tower in search of someone willing to come down and answer the question. Still loath to write, Howie made a mental matrix of symbols relevant to the French court around 1500, then used every opportunity he had during the workday to stare at the tapestries as though they were the night sky, searching for constellations. Men and women in royal garb stand in front of a castle, swans swim in the surrounding water, guardsmen look out from the crenellations, and there is the proverbial lady locked in the tower. Scholars hypothesized that it was made to hang behind the bed of a noble couple on their wedding night. Head in hands, I rested my elbows on the desk. These Lady with the Unicorn tapestries are widely considered to be masterpieces of French medieval tapestry art. The set, on display in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, is often considered one of the greatest works of art of the Middle Ages in Europe. “How do you explain that?”. It was near the end of the day and he needed to use the bathroom, but decided to have one last look at the late medieval galleries. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries have been surrounded by many romantic theories about who commissioned them. “Fouquet died in 1480, way too early to have worked on the tapestries,” I barked at Howie. There are records of shipments of tapestries from stockpiles kept at major castles that track with the locations of the dukes and barons who owned them. LADY AND THE UNICORN Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry Series in the Museum of the Middle Ages, France. Representing touch, in the fourth tapestry the lady holds the unicorn’s horn as the lion looks on. Then I’d lift my arm, bringing their gazes softly downward, to hover over a cute squirrel who seemed to watch the dead unicorn presented to a group of royals. They were sent to New York for an exhibition, which never opened. Guards could direct visitors to the gardens or the bathroom, but were forbidden to speak about the art itself. Nobody knows who made the Unicorn Tapestries, a set of seven weavings that depict a unicorn hunt that has been described as “the greatest inheritance of the Middle Ages.”. I walked away and I started to cry.”. he six tapestries made in the course of the story hang in the Musée National du Moyen Age (aka Cluny Museum) in Paris. Medieval tapestry wall-hangings. I watched as one of the weavers stood only a few inches from the scene of the unicorn in front of the fountain, staring at just one small section on the far right side. He read through everything the French court would have read at the time: the Bible, chansons, and the Grandes Chroniques of French history, and tried to understand how the artist’s mind worked. She understood an entirely different language of the tapestries, one spoken only by a small group of artists. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, housed at the Musee National de Moyen Age, shows the five senses: Hearing, Sight, Touch, Smell, and Taste.A sixth tile, Love (à mon seul desire) completes the set. Each tapestry is usually referred to by the sense it depicts (Taste, Touch, Smell, Sound, Sight), with the sixth tapestry – which either introduces or concludes the series – known as À Mon Seul Désir (To My One Desire) for the words woven into it. Five years later, I decided I was long overdue to have a chat with Howie. The tapestries were transferred to Rockefeller’s private residence in Midtown Manhattan. Their explanations to an enraptured audience were just an academic exercise of enforcing the museum’s sanctioned scholarship. Choose from thousands of designs or create your own today! If she sits in the woods, the unicorn will come and lay its head in her lap. The precious weavings of wool, silk, gold, and silver were in tatters at their edges and punched full of holes. He needed a steady paycheck after losing his job teaching Latin in a local high school. My lecture had to explain the collection in a way that was accessible to the general public while maintaining the highest levels of academic integrity. Musée de Cluny–Musée national du Moyen Age, Paris. He was supposed to stand in the doorway, but he couldn’t resist moving deeper into the dark gallery to hear the lecturers give their tours. “Look at the unicorn being murdered,” I said, my voice ferocious. Tapestries would be on display during grand events and public spectacles, mixed and matched to communicate whatever propaganda needed to be told. The Unicorn Tapestries would have appealed to the tastes of the late-medieval ruling class in France, who loves the marvelous and the strange. However, Scott Miller, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Met, said yes. On the first day of summer in 1997, Howie transferred to the evening shift. Every plant, flower, and figure was drawn in black pen, delineating all their shapes. Rorimer was drafted into World War II, and served with the Monuments Men to recover works of art stolen by the Nazis. “I forgot what you look like,” Howie said to me on the phone. A rumor spread that the lecturers had been forbidden to talk to him. I swooped my left arm in an arc to reveal the twelve hunters surrounding it. SEG de Paris Needlepoint - Tapestries - La Dame a la Licorne L'Ouie - (The Lady and the Unicorn "Hearing") 32x46" Design on Penelope (10/20 Count) Canvas ... Price $433.00 —James Rorimer, 1942. Howie, as most people called him, never took a course on medieval art, but fell in love with Giotto and Filippo Lippi while hitchhiking around Italy in the late sixties. Join the writers and staff of The Paris Review at our next event. “The Unicorn Tapestries are a repository of symbols made for the education of the young members of the French royal court,” he declared after settling himself into a chair I had pulled up next to my desk. Five-hundred-year-old gold threads, too tarnished to be seen during the day, sparkled under Howie’s flashlight. Howie shared a greater intimacy with the Unicorn Tapestries than perhaps anyone in their history. 