|Image by Joe de Sousa|
I've long been interested in these tapestries, partly because of the strangeness of the mythical beast and the stories that have grown up around it: the belief that only a virgin can tame a unicorn, with its reference to sexual innocence and experience, the speculation that the idea of a unicorn originated in a very inaccurate description of a rhinoceros as being 'like a horse with a horn'. I had also read that the tapestries depicted six senses and was keen to find out what sense existed beyond sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Through reading various guides and talking to the room attendant I soon learnt that there is more than one interpretation of not only the sixth tapestry but the meaning of the whole series. Is it an allegory of Love or Renunciation?
The tapestries are thought to have been woven at the end of the fifteenth century and the coat of arms on the standard show a blue band with three crescent moons, which belonged to the Le Liste family from Lyons. This identification is further supported by the choice of a lion as standard bearer. One might be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that the tapestries celebrate a wedding in the family, as the last tapestry makes reference to 'A MON SEUL DESIR' - 'My One Desire'. One guide rebuts this, saying that all the women pictured have different faces. On the other hand, they are all blonde and perhaps it would not have been easy for different workers to replicate a face? The truth is that as a novelist I would rather like it to be linked to an actual event, with the promise of a story behind it . . .
The representation of the five senses is very clear. The first tapestry in the cycle shows the lady holding up a mirror to the unicorn and thus depicts Sight. Hearing is shown through the lady playing a 'positif' (portable organ) and smell by the lady plucking a carnation from her maidservant's basket, humorously echoed in the mimicry of a tiny monkey.
Taste is shown by the lady taking a sweet from a dish offered by her maidservant and Touch in a tableau where the lady holds the standard with one hand while touching the unicorn's horn with the other.
Additional evidence for this view may be that the other senses are presented in order of the importance given to them in Medieval belief, with Sight and Hearing first as the higher senses - those senses through which we can most easily learn and become enlightened. Smell, taste and touch come later.
On the other hand, further motifs within the tapestry series, such as the recurring rabbit or hare, the profusion of flowers and plants and a tree laden with pineapples suggest references to fertility and thus are concerned with love rather than the intellect. The pavilion may represent a private place into which lovers could withdraw.
The writings of the Chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson (1363 -1429) mention 'six senses - five external and one internal - namely the heart - which we must master as six schoolchildren.' He sees the heart as the controller of the physical senses and needing to be schooled to avoid sins such as lust. As the tapestries are thought to have been created some time in the last two decades of the fifteenth century, this strand of thought that sees the heart as a sixth sense, controlling both desire and the soul, would have been familiar and is thought to have been widespread in 15th century France.
Is it not possible that there are elements of both Love and Morality present? We must avoid falling into the trap of thinking that people of an earlier time were any less subtle or complex in their thinking than we are, just because their beliefs were different. My own impression was that the tapestries have a rich duality with elements of both renunciation and eroticism.