The term “Unicorn Tapestry” usually refers to a series of seven woven tapestries created in Medieval Times. Woven tapestries were a very common art form in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance times. It was also common to create tapestries in a series of 4-10 tapestries often depicting biblical or historic themes. However, it is worthy to note that there are other examples of tapestries depicting unicorns. The series described here however is one of the most famous.
There are seven individual tapestries which are known as “The Unicorn Tapestries” or “The Hunt for the Unicorn” cycle. They are considered among the most beautiful and complex surviving works of art from the late Middle Ages. The tapestries vividly depict scenes of a hunt for the elusive, magical unicorn. They are luxuriously woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads.
- The first tapestry is a called “The Hunters Enter The Woods”. It depicts several hunters and dogs beginging to enter the forest on the hunt for the Unicorn.
- The second tapestry is called “The Unicorn is Found”. It depicts the unicorn dipping its horn into a stream to purify the water as the other forest animals wait to drink. At the moment when the unicorn dips his horn into the stream, it is discovered by the hunters.
- The third tapestry is called “The Unicorn is Attacked”. Very similar to the second tapestry, the third is different in that it depicts the hunters lunging forward with their spears.
- The fourth tapestry is called “The Unicorn Defends Itself”. This tapestry depicts the Unicorn defending itself by kicking it hind legs and using its horn to spear one of the hunting dogs.
- The fifth tapestry is called “The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn”. This tapestry was badly damaged and in fact only a few fragments remain. Little is known about this tapestry including how the Unicorn was captured. It is believed due to the presence of a female hand on one of the fragaments that it may have surrendered to a virgin.
- The sixth tapestry is called “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle”. It depicts a castle scene in which the Unicorn is violently killed.
- The seventh tapestry is called “The Unicorn in Captivity”. This tapestry depicts a resurrected Unicorn sitting beneath a tree in a small enclosure. Some historians believe that this last tapestry may have been created as an individual piece although this is not known for sure.
Unicorn Tapestry Symbolism & History
It should be noted that this series is rich in Christian symbolism. Notice in this series that the Unicorn has the ability to purify water, is tamed by a virgin, violently killed and then resurrected. From this cycle of tapestries and other art from the period it is believed that the Unicorn was seen as a symbol of Christ.
This tapestry cycle was most likely created between 1495-1505. It is displayed in the Cloisters Museum in New York, which is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated entirely to Medieval Art. The original patron and tapestry workshop is not known, but, it was probably created in Belgium.