Sydney Morning Herald Column

The Lady and the Unicorn

Published April 20, 2018
'Mon Seul Desire'

Towards the end of Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll stages a furious battle between a lion and a unicorn. The fight is based on an old nursery rhyme, which plays on the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, in which the lion stands for England, the unicorn for Scotland.
The lion and the unicorn feature in the six magnificent tapestries from the Musée de Cluny, Paris, currently on display at the Art Gallery of NSW. In The Lady and the Unicorn these creatures, real and imaginary, are not fighting over a crown but their opposition is just as blatant. Although they act as dual standard bearers the lion and the unicorn often seem at cross-purposes. But more of that later.
The tapestries date from c.1500 but didn’t enter the museum’s collection until 1882. For more than 300 years they are thought to have been hanging in the Chateau de Boussac, in the Creuse region of France, about half-way between Bourg and Clermont-Ferrand.
The provenance of the tapestries has been discussed and debated ever since they began attracting attention in the early years of the 19th century. It’s now possible to construct a detailed genealogy of the Le Viste family who commissioned the works, but there are many questions left unanswered. We know the Le Vistes were an upwardly mobile clan who made their money through commerce and law, but aspired to join the ruling classes. The tapestries, with their elaborate symbolism and heraldic motifs, were a powerful statement of intent.
As such they are products of an age in transition, when the feudalism of the Middle Ages was being eroded by a new emphasis on markets and merit. In the Renaissance the wealth and power of the aristocracy was on the wane but its prestige remained undimmed. This would still be the case in the early 20th century when Henry James’s novels set the energy and new wealth of his American expats against the decadence and faded glories of the European nobility.


The symbolism of the tapestries has proved even more elusive than the provenance, but in her catalogue essay Elisabeth Delahaye of the Musée de Cluny supports the now-standard association of five tapestries with the five senses: touch, taste, hearing, smell and sight, while the sixth, which bears the legend, Mon Seul Désir, (“My only desire”) is viewed as a sixth sense. It suggests the heart achieves an inner wisdom in transcending the temptations of the sensory world.
This explanation obeys the principle of Occam’s Razor, whereby the simplest, neatest explanation is usually the correct one – which hasn’t prevented scholars from coming up with any number of alternative theories. Even if we accept the argument of the senses there are questions as to what degree the works celebrate sacred or profane love, or act as a record of a marriage or bethrothal.
The same arguments rage about famous paintings such as Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434, in the National Gallery in London. It was commonly believed that the painting was a wedding portrait, which squared oddly with Mrs. Arnolfini’s pregnancy. Nowadays we believe in neither the wedding nor the pregnancy.
Whether we are discussing the Arnolfini Portrait or the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries we can never be certain what meanings were intended by the original artists. Despite the best efforts of art historians such as Erwin Panofsky, symbolism and iconology are not exact sciences. We can guess at the more obvious associations but artists didn’t always follow the rules. Blame ignorance, or simply that little imp of originality that undermines every set of conventions.

One well-established belief was that the unicorn could only be captured by a virgin. The animal’s long horn was taken as a phallic symbol, suggesting that carnal desire must be subdued by love, and presumably, marriage.
It’s no simple matter to apply this template to the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. This beast doesn’t lay his head passively in the lady’s lap. If he rests his front hooves there in the tapestry devoted to sight it’s only to get a better look at himself in the lady’s hand-held mirror. The lion looks away, as if bored by the whole game.
This opposition continues in smell, where the lion strikes a grimace, while the unicorn looks smug and relaxed. In Mon Seul Désir the lion opens his mouth to roar while the unicorn smiles. One wonders if the lion’s responses are meant to be raw and instinctive, the unicorn’s more considered? Is the lion a reckless spirit and the unicorn a model of self-awareness?
These are big imponderables, but every part of these tapestries is alive with animals and plants, and each has a symbolic meaning. To fully appreciate these works we need to abandon our literal habits and see them through the eyes of a viewer of the 16th century. A spectator of 1500 would have had little interest in putting an identity to the lady, just as he or she would have been unconcerned as to who might have been the model for a picture of the Madonna or Mary Magdalen.
It’s not even clear whether there is one “lady” or several ladies, because the blonde women in these tapestries may share the same style of dress and hair-do, but have different facial features. They are not likenesses of any particular woman but generic figures.

Today we feel obliged to break down and analyse every aspect of an image, whereas the medieval mind saw one teeming picture of God’s Creation. Viewers didn’t seek the reality behind the image, they took the image as a portrait of a unified world, with every little symbol tending towards one greater truth.
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are indisputable masterpieces and we’re very lucky to be able to see them in Australia. One could almost forget it’s yet another package show, with a catalogue that doesn’t even mention the AGNSW.
I can’t feel so forgiving about the odd mish-mash the gallery has put down the exit side of the display, including small sculptures and knick-knacks of animals throughout the ages. It’s a tacky exercise that seeks to provide a contemporary angle but merely succeeds in undermining the dignity of the exhibition. There may be only six tapestries but they are complete and absorbing works of art. It’s a powerful reminder that a trip to a gallery need not always be a sideshow – there’s still the possibility of a quaint, old-fashioned aesthetic experience.
The Lady and the Unicorn
Art Gallery of NSW, 10 February – 24 June, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April, 2018