Who is She? The Lady and the Unicorn

lady and unicorn sightThere is a famous damsel from the high period of pictorial tapestry, who dances in the fine line between the end of the medieval period and the onset of the Renaissance in northwestern Europe.  She is thin, tall, and fair, and she is not complete without her unicorn.  In fact, the two make a unit–“The Lady and the Unicorn.”  Two major tapestry sets include her from this era, both of which survived the ravages of time not unscathed.

One of the missing links that creates a sense of mystery that intrigues viewers and curators to this day is what their relationship means.  Why are they pictured together, and what statement or stories would it have invoked in the peoples of the late 1480’s to 1510’s (the best guesses we have for the time of the textiles’ creation).

Unicorns, like dragons, have been part of human collective mythology far beyond the dawn of the written word.  And the beauty of drilling into this story is discovering that the unicorn becomes knit into the very fabric of the story of human struggle, of balance with nature, and of the lure of purity.  In the “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series, this is juxtaposed with male aggression and deceit.  unicorn fords streamOver half of the series involves armed men stalking and chasing the unicorn, but their hunting prowess is to no avail (not a typical message for art being commissioned by the aristocracy, who were very proud of their hunting abilities!).

This is because the unicorn cannot be captured by force–it must be beguiled.  This means laying a trap for the wily beast.  A trap with bait.  And what would be the bait?  A young maiden, pure and chaste.

And here engages the deep roots of the story, which weaves its way back to Nile valley, the Tibetan plains, the journeys of a Greek doctor, and later overlays with Christian symbolism.  I will make a “related bibliography” list if you wish to delve into the intricacies yourself, but here is the melding that I have come to in my years of research into the narrative.

The lady and the unicorn draws its roots in an early human struggle–that of domestication and the dawn of agriculture.  The unicorn symbolizes nature and the spirit of the wild.  Illusive, unattainable, full of magic unknown to human arts.  The men symbolize the tribal hunter–seeking the chase to provide for the family by taking from the wild.  But as populations grew, hunting and gathering was either not enough or not stable enough of a supply, and a new means of support appeared–agriculture.  And agriculture, interestingly, was “invented” by women.  They tamed the “beasts” who could be kept near and tended; they planted the first cereal crops; they paved the way for the stabilization of their food system and the potential for growth beyond the tribe into civilizations.  lady and unicorn touch

Instead of being taken by force, plants and animals were lured by coercion into a new reality that brought stability for them too (protection from predators or a real advantage over competing plants).  Only the peaceful maiden of domestication can lure the wild from its hiding place and tame its wayward temperament.  And so it is with the most illusive animal of all–the unicorn.  Later, this would be melded with the virtues of the Virgin Mary and the unicorn as symbolic of Christ.

So who is she?  She is that call to our better nature–the temperate, the kind, the nurturing.  She is unarmed, vulnerable (in some cases even naked), but she is not afraid.  In the case of “the Hunt of the Unicorn,” she is being USED by the men for their purposes of taking the unicorn’s horn, but that is for another story.  And that is also the point where my own tapestry project interjects its alternative narrative–hence the title “Deceiving the Hunters.”

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“The Five-Year Project” Going on Six

tapestry cartoon“Deceiving the Hunters”–a Flemish tapestry project inspired by the early 16th Century tapestry series “The Hunt of the Unicorn” (currently housed at the Cloisters Museum in NY) is still underway, though making great progress.

Researched during my graduate studies at Goddard College, the piece is envisaged as an “alternative narrative” to the traditional hunt of the unicorn, full of its mythological and symbolic roots that date back to some of the earliest human narratives to be recorded.  But that essay is for another time!  Right now, let’s dig into the physical progress of the textile piece itself.

Flemish tapestry technique begins with a sketch, followed by a full color “cartoon” (here drawn on hefty brown paper), which is mounted on the wall behind the weaver.  This allows the tapestry artist to “check in” with the original design during production to note shading and color changes and interpret these within the confines of tapestry technique.  Since my studio is a one-woman operation, tapestry early phaseI’m both the cartoonist and the weaver, which means that I do have an informed idea of what can or cannot be physically woven within the constrictions of warp spacing and weft fineness.  Even so, I know that this piece will be technically challenging for me–a good stretch!

When selecting colors for the weft, I wanted to stay true to the reality of the historical piece in that the numbers of colors and shades available was rather tight compared with today.  Four colors for verdure, three colors for the gown, etc.  I also wanted to keep in a typical color palate but find hues that (to the best guess possible) reflect how the colors MIGHT have looked when fresh off the loom.  Typically, for the dyes of the time, reds and blues stayed the most vibrant, while greens drifted towards yellow or blue over time.  Whites would become less bright, and the gilt thread would tarnish.  To mimic the gilt threads, I decided to use gold and silver sheen embroidery thread, to offer the stunning sheen of the originals.

Next, the piece has early tapestry progressto be warped, here using my Leclerc Gobelin tapestry loom, which is built upright (high warp) with rollers in the tradition of the looms used in the studios of Flanders where the original series was woven.  Also in traditional style, the piece is woven on its side, allowing for the greatest delicacy of shading for fine pieces like the lady’s hair or the texture in the unicorn’s horn.  To the bottom of the piece, I tacked some detailed pictures printed from the original set, showing shading technique for verdure, mane, and velvet, while behind the piece is tacked a black-and-white copy of the cartoon.  As the piece proceeds, the cartoon is sewn to the tapestry itself so that the image avoids being distorted by accidentally tweaking the alignment.  Periodically, I lift the cartoon up to the warp and finished tapestry parts to check progress accuracy.unicorn progress

Four years into the piece (understand, there have been other projects too, plus full-time farming!), progress looks like this.  The detail of the work is demanding in order to affect three-dimensionality within a mostly two-dimensional form.  The tapestry is worked in hills and valleys, in keeping with Flemish technique, which allows the weaver to focus on a small area at a time (rather than working across the entire width each row, as in traditional Navajo technique).

the first part of the oak branch and the initial two leaves took approximately 12 hours of weaving time itself!   It appears that I was being rather optimistic when calling this the “five-year project.”  But then, several of the years were consumed with research, “studies” (small experimental pieces), and warping.  This was not a piece sloppily begun!  In another post, I’ll discuss those pieces of the process just mentioned.lady's arm

But this year, I’ve been able to set aside three hours a week for intensive weaving on the project, and the progress is showing nicely.  The unicorn now has its lustrous lavender eye, the maiden her first arm and the beginning of a sleeve.  The unicorn’s beard and the maiden’s hand were especially challenging to relay their fluidity in a medium most suited to geometrics.  I am excited to continue to share the journey and inspiration of this piece with you as it continues to unfold.

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