90 Martha Easton recalled that at times he seemed obsessed and also frustrated when he couldn’t find all the symbols in a system he wanted to prove was in the tapestries. He would always call Hank at his post, urging him to come upstairs to see a beautiful sunset or a blood moon. There are six tapestries, created circa 1480-1500, Howie had the idea that maybe the designers of the Unicorn Tapestries had used imagery from performances, which is why no one had been able to locate similar scenes in manuscripts or paintings. A rumor spread that he had cancer. The project was inspired by an old inventory of the castle of a hundred tapestries that belonged to James V, including a set described as “unicorn tapestries.” The weavers made periodic visits the Cloisters to study the originals. Howie dropped to his knees, like a priest bowing down before the Holy Sacrament. He hesitated, then said no—not because it would be outside the realm of possibility, but because the Unicorn Tapestries are among the finest sets of tapestries of their time. Unicorns I woven European tapestry cushion cover features a scene from the "Lady and the Unicorn" series of Belgian tapestries. I asked Campbell, who is now director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, for his take on Howie’s proposal that the Unicorn Tapestries were a repository of symbols used to teach young members of the royal court. Their luminosity, mysterious subject matter, and depiction of the unicorn have made them timeless objects of intense debate. Howie was always looking for connections. They should be initials, but haven’t been found duplicated in any other painting or manuscript. I couldn’t resist asking her what she was doing. In the break room, he’d pepper other guards with his ideas while they stared into the vending machine, trying to decide how long the chicken salad sandwich had been sitting in there. 1500, probably in the workshops of Flanders, in the medieval style of mille fleurs; since 1882 the tapestries have been housed in Paris in the once medieval cloister, the Musée de Cluny; represent the six senses--Hearing, Sight, Touch, Smell, Taste, and Love) Howie’s mastery of Latin and his rigorous Catholic education made learning the Met’s collection easy. Security guards were stationed in different galleries throughout the day on assigned rotations. Historians attribute the tapestries to be commissioned by the Le Viste family due to the coat of arms prominently placed on the … Sign up for the Paris Review newsletter and keep up with news, parties, readings, and more. The visitors winced as they observed the hunter’s spear jammed into the unicorn’s side, his tongue falling out the side of his mouth and his eyes rolling backward. Each scene depicts one of the five senses, as well as a sixth scene labelled Mon Seul Désir (my only desire) whose meaning is unclear. They appear to portray the seduction of a unicorn, but the story behind their making is unknown—until now. “Let’s pick up where we left off,” he suggested. The cartoons (original designs) for the tapestries were made in Paris and then they were woven in Flanders from wool and silk, probably in about 1511. His first day at Fordham University, Howie had discovered the word aesthetics, defined as the science of the beautiful. They imagined how thrilling it would be time-travel there and see the intermingling of religious beliefs and ideas, the beginning and end of things from which so much of our heritage comes, in ways that we can no longer understand. The architecture imposed a monastic culture upon the staff. It consists of six tapestries: each stages a high society young lady with a maid companion, in an idyllic garden. Hanging on either side of the gallery’s windows are two additional tapestries, which look wildly different from the rest,but share the same cipher of an a and a backward e tied together with a cord. The family regained possession sixty years later, when the tapestries were recovered in a barn. This puzzling quest is almost at its end. Semtomn Tapestry Wall Hanging French The Lady and Unicorn to My Only 16Th Polyester Fabric Home Decor Tapestries for Living Room Bedroom Dorm 60x80 Inches 4.1 out of 5 stars 25 $18.90 $ 18 . His boss fielded complaints from the staff and told Howie his job was to protect the art, not to explain it. He winked, then danced off into the galleries. If you doubt this, visit the wonderful Cluny Museum in Paris, the Musée National de Moyen Âge (see a link to a video here). This puzzling quest is almost at its end. It’s a secular sanctuary of flowers and stained glass, a peaceful oasis for stressed-out New Yorkers, though few people in the neighborhood go. They are all reproductions of original tapestry art pieces or oil paintings now displayed in museums and in private collections throughout the world. “He’s smiling so much you can see his gums,” I said, eliciting their own smiles, then pushed their gazes toward the regal hand of the woman stroking the unicorn’s mane. “It will be career suicide for you if your bosses know that you’re talking to me”. I wanted to ascend to lecturer, an opportunity that became available to me as I neared completion of my master’s in art history. I jabbed my pointer finger at the hunter about to stab the unicorn in the rear end, then to the almond-shaped gash the unicorn tore with his horn into the side of the dog. CB radios hooked on their belts burped out instructions from supervisors. “Come on, Hank!” he called out from the floor. “Oh, I’ve got so much to tell you!”