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  • Fiona Prior

The Lady and the Unicorn

The magical Lady and the Unicorn is presently on show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Be sure to book online as there is an appointment system and you need to allocate your time appropriately. This is a cautionary tip as I didn’t! Please see an excerpt below from my original essay on this famous lady and other famous Parisian dames.

image: Sight, c1500 (detail), from the series The lady and the Unicorn, Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

“And now my favourite Parisian lady, housed in the Musée National du Moyen Age – The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series. I’m sure you will be very familiar with her image. This medieval damsel is housed in a merged site of beautiful old Gallo-Roman baths (1-3rd C) and the former residence of the abbots of Cluny (15th C).

To make my visit an even more poetic experience a Museum Garden opened in 2000 symbolically bringing the two periods together. Micro gardens with the ambience of a medieval monastery have such names as ‘The Medicinal Simples’, ‘The Thousand Flower Carpet’ and ‘The Forest of the Unicorn’.

Our unicorn lady herself could easily be muse to an Umberto Eco or Dan Brown novel – the six tapestries that combine to create the entire series depict the lady in a pictorial, tapestry representation of each of the senses … and the final tapestry, which has inspired scholarly debate for centuries, seems to depict the damsel relinquishing an ornate necklace worn in a previous tapestry scene. Is the series representative of courtly or spiritual love? Apparently, in the medieval period, being one did not exclude the other.

The ‘mysterious’ tapestry, the one which inspires discussion and debate, depicts the lady in a pavilion removing her exquisite necklace. The tapestry bears the words ‘A mon seul desir’ (to my sole desire). It adds a theological and philosophical dimension, and according to Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris round 1420, it depicts ‘another sense’ that of ‘heart’ or ‘understanding’. Whether it be heart or comprehension, courtly love or Christian ideals − or a 1000 flower potpourri of all, as is most likely − there seems to be agreement that the importance of the gesture is in its act of free will, of mastery over the senses and thoughtful use of them.

image: Mon Seul Desir, c1500 (detail), from the series The lady and the Unicorn, Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris

Sydney-siders are privileged to have this bewitching lady presently visiting AGNSW.

Art Gallery of New South Wales

10 Feb – 24 Jun 2018

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