What Makes The Unicorn Tapestries So Fascinating?

Dive into all of the mysterious lore, debated symbolism, and enchanting aesthetics of the famous Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, currently displayed in the MET Cloisters.

May 21, 2023By Frances Dilworth, Art Historian w/ BA Art History & Conservation
unicorn tapestries met cloisters
Close up of the Unicorn Rests in a Garden (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505, via the MET


Aside from their cousins, the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries displayed in Musée de Cluny, The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries are some of the most fascinating, rich, and complex pieces of art history. Even their original make is debated, but art historians conclude that the seven tapestries were likely designed in Paris and woven in Brussels ca. 1495-1505. These intricate textiles survived the French Revolution, and aside from one tapestry which is only in fragments, now hang in the Cloisters fully intact with centuries of history woven into their threads. The magical subject of the tapestries, the unicorn, creates an already mysterious and fantastical context. In addition, nearly everything about these tapestries alludes concrete understanding for art historians. Who made the tapestries and who were they originally for? Does the iconography of the unicorn have religious or secular meaning? What is the order of events in the tapestries; which tapestry comes first, and how does the order of them affect the events being depicted? Read on to unravel more mysteries and the history surrounding the unicorn tapestries. 


Introduction of The Unicorn Tapestries: Make & Materials

Back of the Hunters Enter the Woods, tapestry, 1495-1505, Paris (cartoon), Southern Netherlands (woven) via the MET.  This mirror image of the Hunters Enter the Woods tapestry is actually the back of it. It shows the vibrant color of the threads that have largely been shielded from sun damage, giving us a glimpse at how the tapestries looked in their heyday.


The creation of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, like any other set of tapestries from this period, can’t be credited to one artist, but rather to a large and diverse team of craftspeople. First, the patron of the tapestries would likely also have been the person who came up with the concept for them. Art historians don’t know who that was, though one of the most puzzling elements of the tapestries is the “AE” symbol (the E is backwards), and many scholars suggest that these letters could be the initials of the patron. 


Once the concept was discussed, it would be sketched out by an artist, then, finalized by another artist in a cartoon. The cartoon would be used as a reference for the weavers, and it could be hung up on a wall, pasted behind or drawn on the loom to ensure the tapestry would become either an exact or mirror image of the cartoon. Art historians believe the Unicorn Tapestries were designed in Paris, the cartoon was made in French Medieval style, and that the actual weaving was done in Brussels, which at the time was a major weaving center. 


Miniature tapestry loom used by William Morris, late 19th century, England, via Victoria and Albert Museum. While medieval looms would have been much larger, this mini loom used by William Morris shows how the cartoon could be drawn onto the warp threads for the weaver to reference throughout the process.


To prepare for the actual weaving of the tapestries, silk and wool threads would be dyed with plant materials to create the stunning and vibrant colors we still see today. In the unicorn tapestries, the threads were dyed with weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue). They also contained gold and silk threads for additional extravagance. With the gold, silver, and imported silk threads, the cost of the tapestries soared. Large wooden looms would be built by woodworkers, and finally, highly skilled weavers would come together and each work on a tapestry until they were complete. Tapestries like this one are made up of vertical warp threads, which act as the foundation of the tapestry, and horizontal weft threads, which were tied tightly across or cut as new colors were needed. 

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Back of a tapestry being woven, via the MET


Acquisition and Damage


We are incredibly lucky to have all 7 of the tapestries nearly intact. For at least 50 years during and after the French Revolution, the tapestries were lost. They were rediscovered in the 1850s in a barn, and scholars believe it is during this period that the tapestries sustained the most damage, including the 5th tapestry, which is now only in fragments. Upon its discovery it was taken back by the Rochefoucald family, who have connections to the tapestries in their ancestral records. The first written record of the tapestries’ existence can be found in the family’s 1728 inventory. In the 1920s, John D. Rockefeller purchased the tapestries and then donated them in the 1930s to the MET. In the June 1935 issue of the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, H.C. Marillier tells readers of Rockefeller’s generous donation, declaring: “They are without any doubt the most important set of tapestries in America.”


Nearly 100 years later, the tapestries still hang in the MET Cloisters, the MET’s medieval museum. Let’s dive into the narrative and symbolism of all seven tapestries, which are listed in the order they are displayed at the Cloisters, though even the chronology of them is not certain.


