Finding a Lady for the Tapestry

receiving the unicornFor my tapestry “Deceiving the Hunters,” it took a while in the design process to decide how the lady ready to lead the unicorn to safety should look.  In her position of alternative narrative, it did not make sense for her to be the same lady as shown in “The Unicorn is killed and brought to the castle” panel.  This lady’s role in the story has already been shown (receiving the dead animal with her gentleman holding her arm).

Yes, the type of fabric shown on the remainder of the sleeve of the lady stroking the unicorn’s mane in the fragment panel matches the fabric of this matron, but none of the other characters in The Unicorn Tapestries have a direct match in any of the other panels, so it seems safe to guess that it would have been a different lady originally.

lady and unicornWhile the Sterling Tapestries pull from the iconography in “The Lady and the Unicorn” series, the narratives at play in the two sets are quite different.  In the Cluny set, the unicorn is not in danger of imminent death.  Also, I was concerned that, given the fame of the women in “The Lady and the Unicorn,” using those images would confuse the purpose of offering an alternative narrative to the Cloisters hunting set.

And so I set out on a hunt for my lady.  I wanted to stay true to the general period instead of simply dreaming up a character for my tapestry (which certainly could have been an option).  In the best of the old stories, the character who is able to turn the tides of peril is the least likely to have been chosen–“the unlikely hero.”  Instead of already in the foreground and a leader (like the ladies in both unicorn tapestry sets), she would be somewhere in the crowd, unassuming, but inwardly special.

david and bathsheba detailIt was actually while reading a Met Museum publication on a showing of medieval tapestry masterpieces in the 1970’s that I found her.  Taken from the “David and Bathsheba” set, housed at the Museum of the Renaissance in Paris (sister to the Cluny Museum), the series is richly worked with wonderful detail of faces, hands, and cloth.

In the pamphlet, Margaret Freeman is discussing the extraordinary finesse of the work, which was woven in the low-warp style.  What caught my eye, however, was the lady pictured near the lower right of the photograph detail.  Despite combing the museum’s website, digital images of this panel were not available (nor could I find any color images), so I have had to scan the page from the manuscript.  See the bibliography for more details.

Considering the complex story captured in the “David and Bathsheba” tapestries, the fact that winged Penitence is driving away Lechery at the top would suggest that this is near the end of the series.  The image could be from near a corner of the original piece, or somewhere in the middle, but given that this is the only image I have of this panel, this remains a mystery until I can either find a broader picture of the piece or have the chance to see the tapestry in person.

lady detailWhat struck me most about the image of this lady was that, despite all the fervor, conversations, and activity happening all around her, she seems somehow distant, lost in thought.  She knows how to play the part–smartly dressed in sumptuous fabrics and jewels–and yet she is also able to observe what is happening around her.  To me, and an observer, her expression creates enough of a gap from the business of the scene to see that she may be having her own thoughts about what’s happening in courtly life.  A hidden gem in the crowd, she stood out as my “unlikely hero” for offering an alternative narrative to the unicorn hunt.

Youthful with a strong touch of innocence, this nameless lady became the inspiration for a series of sketches before drawing the full tapestry cartoon.  Through this drafting process, I had to make some important decisions about the lady’s appearance.  For example, the original tapestry fragment depicts a tawny/golden brocade or damask on the sleeve.  Still being new to weaving folded fabrics, I didn’t feel ready for tackling a patterned garment.  The “David and Bathsheba” detail appears to be satin or broadcloth(?), I’m guessing maybe blue, but without a color image, such guessing is quite hazardous.

lady sketchWhile I wasn’t feeling ready for the damask challenge, I was (after doing the sleeve study) feeling ready for velvet, which is worn by the lady in the original fragment who is signaling to the horn-blower in the shrubbery.  Red velvet would offer a sumptuous texture next to the creamy white of the unicorn, along with denoting the lady’s regal status.

I was also quite intrigued by her headdress, which appears elegantly understated and not as heavy as the bonnets or “hoods” of the day.  Pearls and jewels certainly add to her charm–tied up much like a snood or “Indra’s Net,” which is part of an ancient Indian tale of how the light from each jewel in Indra’s hair adornment shines off the next, making them more beautiful together than they could ever be separate from each other.

As the design for the tapestry came together, however, it was apparent that some of the original costume details from the “David and Bathsheba” lady would have to go.  This became especially clear as her arms came into play–a hand raised to her mouth, indicating a wish for silence.  This conflicted with the placement of embroidery on her smock (chemise), so I had to leave off the dark zig-zag adornments.

tapestry cartoonThe smock appears at the cuffs of the lady in The Unicorn Tapestries who is receiving the dead unicorn, along with a decorative cuff, so I chose to use this costume style where the velvet oversleeve is falling away by her wrists, repeating the collar trim.

The ladies at The Tudor Tailor note that as bell sleeves came into fashion, the kirtle (supportive undergarment) had to accommodate by adding fitted sleeves to cover the smock beneath, but since the finely woven linen smock is visible at the wrists of a bell-sleeved lady within the tapestry set already, I stayed with the design even through my research continued.  Certainly many variations on the fashionable theme of the day would have been present during this transition era.

But actually weaving this lady, including all the intricacies of her hands and faces–that was going to be the real challenge!