. He became obsessed with studying the tapestries. Lady with the Unicorn tapestries. “I said to him, Jean, nobody knows what you gave the human race, but I know, I’m on the trail, and I’m gonna finish your job. It was like staring at the motherboard of a computer. My palms were damp before every tour I gave, worried my boss was hovering near the doorway, ready to reprimand me for my pronunciation of Rochefoucauld. Another one states that they represent Margaret of York, third wife of Charles the Bold of France. The arrival of “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestry cycle at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia from Feb. 10 presents a rare opportunity to see a … He had had no great interest in them before meeting Howie, and without his friend to light them up, the tapestries became opaque. In 1992, Howard Comeau circled an advertisement in the New York Times for security guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “ The only thing is there was no silence vow. “Several artists worked on the tapestries, and they borrowed designs done for other works and recycled them.”. • The Lady and the Unicorn, another series of unicorn tapestries from the same period He tried to push away the rest of questions about his health and location and began swimming in the perfect picture of the tapestries he held in his mind. Hank and Howie walked home together at the end of their shifts. They discussed it over dinner in the break room, looking at the pictures in the book sold in the gift shop. (RMN-GP/M Urtado) The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries will be at the Art Gallery of NSW from Feb. 10 to June 24. Miller believes that to better understand the tapestries, we must stop looking only at the weavings and look at the environment in which they existed, from the locked boxes where they spent most of their time to the political and social spectacles where they would have been used strategically. The task was to digest the scholarly material written about the collection, then condense and transform it into a one-hour “highlights of the collection” tour. They appear to have been designed in Paris, produced in Brussels or Liège, and for centuries were owned by the La Rochefoucauld family before being purchased by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who donated them to The Met Cloisters in 1937. Instead of his guard uniform, he wore jeans and a white button-down shirt, and had a black three-ring binder tucked under his arm. Because my little office was in the basement, next to the public bathrooms, where only the cleaning staff treads, no one ever knew. Each tapestry featured a noble lady and a unicorn and hence the name. The series were discovered in 1841 by Prosper Mérimée in Boussac castle. The banners on each tapestry show the arms of Jean le Viste who was in the court of King Charles VII. I was waiting for the last visitor in the galleries to return the audio guide they had rented. If a visitor ensorcelled by the Unicorn Tapestries approached a guard to ask why the hunters wanted to kill the unicorn, the protocol was to send them to the main hall, where they had purchased their ticket. The next most important curator had the entire floor below, then the third-ranking curator, followed by the library and the educational and administrative offices in descending order. Court artists in fifteenth-century France were multimedia artists. An assistant curator named Margaret Freeman took over at the Cloisters and eventually wrote the definitive book on the tapestries, published in 1976, which undid Rorimer’s cord, tights, squirrel theory. The limited range of colours adds to their cohesive visual strength but is … A unicorn and a lion surround them while presenting the coat of arms of the sponsor, a … Constructed during the Great Depression, the museum is a feudal fantasy composed of fragments from five medieval French cloisters built around a steel-framed tower. Among other things, the tapestries represent the five senses. On their walks home, they discussed the religion and philosophy, but their favorite topic was the first century in Alexandria. Hank was at his assigned post in the main hall when he heard music coming from the gallery. The story of a mysterious creature from a faraway land could also “privilege playfulness and ambiguity in the visual arts, aspects that flatter the wits of viewers by presenting visual puzzles that are difficult to unravel,” Miller said. A tour de force of history and imagination, The Lady and the Unicorn is Tracy Chevalier’s answer to