Last week, on my favorite blog BoingBoing, I came across a post about artist Joey Syta who has spent two years creating a one third size replica of the À Mon Seul Désir panel of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, ALL IN Lite-Brites -- approximately 55,000 pegs. This happens to be my very favorite tapestry in the world, one that I stop in and commune with whenever I'm in Paris. It's in a fabulous round room at the Musée National du Moyen Âge (aka the Cluny Museum) in the Latin Quarter.
Here is the original:
À Mon Seul Désir (written on tent)
This panel is the sixth (or the first?) in series of tapestries made in the fifteenth century which were rediscovered in France in the early 18th century (purportedly by George Sand). Much ink has been spilled in the years since trying to decipher the meaning of this tapestry. The other five are now universally agreed to represent the five senses (see below).....but what of the last tapestry? What is her desire? The unicorn? or a closer union with the heavenly father? In that case is she renouncing earthly (sensual) pleasures, symbolically indicated by the placement of her necklace (worn in the previous five panels) into a box? This seems to be the reigning interpretation at the moment, that freedom from the passions of the senses would ensure proper (aka moral) behavior.....Liberium arbitrium, so to speak.
However, I have my own interpretation. I think the lady is telling her lover (symbolized by the unicorn of course) that she is ready to give herself completely to him, embracing all the senses. The blue tent stands as a medieval "love shack" and the lady is actually beginning to disrobe (and as every woman knows, the first thing you do is take off your jewelry).
What do you think? The thing I can't figure out is why William Morris never wrote about these tapestries (or did he? anyone?). He had to have known about them --- not only did numerous writers write about them (Sand, Rilke, Cocteau...), Morris was clearly also an expert in the field of medieval tapestry. I'm surprised he didn't write a book about them.
note added 1/29/10: It was pointed out to me today that my hypothesis does not explain the presence of the lion in each tapestry and is therefore incomplete. I agree. I will continue to ponder the significance of the lion as I pursue my Grand Unified Theory (GUT) of the Unicorn Tapestries.
smell (making wreath of flowers/monkey smells flower)
hearing (lady playing organ)
sight (unicorn looks at his reflection in mirror)
touch (lady gently touches unicorn's horn)
taste (lady eats sweets)
P.S. while we're on the subject of tapestries: here is a link to an article about contemporary artists working in the medium of tapestries that was in the NY Times yesterday.
"Vote Alan Measles for God" (2008), Grayson Perry