June 2018

by Julie Ewington

‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales
Six exquisite tapestries form one of the great works of medieval art

Sight, c1500, from The Lady and the Unicorn series, wool and silk, 312 cm x 330 cm. Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris. Photo © RMN-GP / Musée de Cluny / M. Urtado

Your eyes adjust to the low light, and the six tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn (AGNSW, until June 24, 2018) begin to glow. This is a magical sequestered world inhabited by a noble lady and her handmaiden, flanked by a noble lion and the fabled unicorn, with animals frolicking about, flowers underfoot, and heraldic pennants above. All is still, concentrated. In the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who fell under the spell of the tapestries in 1902, “Expectation has no role in this scene. Everything is there. Everything forever.”

Rilke was writing about the most celebrated tapestry, now understood as an allegory of sight: the unicorn lays its paws on the lady’s knees and looks into her eyes; its face is reflected in her hand mirror. According to the myth, only a virgin can catch a unicorn, so the tapestries were, almost certainly, a formidably expensive compliment to a bride at her wedding.

Made around 1500, the tapestries were designed in Paris by the artist known as the Master of Anne of Brittany and were probably woven in the Low Countries. Until the late 19th century they lived in a chateau in central France – the various sizes reveal something of the two rooms for which they were originally made. Five of them explore a sense: touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Each exquisite image is replete with significance; a woven world captures meaning in every thread. “You can look and look and look,” murmurs the woman beside me.

That’s the point: one never tires. The unicorn seems knowing, the lion mildly baffled, the little dogs completely spoilt. All else aside, the tapestries are a compendium of medieval design: a lovely table-covering under a portable organ; gorgeous dresses and jewellery; a hardy woven basket holding flowers in the tapestry devoted to the sense of smell; the distinctive lettering on the tent canopy spelling out Mon seul desir (My only desire), the putative sixth sense ruled by the heart.

Unicorns have fans of all ages. On the day I visit, a throng of kids are making horned headdresses, and adults try weaving at mini frames in the tapestry resource space. “Gives you an appreciation,” says a grizzled fellow wrestling with coloured wool. The show is accompanied by a sprightly little bestiary – everything from Jeff Koons’ White Terrier to a narwhal tusk on loan from the Australian Museum – but this room is deserted. After all, who can compete with the unicorn?

The Lady and the Unicorn is a coup for the AGNSW. Unless you’re going to Paris, and the enchanting Musée de Cluny, sitting atop its subterranean Roman baths, just behind bustling Boulevard Saint-Germain, this is a rare chance to see the tapestries.

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

June 2018

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