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they lived in a chateau in central France – the various sizes reveal something of the two rooms for which they were originally made.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.

View Edition

In This Issue


A pack of bankers

The financial services royal commission has revealed more than anyone banked on

The elevated horror of Ari Aster’s ‘Hereditary’

This debut feature will test the mettle of even the most hardened genre fans


When planetary catastrophe is your day job

Climate scientists are working hard to keep the apocalypse relevant

Cover of Axiomatic

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin

This collection of bracing essays interrogates how we view the past

Read on

Image of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions