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The Unicorn Tapestries History
The Unicorn Tapestries are a collection of seven tapestries that were made over 500 years ago around the early 1500s. The seven works of art now are displayed in New York City at The Cloisters. They are made of silk, wool, and metallic threads. The fifth tapestry has not fared as well as the others. It is in two pieces. The order of the tapestries is:
- "The Start of The Hunt"
- "The Unicorn at The Fountain"
- "The Unicorn Attacked"
- "The Unicorn Defending Himself"
- "The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn"
- "The Unicorn Killed and Brought to The Castle"
- "The Unicorn in Captivity"
The backs were removed in 1998 for cleaning and restoration. It was discovered that the back fibers were in brilliant condition. Meticulous digital photographs were taken of both sides. The data was archived.
The Stirling Castle in Scotland houses reproductions of the series. They are hung in the Royal Palace in the Queen’s Inner Hall. The Castle did film some of the artists' weaving, and you can view it below.
The Start of the Hunt
The first panel begins the story with the hunters and dogs in the woods. The background is plants and flowers accurately depicted. Researchers have been able to identify over 100 types of plants woven in the panel, and over 80 of them have been identified as real plants. For example, the date palm tree in front of the white sniffing dog and the cherry tree in the center of the sky.
The initials A and a backward E are in all the works. There are thought to be the owners, but there is no proof of that. It measures 12 feet by 10 feet.
The Unicorn at the Fountain
In this scene, the unicorn is found by 12 hunters. As in the first panel, there are dogs, but now birds, deer, lion-like beasts, and rabbits are woven in. The story behind the scene is that the unicorn is using its mythical powers to cleanse the water.
Plants and flowers are still a central theme. There is an orange tree in the lower right-hand corner that botanists say is a type of fruit tree grown in the 16th century. Now buildings and fountains with water rippling are adding more dimension to the acts.
The measurements are 12 feet by 12 1/2 feet.
The Unicorn is Attacked
This tapestry tells a story without words. You can see the unicorn’s expression and the dogs charging while the men sound their horns. You hear the scene just by looking at it.
The AE initials are in both upper corners and another set of initials FR, which is believed to stand for Francois De La Rochefoucauld, who was an aristocrat. The measurements are 12 feet by 14 feet.
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The Unicorn Defends Itself
The picture becomes more graphic. You can see the impaled dog and blood spilling from the unicorn. There is a variety of fowl, which seem to be fluttering in the stream.
It stands 12 feet by 16 feet.
The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn
This one is also called The Unicorn is Captured by The Virgin. The beige coloring down the center is a split. Tapestry may have been split to move them from castle to castle, to hide them, or intentionally damage them as this one was in 1793. It is said that her hand in the air is waving at the hunter in the background to let him know she has the unicorn.
The Unicorn Killed and Brought to The Castle
The story begins in the upper left. The unicorn is stabbed to death by the hunters. The tale continues in the middle when the unicorn is brought to the village. The couple standing in front of the horse carrying the body are royalty as you can tell from the style of clothing. Around the unicorn's neck is a necklace of thorns, which some point out is a religious symbol.
The dimensions are 12 feet by 12 3/4th feet.
The Unicorn in Captivity
Many historians and art scholars have pondered this final scene. Some say it’s a stand-alone image rather than part of the series, and others believe it is a rebirthing or renewing of the unicorn.
The pomegranate tree in the background is holding the mythical beast in with a gold chain where it is bedded down in a sea of flowers. The colorful and detailed flowers have been studied by artists and botanists alike.
It measures 12 feet by 8 feet.
How The Tapestries Were Created
Plants were the source of color in the 1500s. You can imagine what a feat it was to make batches of plant dye that were the same shade. Just having the wool spun and the plant material would be an incredible challenge. The first panel is 12 feet by 10 feet. It's hard to think of how much time, work, and materials it took to make all seven tapestries without the conveniences of today's modern world.
Blue Dye From Yellow Flowers
The woad flowering plant is also referred to as dyer's woad, The flowers are yellow, but royal blue dye can be made with the leaves. Blue dye is one of the oldest recorded coloring materials in history. Today only a few plants of woad are now growing in France and the United Kingdom, and only for the purpose of making the dye.
Dying Wool Yellow
Weld has yellow flowers also. It produces a yellow dye. It can be mixed with the blue dye to make shades of green too. This dying process was nearly extinct during the 1900s when cheaper synthetic processes took over.
Creating The Color Red
Madder is like a berry bush, but it is related to the coffee plant. Instead of using leaves or petals to make the dye, you use the roots. T
his process has been used for thousands of years. Some Chinese materials dating back to the 4th Century A.D. have the madder root dye in them. The roots can make deep rich reds to a lighter orangish-red.
The Work Begins
As mentioned earlier, Stirling Castle has made reproductions of these pieces. It took 13 YEARS for 18 artists to complete the seven panels. They were able to complete the reproductions considerably faster than the originals due to the thickness of the wool and thread they used. If the crafts-people used the original thread, they estimate the project would have taken twice as long (26 years). In the 1500s 26 years was a lifetime!
In the following video, you get to see what goes into making one of these grand and enormous projects.
Truly a work of art!
Have You Seen The Originals or Reproductions?
Lora Riley (author) on June 14, 2018:
I have got the bug to try and make something now, but I think I will start with a coaster:)
Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on June 14, 2018:
Those tapestries are so beautiful. I can't imagine how long it must of taken to make these, and they've lasted all these years! I'd love to see these.
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on June 14, 2018:
Fascinating subject, well-presented. It is impossible for us to imagine the time (and money) that went into creating these masterworks.
Very interesting to see how vibrant the natural vegetable colors are. It is a wonder that that they have been so well preserved.