The Lady and the Unicorn

Art, Galleries
The Lady and the Unicorn 2018 Art Gallery of New South Wales supplied image 02 Taste c1500 from The Lady and the Unicorn series Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge Paris Photo © RMN-GP and M Urtado
Photograph: Michel Urtado (c) RMN-GP 'Taste' from ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ series (c1500)

The French tapestry series, one of the greatest surviving works of medieval art, makes a rare trip to Australia

Exquisite in beauty and craftsmanship, mysterious in origin, and inspirational to writers, poets and musicians over the ages, the six 15th-century tapestries in the ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ series have been called the “Mona Lisa of the Middle Ages”.

They are usually found at the Musée de Cluny - Musée national du Moyen Âge (the National Museum of the Middle Ages) in Paris, where they are a huge drawcard for visitors (and underwent extensive restoration in 2013). Their trip to Sydney will be the third time they have ever travelled, following a trip to New York in 1973-74, and to Japan in 2013.

Each of the six tapestries in the series features a slender blond woman with a unicorn on one side and a lion on the other, against intricate backgrounds that feature plants, animals and symbols. Five of the panels represent the senses (taste, sight, scent, touch and hearing), with a sixth, titled ‘My Sole Desire’, thought to represent understanding. Seen together, the works span approximately 20 metres in length.

It’s not known who created the tapestries, or whether the lady they depict has a real-life counterpart, but it’s thought that they were commissioned by the Le Viste family (whose coat of arms appears throughout the works) in the late 1400s.

Director of the Musée de Cluny, Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, says of the series: “It seduces us by the beauty and balance of its compositions; by the intimate and secret atmosphere that is created, and by the joyful harmony of the flowers strewn on their red grounds. The six tapestries also intrigue us, with their silent scenes played out by female figures and the presence of a mysterious unicorn watched by a debonair lion.”

By: Dee Jefferson

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