The Case of the Missing Lady

tapestry restorationBoth sets of Unicorn Tapestries have sustained damages over the years and undergone several rounds of restoration.  Some frayed and missing elements can be replaced with relative confidence, such as mille fleur backgrounds or parts of trees and gowns.  But others are impossible to replicate in the face of lost cartoons (original design) and no documentation in full detail of the original content.

This is especially true for the fragment panel in the “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series.  We know that the central lady is seated with the unicorn’s forelegs on her lap, lady betrays unicornbut all that remains of her is part of one arm and her fingers in the beast’s mane.  Her sleeve is of a golden and fawn brocade, slightly belled in shape (not unlike the sleeve cut of the lady in red velvet betraying the unicorn to the hunter in the trees).

Who would this missing lady have been and what would she have looked like?  There are several different ways to look for clues, as well as methods other interpretive artists have utilized.

For example, when first researching into the two Unicorn Tapestry sets, it appeared that “The Lady and the Unicorn” was likely woven slightly earlier in time than “The Hunt of the Unicorn”–possibly as disparate at 1480 for the first and 1515 for the second.  The bright red background with mille fleur patterning and the subjects seated on an island seemed of a more medieval fashion, while the early use of perspective and a naturalistic landscape as shown in “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries would appear to put their production at a slightly later date.

But the lines between the Medieval and Renaissance period is a blurred and fuzzy transition.  More recent scholarship about the Unicorn Tapestries (especially with regards to tracing the striking and dominant heraldry in The Lady and the Unicorn set) has pressed the theoretical “make date” of these to sets close together.  It certainly may be that the Flemish studios were producing both the mille fleur style and the scenic style at the same time, dependent on the tastes and requests of the nobles ordering the commissioned work.

This pairs well with the fact that two of the “Hunt” series (noticeably woven at a different studio) use the mille fleur background.  Perhaps some studios specialized in the older style while others were branching into the new territory of scenic work.  But I would not be surprised at all if simultaneous production of the different styles occurred–essentially, “If you want to pay for a tapestry, we’ll weave what you want.”  Commercial production based on commission still works that way.

lady and unicornSo, if the two sets do share a closely linked date, then the expression of mythology in pictorial form (here the taming of the unicorn by the maiden) would be culturally very similar.  In “The Lady and the Unicorn:  Sight,” we can see the exact (though mirrored) arm and similar finger position of the lady with regards to the unicorn on her lap.  However, I would caution as to any further reproduction of the pose with regards to the mirror.  “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries are aesthetically representing the senses–hence the use of a mirror to denote sight.

I have not seen in any other medieval or Renaissance art the use of a mirror in luring the unicorn into submission.  The lure of the mirror (or a reflection in water) is common to the story of Narcissus, not the unicorn.  For this chimera, the lure is the maiden, not a reflection.  Notice also that in the “Hunt” panel, the unicorn is looking up, towards the missing lady’s face.  The unicorn in the “Lady” panel is looking down, towards the mirror.

However, since the “Lady” series is so compelling and a known contemporary representation, this has made its way into replica interpretations, including the set woven by West Dean for sterling castle tapestry detail
Historic Scotland and Sterling Castle.  The question of what to do with the second hand remained, which may be why they left it half off the edge of the piece.  The lady has other clear links with the Cluny set, including the watered silk underskirt, the decoration at the shoulders, and the snood-like hair covering, while her low-looping necklace is of the Cloisters set.  It’s an interesting combination of the two in an effort to recreate that which has been lost.

In this replica set, designed to replace the lost “History of the Unicorn” series once housed at Sterling Castle (wish I knew what that set looked like!), they’ve decided to interpret the lady’s brocade gown as red and gold.  However, the original shows a more tawny brown color, similar to the gown of the leading lady in the panel “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle.”unicorn is killed and brought to the castle

Because of the link in color and pattern between the leading lady and the beguiling maiden’s gowns, some believe it to be the same character.  This plays into the Anne of Brittany theory, but considering that the lady and seigneur are linked in arm (along with her choice in headdress), it would appear that they are a married couple, which would negate the beguiling maiden status.

The only way it would symbolically work for the lady in the castle panel to also be the lady in the beguiling panel is that this is a marriage celebration piece, symbolizing the pursuit and capture of the bride by the man, where they are then shown wed beside the slain unicorn.  But that seems to put the story backwards of the unicorn being beguiled by the maiden and brought back to show off to the man.  Also, the lady is fingering her rosary and other strong symbolic elements (including inscriptions on hunting horns, the oak sprouting thorns around the unicorn’s neck, etc.) link the unicorn with the story of Christ’s sacrifice.

Yikes!  All these pieces together can seem to muddle the quest for the missing lady, but it is also quite classic of medieval allegory.  The further you drill into the story, the more there is to find!