Look at the Unicorns!

The is central part of one of the six famous tapestries, collectively known as The Lady and the Unicorn (or The Maiden and the Unicorn, La Dame à la licorne in French). Five of the tapestries are commonly interpreted as depicting the five human senses – taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch, and this fragment is from the Sight tapestry.

The tapestry in full:

We see the lady seated, holding a mirror up in her right hand. The unicorn kneels on the ground, with his front legs in the lady’s lap, from which he gazes at his reflection in the mirror. The lion on the left holds up a pennant.

Notice that it’s not a small hand-held mirror, but rather a quite heavy, table-top mirror – we saw a similar mirror on the desk in the Christine de Pizan’s studies (and we will see many more such mirrors in the the works of many painters later).

Neither the author of these tapestries, nor the exact date of their creation are known. They were apparently commissioned by Jean Le Viste, the nobleman at the court of King Charles VII, and could be made between 1460s and 1490s.

The exact content and all the allegories interwoven (literally!) in these works are subject of endless debates, discussions and (re) interpretations. Some of them might be useful to better understand the role of this mirror, yet some others are pretty irrelevant. The very fact, however, that the mirror managed to get in the work that often referred as the most remarkable art works of Mediaeval Europe is, well, remarkable.   It’s also amazing that as early as the end of 15th century mirrors were already seen as the very important and powerful optical devices, to the extent that they can be used as the symbol of vision itself.

According to the beliefs of that time, only a virgin could tame the unicorn, so the lady portrayed here should have been ‘pure’ and ‘clean’. It’s an important aspect in understanding of the meaning of the mirror here. Even if it’s feminine device, it’s a not a sinful, vanity-driven feminity of the later ages, but rather a respected and adored feminity of the humanistic Renaissance.  The use of the mirror as a tool of understanding and reason follows the same tradition as in the works of Christine de Pizan, with the only difference that the tools does ‘work’ here.

At the same time, it opens a new tradition in depicting the mirrors, of showing something in the mirror, but not necessarily the image of the person who wolds (‘use’) the mirror.  I would not ‘upgrade’ this strategy to the next level, but it is surely more advanced, so let’s codename it as Strategy 1.5.

The hall in the Musée de Cluny in Paris where all the six tapestries are on display at the moment (this is not my picture and I don’t know the author, but I believe the work is in the public domain).




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