A Unicorn in Manhattan

Score another point for NYC, because we possess the Unicorn Tapestries:

They hang in The Met Cloisters, the medieval art annex of the Metropolitan Museum. These 7 wall hangings are so large (12 feet high and 14 feet wide) that I couldn’t photograph them properly, especially as they exist in the low lighting necessary to preserve their beautiful colors, but here’s a closeup of one:

My closeup is of the hunters, not the unicorn, because unicorns are unchanging (being mythological) whereas the hunters are how the experts dated the tapestries to a single decade in history.  Clothing tends to change by the decade, right?  You wouldn’t need an expert to date a tapestry depicting hippies in San Francisco  – their hair and clothing would make it obvious that it must date between 1965 and 1975. These aristocratic unicorn hunters are wearing clothing and hairstyles popular in Paris between 1495-1505, and looking much groovier than our hippies!

The tapestries, however, were woven in the region of Belgium and the Netherlands; the Flemish were the best weavers in Europe.  Our only clue to their original owners are the initials “A” & “E” woven into all sorts of places: in the corners, some of the dog collars, within flowers, and so on.  For example, zoom into my top photo and look at the fountain; notice the A & E hanging from the center of the stone fountain, and also in the tree in the upper left corner, and the grass in the lower left corner. (Note: it’s a medieval-looking backwards “E” that doesn’t exist on my Macbook 😄)

The tapestries were digitally photographed by the Met Museum so that you don’t have to rely on my pics!  CLICK HERE to see them in all their photographic glory and detail.  And notice that:

  • the hunting dogs are all wearing woven collars, some beautifully embroidered – why don’t our present day dogs enjoy such stylishness?
  • the plants are so exquisitely rendered that you can identify them: wild strawberries, dianthus, forget-me-nots, bluebells, pomegranates, holly, and 101 more
  • the men have lovely shoulder length hair, but the women do not show their hair at all.  (See the women in the tapestry known as  “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle”)
  • and everyone’s shoes are very cute!

Fun Unicornish Facts:

  • John Rockefeller Jr bought the tapestries in 1922 for a little more than $1 million from the La Rochefoucauld family, owners since 1680. The tapestries disappeared during the French Revolution but were discovered in a barn in the 1850s and returned to the La Rochefoucaulds.
  • The warp (foundational loom threads) is made of wool and the weft (the threads woven in and across the warp to create the images) are silk and wool, naturally colored with plant dyes and some gilded or wrapped in silver.
  • The backs of the tapestries are a mirror image of the fronts, and far more colorful because they are unfaded. There are no loose threads hanging about (as there would be if I had made them 😄) because the weavers admirably wove all the ends into the tapestry.
  • An expert medieval weaver would take an hour on average to weave 1 square inch, which meant achieving an 8 inch square per week. They were generally young men working in teams only by daylight to ensure color consistency.
  • And a modern fact: the tapestries were taken down and cleaned in 1998. During the cleaning process, the Met decided to photograph them for posterity. For a lot of very interesting reasons, they were impossible to properly photograph and a super computer had to be constructed by a pair of genius brothers in order to finish the job. Read about that adventure in the New Yorker magazine HERE.

The Met Cloisters can be your Staycation. Ride the A train to 190th Street and walk through the glorious gardens of Fort Tryon Park. There amongst the trees you will happen upon a monastery – actually, it’s the remnants of one Spanish and two French monasteries, brought over stone by stone and reconstructed by an architect into the medieval museum envisioned by John Rockefeller Jr, who was also restoring Williamsburg, Virginia at the same time. For these two accomplishments, he is my fave American!


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