The Hunt of the Unicorn

The Hunters Enter the Woods, via the MET


The story begins with The Start of the Hunt, a scene depicting a hunting party about to close in on the chase. The hunters carry lances, horns, and bring dogs, specifically greyhounds, to hunt with them. Additionally, dozens of plant species cover the forest floor, including trees such as walnut, which one hunter stands behind and signals the rest of the party to follow. Other plants, like the oak and date palm trees, daisies, and violets decorate the scene. In the first tapestry, we can already see the iconic “AE” initials sewn into the scene five times. 


The Unicorn Purifies Water, via the MET


After the hunters follow their companion into the deeper woods, they come upon a fantastically rich scene in The Unicorn Purifies Water. The unicorn kneels in front of a fountain and dips his horn into the water. All around the fountain and stream, several diverse animals gather for a drink. Lions, pheasants, a stag, rabbits, goldfinches, a duck, and others, predator and prey alike, all come to the water. In this scene we get a detailed representation of the unicorn’s magical abilities. Above all, a unicorn is sacred, pure, and has the power to heal. Some scholars suggest that the gathering of these creatures is due to the unicorn’s ability to bring a sense of peace to his surroundings, allowing all of the animals to be able to seek refreshment without fear of attack. Another possibility is that the unicorn’s purifying abilities are being used to clear the toxins from the stream, drawing all the creatures to it. The specific plants surrounding the fountain and stream, such as orange trees, sage, and marigolds, were used medicinally to cure poison, strengthening this interpretation.


Detail of the Unicorn Purifies Water, via the MET


Both interpretations can explain the hunting party’s hesitation to strike the unicorn while it is occupied. While one might think this would be the ideal time to attack, to medieval hunters, this is not the right moment. One, because the unicorn is in the middle of completing a magical or miraculous act, so it would be wrong to attack him now. Two, because in the spirit of the hunt, these hunters would attack when their prey begins to flee, engaging in the thrill of the chase. To kill the prey while it is preoccupied or unaware does not require as much skill or strength, but engaging in a real hunt where you chase your prey down and then kill it is admirable and rewarding. 


The Unicorn Crosses a Stream, via the MET


In the next scene, the tranquility is immediately shattered with the sound of the hunting horns, the releasing of the greyhounds, and the attack of the unicorn. The Unicorn Crosses a Stream shows the unicorn’s bold attempt at escape from his seemingly inescapable position. Ten hunters with lances surround and even wound the unicorn, but he continues to fight back. In the center of all the action grows a huge oak tree. Oak trees are strong, sturdy, and resilient, and so in medieval culture often represent strength, endurance, and loyalty in love. So even though the unicorn seems overwhelmed, wounded, and in peril, he will prevail. Directly on the ground next to the unicorn grows a hawthorn bush. The hawthorn, which flowers in May, was associated with May Day, or Beltane, a holiday that celebrates the start of summer and the garden and earth coming to life. Beltane revolves around themes of love, sex, fertility, and growth, which align perfectly with the medicinal properties of hawthorn: good for the circulatory system, blood flow, and heart health. So while the scene topically appears like a hunt, it could also symbolize the excitement, anxiety, and prospects of courtship and new love. 


The Unicorn Defends Himself, via the MET


While the unicorn in many cases is represented as docile, peaceful, and graceful, it is in the fourth tapestry, The Unicorn Defends Himself, that we get a glimpse at his wild ferocity. The unicorn kicks at a hunter behind him while simultaneously stabbing one of the dogs with his horn. His face is twisted with likely anger and pain, as another hound bites his leg and blood falls from the wound in his side. The hunters’ expressions, meanwhile, range from focused excitement to even boredom. The hunters directly surrounding the unicorn are engaged in their sport, and look excited by the thrill of the hunt. On the sidelines of the action, and in the previous tapestry as well, other hunters share conversations, appearing unaffected or uninterested in what is happening around them. However, one hunter blows his horn and signals to the group that they must use alternative methods if they are to really capture the unicorn. In medieval lore, a unicorn can’t be tamed by the force of a hunting party like a regular beast, but has to be tamed by something considered equally pure: a virgin maiden. 


The Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden, tapestry fragments, via the MET


The fragmented tapestry, The Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden, shows the success of this tactic. Although we don’t have the full picture, we can use the extant pieces to put together as much of the scene as we can. First, the maiden that has subdued the unicorn is almost entirely out of the fragment: only her arm can be seen around the unicorn’s neck at the bottom right. Another woman calls the party to the enclosed rose garden to claim their reward. The enclosed garden, or hortus conclusus, was a definitive characteristic of medieval monastic gardens. Walls or trellises containing the plants within symbolized the spiritual purity of the garden from the outside world. 


