In the heart of Transylvania, one of Europe’s largest castles looks like it sits atop a rocky bluff with naught but a thin bridge allowing access.
But this is simply Corvin Castle, which looks like something straight out of a fairytale, largely because restorers thought that it should.
Built in the mid-15th century, the castle was the work of Hungarian military leader John Hunyadi, who built the tall structure over the remains of a keep built by Charles I.
It consists of a series of rectangular halls that are connected by both circular and rectangular towers that were used for both defense and as prison cells. The elaborate architecture was designed in a rich gothic style, that accentuates the already impressive architecture.
The castle was kept in regal condition during Hunyadi’s lifetime, but after he died, the castle fell into swift decline.
It was not until the 17th century that there was more interest in restoring the castle. As the restorations began, the workers redesigned the castle somewhat to reflect what they considered a gothic castle should look like, which explains much of its currently fanciful look.
A number of legends are associated with the castle, the most prominent among them being that Vlad the Impaler spent some seven years in the dungeons of Corvin Castle, a stay which resulted in his eventual madness.
Even though this is unlikely to be true, Corvin Castle still seems like just the sort of place where a Dracula might have been held.
In a November 1903 letter, found in the altogether enchanting compendium Letters to Friends, Family and Editors (public library), 20-year-old Franz Kafka writes to his childhood friend, the art historian Oskar Pollak:
Some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.
A few months later, in January of 1904, he expounds on this sentiment in another letter to Pollak:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.
If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?
So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to.
But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
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.