The Hunt of the Unicorn
ften referred to as the Unicorn Tapestries, this series of seven tapestries dates from 1495–1505. The tapestries show a group of noblemen and hunters in pursuit of a unicorn. It is believed to have come from a culture in the Southern Netherlands.
Much of the tapestries' history is disputed and there are many theories about their original purpose and meaning, including suggestions that the seven tapestries were not originally hung together. However it seems likely that they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany to celebrate her marriage to Charles VIII, King of France.
The two major interpretations of the tapestries hinge on pagan and Christian symbolism. The pagan interpretation focuses on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas Christian writings interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ.
The unicorn has long been identified as a symbol of Christ by Christian writers, allowing the traditionally pagan symbolism of the unicorn to become acceptable within religious doctrine. The original myths surrounding The Hunt of the Unicorn refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin maiden; subsequently, Christian scholars translated this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary.
The tapestries were owned by the La Rochefoucauld family of France for several centuries. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought them in 1922 for about one million United States dollars and donated them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1937. They now hang in The Cloisters which houses the museum's medieval collection.
eginning in 1998, the tapestries were cleaned and restored. In the process, the linen backing was removed, the tapestries were bathed in water, and it was discovered that the colors on the back were in even better condition than those on the front (which are also quite vivid). A series of high resolution digital photographs were taken of both sides using a customized scanning rig designed by museum consultant Scott Geffert of Center for Digital Imaging Inc. and the museum's photography staff that suspended a Leica S1Pro linear array scan camera and lighting over the delicate textile.
The front and back of the tapestries were photographed in approximately three foot square segments. The largest tapestry required up to 24 individual 5000X5000 pixel images. Merging the massive data stored in these photos required the efforts of two famous mathematicians, the Chudnovsky brothers.
Since January 2002, the Tapestry Studio at West Dean College has been working on a recreation of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. The tapestries will be displayed in the Queen's Presence Chamber at Stirling Castle, part of a project to furnish the castle as it would have been in the 16th century. Historians studying the reign of James IV believe that a similar series of 'Unicorn' tapestries were part of the royal collection. The team at West Dean Tapestry visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York to inspect the originals and researched into medieval techniques, the colour palette and materials. This project is due for completion in 2014. The weavers are working both at West Dean, West Sussex and at Stirling Castle.
The opening sequence of the 1982 animated movie The Last Unicorn was designed in reference to the tapestries, with many elements such as the fountain and lions, as well as the overall style being extremely similar.