There 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. Over 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.
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.”