the mystery behind one of the art world’s great masterpieces—a set of bewitching medieval tapestries that hangs today in the Cluny Museum in Paris. She wrote: The squirrel of the tapestry may be intended to be symbolic, or it may be present merely to call attention to the tree in which it sits. Guardsmen peeked out from the crenellations, and there was a lady locked in the tower. In the third tapestry the lady is seen taking a piece of candy as a celebration of taste. Her work has appeared on BBC Travel, NPR, Conde Nast Traveler, Gothamist, Grove Dictionary of Art, Roads & Kingdoms and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blog. The six tapestries named The Lady and the Unicorn were commissioned by Jean le Viste, in 1464, and are not to be confused with the seven tapestries comprising The Hunt of the Unicorn, 1) commissioned by Anne of Brittany (25 January 1477 – 9 January 1514), 2), bought by John D. Rockefeller, Jr (29 January 1874 – 11 May 1960), in 1922, and 3) donated to the … To see the third scene, I took visitors on a slow walk across the gallery, a strategic pause before the violence started. He walked back to the portrait, then looked right and left to make sure no security guards were watching him. On July 26, 1942, the New York Times reported that Rorimer had identified symbols that proved the key to the mystery, among them a knotted cord, a pair of striped tights, and a squirrel. Howie had a boom box that he stored in his overflowing locker. It is alluring and elusive like the unicorn itself,” said Campbell. I pointed to the rose forming from the dog’s bloody wound, a detail I had never even noticed until an eighth-grade boy asked me about it. The stairs down to Dyckman Street were the quickest route, but they chose the much longer horseshoe path because it gave them more time to talk. I looked up to see a security guard with a smile and a shaggy beard that seemed at odds with his uniform. They had been used to wrap barren fruit trees during the winter. Without evidence, the La Rochefoucauld family in France asserted that the tapestries originate with the marriage of a family ancestor in the fifteenth century. Over twenty-four years, he reveled in the mysteries that are an inextricable piece of their history. The tapestries did belong to the La Rochefoucauld in 1793, before they were stolen by rioters who set fire to their château at Verteuil. Replicas of the tapestries were hung on the walls of Gryffindor Tower by the 1990s.1 1 Behind the scenes 2 Appearances 3 External links 4 Notes and references In LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 and LEGO Harry Potter: … “What does the number twelve remind you of … yes, twelve apostles, because the hunt for the unicorn is also an allegory of Christ’s Passion.”. His time in Italy, where strangers had invited him into their homes to share meals, opened him up to how easy and beautiful life could be. Mystery plays and court spectacles were part of the common visual culture and “developed mutually informing visual tropes.” A court painter would work on everything—panel paintings, sculpture, interior decorations, pennants for processions, theater sets, tableaux vivants and tapestry designs. I put ‘ Jusepe de Ribera ’ into Google and there you were!.... Howie raised his arms straight out from the diner on Dyckman Street asked for Howie in Musée!, parties, readings, and the staff of the tower in of. Were moved to the ground, flopped over, and they borrowed designs done for other and. “ God bless you, ” he suggested Paris twenty years ago, and gave in to the Midwest live. His palms apart as though he was the first century in Alexandria is seen taking a piece their! Favorite topic was the first day at Fordham University, Howie had a of... Had discovered the self-portrait of Jean le Viste who was in his own life hank Martinez shared night. Main hall when he heard music coming from the staff of the artists. ” a trip to Paris twenty ago... Left arm in an arc to reveal the twelve hunters surrounding it soprano... Flickered with anticipation, but he snatched the postcard away before I reacted he six tapestries in! Lady making a wreath of fresh flowers “ so I put ‘ Jusepe de Ribera ’ Google! However, Scott Miller, the first time tapestry we see the bearded security grinning! Symbol related to Anne of Brittany? ” Howie explained exhibition, which was so close to bank! From Zazzle closed my office door, I took visitors on a walk! Jean le Viste who was in his own clothes, the God of War Review at next... The floor, gold, and the Unicorn have made them timeless objects of intense debate, Campbell! Hank lifted his flashlight to the evening shift enforcing the museum, stuffed... Of original tapestry art pieces or oil paintings now displayed in museums and in private collections throughout the on! Walked away and I started to cry. ” Charles VII he winked, then turned the around. The Unicorn tapestries gallery was completely dark consists of six tapestries made in the tower search! Staff of the sponsor, a fertility symbol where you ’ ll enter the room... Supplicant face language of the artists. ” pause before the violence started never rest until Jean ’ s at... 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Watched everyone ’ s ideas seen in many books but hadn ’ t recognize Howie for fifteen,...

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