Visiting the Originals

Laura at CloistersLiving in rural, northern Wisconsin could be considered a challenging location for viewing historic tapestries.  But that means that whenever I do get to travel off the farm, I’m always looking for a chance to experience a medieval textile masterwork.

In the winter of 2009, my sister Kara was attending a dairy sheep conference in Albany, NY.  Tagging along, I realized it was the closest I had ever been to the Cloisters Museum–part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.  No one in the family wanted to drive through the city, and I was public transit illiterate (hmmm, this was going to be a challenge).  But I was going to get there!

Fortunately, I had a few amazingly helpful Goddard classmates who lived in the area and could give me detailed instructions for using transit from Albany all the way to the entrance of the gardens to the Cloisters.  During a break from the sheep conference, we made a day of the affair.  Laura and Unicorn tapestryThe stony towers of the museum rose against a cool, gray sky.  Inside, only a few people were milling about the museum–no large school groups, no massive tour crowds.  It gave us quiet and intimate time with the array of arts and artifacts housed in the collection.

What impressed me first when entering the tapestry room was the sheer size of the pieces.  Having experienced these works only in books or digitally before the trip, the sense of size is nowhere as compelling as meeting the works in person.  There is not a wall in my entire house big enough to support even one of the panels!  To give you a little perspective, the people in the tapestries are nearly life-sized.

Being a tapestry weaver myself, I was then equally struck by the amount of time that would have gone into each piece–let alone the whole set.  All the washing of the wool would have been done by hand, as well as the carding and spinning.  This would have been accomplished by innumerable women working with drop spindles and distaffs.  Then whole teams of people were employed in the dying process, which was all vegetal–woad, madder, yarrow, etc.  Another team was in charge of color matching and sorting and winding the weft threads onto the hanging bobbins, ready for the teams of weavers.  Newer weavers would focus on verdure and small animals, while a most skilled weaver or two in the studio would float from piece to piece-in-progress, just doing hands and faces!

trumpeter detailIt also struck me just how rich the colors have remained over 500 years of use and abuse.  During the French Revolution, peasants were rampaging noble households–pulling out anything bearing a coat of arms, piling it up in the yard, and burning it.  Traditionally, this set would have born coats of arms along with a Latin inscription across the top, explaining who was the patron of the set and what occasion the pieces celebrated.  Some enterprising or dedicated person cut off this portion, carefully clipping around leaves and castle turrets in the background.  The result?  While the tapestries were mutilated by the process and the story behind them is now shrouded in mystery, the bulk of the textiles were confiscated instead of burned.

They were discovered in the mid 1800’s in a peasant’s barn–being stored there for use as a covering for crops against frost.  Rescued from what surely would have become their demise, the pieces were cleaned and restored (as best they knew how at that time), though the original top portion could never be recreated since no documentation survives as to its content.  Instead, blue sky above was added, as well as patched in other portions–either rewoven or, as in some cases, tacked in from other tapestries (which apparently were worse off than this set).

unicorn captiveWith no direct link to patron or reason save the love-knotted A and E, which are ever-present throughout the pieces, the meaning has tickled the fancy of curators and historians since its restoration.  The most compelling potential narrative is that the series was a commissioned as a wedding gift (hence the tying of A and E together) and was originally hung as a bedroom set.  “The Start of the Hunt” and “The Unicorn Captive” (shown right) were actually woven separately from the rest of the hunt (up close, you can see how they are stylistically very different).  The scene of hunters heading off was for the back of the 4-poster bed (between the headrest and the wall), while the unicorn in a circular pen with the pomegranate tree was suspended above (protecting the sleepers below from falling debris and to hold in warmth).

These two are the most placid in the set and could conceivably be a comfort in sleep, though the rest of the series is in comparison rather gory, including hounds being filleted by the unicorn’s horn and the unicorn being stabbed by sword and spear.  But framing the scene within the idea of pursuit and capture (courtship brought to marriage), peppered with plants and animals that have their roles to play in fertility symbolism, I find the link to be the best hypothesis presently available.  If this is the case, what a bedroom suite indeed!

unicorn fragmentThe curiosity of the trip, though, was in seeing the only piece to include maidens (you can tell by their headdress and demeanor), which was perched over the doorway to the room.  You really had to look for it, and many visitors might even have missed it, because all that remains are two fragments of a work which likely was just as large as the rest.

This is the panel where the unicorn is being beguiled by the maiden, but all that remains of her are her fingers and part of a brocade sleeve.  The damsel in red is raising her hand to alert the huntsman in the tree that the lure has been successful–her movements languidly serpentine like the snake in the garden of Eden.  The rest of the panel, like the heraldry and inscriptions, have vanished into the sands of time.  To learn more about what would have been happening in this panel, please read the post “Who is She?–the Lady and the Unicorn.”

After spending at least three hours in the tapestry room alone, I left the Cloisters awed that something as fragile as a textile could have survived such a harrowing history at all.  Even though it bears its battle scars and alterations, the fact that I can visit a 500-year-old wall-hanging and still be filled with the sense of splendor and show of power and money behind the works indicates the timelessness of the medieval tapestry medium.  I was struck by the narrative of the work and also by mystery of the fragment–a lingering thought that would work its way into my own tapestry project.