This section is from the book "Tapestries; Their Origin, History And Renaissance", by George Leland Hunter. Also available from Amazon: Tapestries; Their Origin, History, And Renaissance.
Of these Gothic verdures with personages, I know of none more fascinating than the Lady with the Unicorn, a set of six at the Cluny Museum (See plate no. 49). What the story is no one knows. There is absolutely nothing to justify the tradition that gives them an Oriental origin and connects them with Zizim, younger son of Mohammed II, said to have been banished by Bajazet and given a refuge in France in 1484 by Pierre d'Aubusson, Lord of Boussac and Grand Master of Rhodes. Nor can we treat as fact the charming fiction of George Sand's "Jeanne" published in 1844 that has the tapestries woven by order of Pierre d'Aubusson as a present to the lady of the house of Le Viste, whose marriage had made her chatelaine of Boussac. But we do know that the coat of arms so often repeated on the tapestries - a red shield carrying a diagonal band of blue with three silver crescents -is that of the Le Viste family, lords of Fresne who gave a president to the Paris Parlement; that the tapestries once adorned the Chateau de Boussac in Central France not far from Aubusson; and that in 1882 they were presented to the Cluny Museum by the municipal authorities of Boussac who had acquired them in 1837 with the Chateau, that is still in a good state of preservation and that from a lofty rock dominates the valley of the Little Creuse. The central figure of the six tapestries that are 12 feet 2 inches high, and from 9 feet 6 inches to 14 feet wide, is a richly gowned lady with jewelled necklaces and bracelets. Beside her a young lady also richly gowned who attends upon her. On most of the tapestries, a lion and a unicorn supporting with their paws the standard of the house of Le Viste, frame the central scene. The ground is crowded with detached trees, bushes, herbage and flowers, dogs, rabbits, monkeys, foxes and birds. The subjects of the tapestries are: The Lady with a falcon on her left hand, taking a jewelled cup of dainties from her attendant; the Lady plaiting a crown of roses; the Lady, wearing a turban enriched with pearls and aigrette, plays an organ that her attendant pumps; the Lady, standing before a blue and gold damask tent bearing the device A mon seul desir, takes from her attendant a richly worked golden chain; the Lady, standing holds the Le Viste standard in her right hand, and in her left the horn of the unicorn; the Lady wearing a brocaded robe, and on her head a string of pearls with aigrette, seated between the Lion and the Unicorn, holds before the latter a beautiful mirror.
The Lady With The Unicorn
Plate no. 49. The Lady with the Unicom. Late Gothic tapestry at the Cluny Museum. One of a set of 6 described in the chapter on Gothic tapestries. Size 3.70 metres by 2.90. The lady, wearing a turban enriched with pearls and an aigrette, plays an organ whose posts are crowned with a tiny lion and a tiny unicorn. The maid works the bellows. On one side of the pretty scene, a lion upholds the standard of the house of Le Viste, on the other a unicorn. Fascinating is the "mille fleur" floriation that fills all the ground of the tapestry Fascinating too the little animals - dogs, rabbits, fox, lamb that adorn it, with birds above.
The unicorn, it should be explained, is a fabulous animal symbolic of chastity. Geliot, in 1535, described it as "loving chastity to such an extent that naturalists maintain the only way to capture it is to place a virgin where it is accustomed to go for drink and food. As soon as it sees her, it will run to her".
Other important Gothic verdures are the three fragments, the Baillee des Roses in the Metropolitan Museum described in chapter XVI (Tapestries At The Metropolitan Museum) and one of them illustrated on plate no. 53; the Concert in the Gobelin Museum, illustrated on plate no. 327; the Heroine (Preuse) Penthesilea at the Cathedral of Angers; the Instruments of the Passion at the Cathedral of Angers; the Knight Armed by the Ladies, illustrated on page 63 of Guiffrey Seizieme; Shepherd and Shepherdesses, illustrated on page 57 of Guiffrey Seizieme; the Arms of Charles the Bold, in the Berne Historical Museum; a Walk in the Country, in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs; Saint Louis of Toulouse, in the Heilbronner Collection; a Knight leading a Lady's Horse, in the George Blumenthal Collection; a Boy between two Ladies, in the Martin Le Roy Collection; Equestrian Portrait of Charles VIII in the Schickler Collection; the Gentleman with the Crane, sold at the Robb Sale 1912, for $15,000.
A little later in style, with sky breaking down into the upper part of the panels and producing a realistic out-of-door effect, is the set of six in the Château de Verteuil called Hunting the Unicorn. It is rich with gold, and while in the Lady with the Unicorn set, the Unicorn was of secondary importance to the Lady, in this set the Unicorn holds the centre of the stage, and is pictured as struggling bravely and defending itself with hoofs and horn, but finally overcome by pitiless huntsmen. All the phases of the pursuit are figured one after the other, and in the last scene the lifeless body of the spotless animal is offered as a glorious trophy to the lord and lady who presided over the meet. Who the lord and lady are it is impossible to say, in spite of the two initials, A and E, that joined by a cord appear five times on each of the pieces - in the four corners and in the sky. Interesting to compare with this set are Saint Martin in the Martin Le Roy Collection, the fragment of a Hunting Scene in the Heilbronner Collection, and the fragment of a Hunting Scene in the Hoentschel Collection. All are full of life and action, and in all the personages are flesh and blood men and women.
Plate no. 53. The Giving of the Roses, a Gothic Decorative tapestry at the Metropolitan Museum. The panel illustrated shows three personages, two gentlemen and a lady more splendidly dressed than the rest. One of the gentlemen carries in his hand a hat turned towards the front so that the rose just received from the lady may be visible. In the lower left corner is a monkey holding a cat. See pages 374, 376.