Detail of the Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden, via the MET


The roses growing on the trellises surrounding the maiden really drive the theme of purity home. Roses are most known for their beautiful perfume, compelling us to “stop and smell the roses.” Medieval gardeners also knew of and appreciated this quality, and additionally, knew that if one attempted to cut, crush, or bottle the rose to capture its fragrance, the smell would be lost. Roses must be left untouched and unharmed, and in this way, symbolize purity, specifically the purity of the Virgin Mary. When we consider the symbolism of the rose coupled with the composition of the fragments, we can interpret this scene for its religious context. The horn player of the previous scene can be seen as the angel Gabriel, announcing to the world the coming of Christ through Mary, the Annunciation. We see him again to the left of these fragments, and if the unicorn is the symbol of Christ and the garden and maiden a symbol of a pure maiden, or Mary, perhaps this is referencing the moment that Mary becomes pregnant with Christ in the story. 


The Hunters Return to the Castle, via the MET


The next scene, The Hunters Return to the Castle, depicts multiple events on one tapestry. To the far left, the unicorn is finally killed by the hunting party. Continuing to the right, the dead unicorn is draped over the back of a horse and brought back to the castle, where the party is welcomed by dozens of courtesans from the castle. Some scholars say that the couple directly next to the horse may be portraits of the patrons  However, the possible real identity of these figures, the historical landscape, and the letters “AE” and “FE” throughout the tapestries are still unknown to art historians. There are several theories but none are widely accepted to be correct. 


The Unicorn Rests in a Garden, via the MET


The final tapestry, The Unicorn Rests in a Garden, shows a vibrant and complex millefleur “thousand flowers” background with the captured unicorn sitting in an enclosure tied to a pomegranate tree. Now, if we consider the previous tapestry in which the unicorn was dead but is now alive, the order of the tapestries can become confusing. Many accept this one as the last by interpreting the events of the hunt as an allegory for Christ’s passion. Viewing the story in that perspective, the previous tapestry would have been the actual crucifixion. This one then, is the resurrection, and if you look at the unicorn’s body, you can see multiple “wounds” throughout, which could be a reference to the nail wounds on Christ’s hands and feet that remained on his body as proof it was really him who rose from the dead. 


Detail of irises and millefleur in the Unicorn Rests in a Garden, via the MET


The spectrum of plants on the tapestry in particular simultaneously contributes to and diverges from a Christian interpretation of the tapestries. The “wounds” on the unicorn’s body are actually stains left from the juice of the pomegranates on the tree that the unicorn is tethered to. Pomegranates, with their hundreds of juicy seeds, symbolize fertility. Fertility, loyalty, and purity are all themes heavily referenced throughout the seven tapestries. They also are values circumscribed to medieval marriage, and in this way we can see the possibility of the tapestries being created as a wedding gift. The auspicious plants like the pomegranate would have been recognized and understood by the patrons. Daisies, irises, lilies, strawberries, and violets, are just a few of the other species of plants included in this scene, and each contain religious and/or secular meaning. Throughout the tapestries, the effort to create lush, vibrant floral environments are almost spot on and botanically accurate, except for the decision to include any and all number of plants in one scene regardless of the season they naturally grow in. 


Detail of the pomegranate tree in the Unicorn Rests in a Garden, via the MET


Legacy of the Unicorn Tapestries


The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, especially the Unicorn Rests in a Garden, are iconic and well recognized to many people to this day. The sheer beauty of the tapestries makes them particularly favored pieces to feature in popular culture purely for aesthetic purposes. The richness of each tapestry provides endless scope for the imagination as well as seemingly infinite ways for art historians to interpret them historically and visually. Perhaps one day we will finally crack the code of these famous tapestries, but in a way, part of what makes these tapestries so alluring and intriguing is the mystery that surrounds them.

Author Image

By Frances DilworthArt Historian w/ BA Art History & ConservationFrances graduated from Rutgers University with a major in art history and a minor in English. Among their many interests, medieval art history comes to the front. They are currently researching the symbolic, cultural, and practical meanings of the medieval garden in their thesis, Gardens of the Arts and Crafts Movement and Their Medieval Roots; which explores the many ways in which medieval art and culture were adopted by the artists of the 19th century. As a non-binary scholar, they are also passionate about researching and writing about underrepresented groups throughout history, such as the LGBTQIA+ community. One day, Frances hopes to publish a book that examines a more inclusive and cross-cultural perspective of medieval art.