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The Hunt of the Unicorn, or the Unicorn Tapestries, is a series of seven tapestries dating from between 1495 and 1505, now in The Cloisters in New York, probably woven in Brussels. The tapestries show a group of noblemen and hunters in pursuit of a unicorn. The Hunt for the Unicorn was a common theme in late medieval and renaissance works of art and literature. The tapestries were woven in wool, metallic threads, and silk. The vibrant colours, still evident today, were produced from dye plants: weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue). One of the panels, The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn, only survives in two fragments.
The tapestries are subject to scholarly debate about the iconography, the artists who designed the tapestries, and questions surrounding the sequence in which they were meant to be hung. Possibly the seven tapestries were not originally hung together.
It was posited by James J. Rorimer in 1942 that they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany, to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII, King of France on 6 December 1491. The clue derived from the occurrence of A and reversed E tied with a cord in a bowknot throughout the series of tapestries. As Rorimer surmised, the letters A and E are interpreted as the first and the last letters of Anne's name, citied the elisions in the medieval age.
The tapestries show pagan and Christian symbolism. The pagan themes emphasise the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas Christian writings interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. The unicorn has long been identified as a symbol of Christ by Christian writers, allowing the traditionally pagan symbolism of the unicorn to become acceptable within religious doctrine. The original pagan myths about The Hunt of the Unicorn refer to an animal with a single horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; Christian scholars translated this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary.
In the Gothic tapestry, the makers looked on biblical events as history and linked the biblical and secular narrative in the tapestry weaving. When the morality was attached importance to the medieval art, the tapestries illustrate the moralising role of narratives in allegories. The secular unicorn hunt was not only a simply depiction of Christian art but also transformed into an allegorical representation of the Annunciation. Another theory states that the tapestries intended to depict both the secular concerns and Christian virtue, and the pursuit and taming of the unicorn not only used as religious Incarnation but also in conjunction with the secular meaning.
With a regulatory attitude to Rorimer's speculation of tapestry ownership, Margaret B. Freeman did not negate the possible function of the tapestries as an interpretation of allegory of true love. The taming of the unicorn symbolises the lover or mate who enchained by virgin and entrapped in the fence (in the tapestry The Unicorn in Captivity) under the notion of secularity. Freeman discovered the connection between the taming of the unicorn and the devotion and subjection in love in the medieval poets. In addition, the author pointed out that the overlap of subject the God of Heaven and the God of love were compatible in the notion of late middle age.
The original workmanship of the tapestries still remains unanswered at the present. The design of the tapestries in the effect of the richness of figurative elements, near to the art of oil painting and appear to be influenced by the French style. and reflected the woodcuts and metalcuts printed in Paris in the late fifteenth century.
The tapestries were rich in floral in the background as a garden, features the "millefleurs" style, refers to a background style of a variety of small botanic, which was invented by the weavers of Gothic age, popular during the late medieval and wilted after the early Renaissance. There are more than a hundred plants represented in the tapestries, which scatter across the green background on the panels, eighty-five of which are identified by botanists whose interior meaning in the tapestries were designed to recall the tapestries' major themes. In the unicorn series, the hunt takes place within a closed garden, the Hortus conclusus, take the literal meaning of "enclosed garden", which was not only in conjunction with the Annunciation, but also a representation of the garden in the secular world.
The tapestries were highly probably woven in Brussels, which was an important centre of tapestry industry in medieval Europe. As a series of remarkable works of Brussels looms, the mixture of silk, metallic thread with wool gave the tapestries finer quality and brilliance of colours. The wool was widely produced in rural areas around Brussels, and easily obtained as the primary material in tapestry weaving. The silk was costly in the weaving of tapestry, which symbolised the wealth and social status of the tapestry owner.
The seven tapestries are:
From the collection of Morgan and Rochefoucauld, the tapestries comprise five large pieces, one small piece and two fragments.
The mobility associated with the size formed an essential consideration of the function of the tapestry in the medieval age and different sizes of Gothic tapestries served as the decoration to fit chosen walls in the middle age. In the modern research, based on the possible that the unicorn tapestries was designed for the purpose as a bedroom ensemble, the five large pieces fit the back area of wall, while the other two pieces serve as the coverlet, or overhead canopy.
Other sources give slightly different titles and different sequences. The factors that affect this are primarily threefold. Firstly the nature of the tapestries themselves, which exhibit differences of manufacture and size, suggesting that the first and last may be independent works or form a different series. Secondly the nature of the classic stag hunt, usually cited to Livre de la Chasse by Gaston III, Count of Foix. Thirdly the established story of the unicorn hunt, where the unicorn is made docile by a virgin, and then captured, wounded or killed. In addition the symbolism of the story needs to be taken into account.
The tapestries were owned by the La Rochefoucauld family of France for several centuries, with first mention of them showing up in the family's 1728 inventory. At that time five of the tapestries were hanging in a bedroom in the family's Château de Verteuil, Charente and two were stored in a hall adjacent to the chapel. The tapestries were highly believed woven for François, the son of Jean II de La Rochefoucauld and Marguerite de Barbezieux. And there was a possible connection between the letters A and E and the La Rochefoucauld, which are interpreted as the first and last of Antoine's name, who was the son of François, and his wife, Antoinette of Amboise. During the French Revolution the tapestries were looted from the château and reportedly were used to cover potatoes – a period during which they apparently sustained damage. By the end of the 1880s they were again in the possession of the family. A visitor to the château described them as quaint 15th century wall hangings, yet showing "incomparable freshness and grace". The same visitor records the set as consisting of seven pieces, though one was by that time in fragments and being used as bed curtains.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought them in 1922 for about one million US dollars. Six of the tapestries hung in Rockefeller's house until The Cloisters was built when he donated them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1938 and at the same time secured for the collection the two fragments the La Rochefauld family had retained. The set now hangs in The Cloisters which houses the museum's medieval collection.
In 1998 the tapestries were cleaned and restored. In the process, the linen backing was removed, the tapestries were bathed in water, and it was discovered that the colours on the back were in even better condition than those on the front (which are also quite vivid). A series of high resolution digital photographs were taken of both sides using a customised scanning device suspending a linear array scan camera and lighting over the delicate textile. The front and back of the tapestries were photographed in approximately three-foot square segments. The largest tapestry required up to 24 individual 5000 × 5000 pixel images. Merging the massive data stored in these photos required the efforts of two mathematicians, the Chudnovsky brothers.
Historic Scotland commissioned a set of seven hand-made tapestries for Stirling Castle, a recreation of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, as part of a project to furnish the castle as it was in the 16th century. It was part-funded by the Quinque Foundation of the United States.
All seven currently hang in the Queen's Inner Hall in the Royal Palace.
The tapestry project was managed by West Dean College in West Sussex and work began in January 2002. The weavers worked in two teams, one based at the college, the other in a purpose-built studio in the Nether Bailey of Stirling Castle. The first three tapestries were completed in Chichester, the remainder at Stirling Castle.
Historians studying the reign of James IV believe that a similar series of "Unicorn" tapestries were part of the Scottish Royal tapestry collection. The team at West Dean Tapestry visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to inspect the originals and researched the medieval techniques, the colour palette and materials. Traditional techniques and materials were used with mercerised cotton taking the place of silk to preserve its colour better. The wool was specially dyed at West Dean College.