Lavishly woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads, the seven wall hangings collectively known as “The Unicorn Tapestries” are certainly amongst the most spectacular surviving artworks of the late Middle Ages.
They are also amongst the most enigmatic, in both meaning and origin.
They appear to have been designed in Paris, produced in Brussels or Liège, and for centuries were owned by the La Rochefoucauld family before being purchased by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who donated them to The Met Cloisters in 1937.
For a long time now, scholars have noted that the letters “A” and “E” are in several places woven into these pictures, but despite a string of theories — such as the debunked idea that Anne of Brittany commissioned them to celebrate her marriage — no one knows what these letters stand for.
The tapestries themselves tell a story, which is likewise mysterious. “The unicorn was a symbol of many things in the Middle Ages,” as Richard Preston writes, including Christianity, immortality, wisdom, love, and marriage. Add to this that every least element in the tapestries — from flora and fauna to clothes and gestures — had a particular medieval meaning, and it’s little wonder that their significance is unclear to us.
Certainly, the unicorn is a proxy for Christ. But he is also an image of the lover brought down like a stag in the allegorical hunts evoked in medieval works like Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess and Gottfried von Straussburg’s Tristan and Isolde.
He is both a creature of flesh and spirit, earthly longing and eternal life.In the first tapestry, we see a group of noblemen and hunters leading their dogs into a lusciously forested landscape, represented by a millefleurs background. A page — apparently posted up in a tree (though to medieval eyes, he would have been understood to be standing in a grove) — is here to signal that the unicorn these men are hunting has been sighted.
According to historical accounts of the First Franco-Dahomean War, in the 1890s it was the highly trained military women who were chopping off the heads of the French.
Sometimes while they slept.
French Street Artist YZ Yseult has begun her own campaign to pay tribute to the fierce female fighters of the 19th Century West African country of Dahomey, who are more commonly referred to as Amazons.
A startling narrative of female power not often heard today for some, but as YZ is researching her own history as a descendent from slaves, her portraits reflect a personal impetus to tell these stories with a new force.
She has named this series of strong warriors on the street “Amazone”.
Conor Harrington is a street/graffiti/figurative/painter based out of Cork, Ireland.
“A painter first and foremost. If you asked me that 10 years ago I would have said a graffiti writer but now as I get older I’m trying to shake off all those labels. It’s a strange position for a lot of us these days.
We come from graffiti and street art but now we want to move beyond that.