The Met Cloisters is the branch of The Met devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Situated on a bluff in northern Manhattan with sweeping Hudson River views, our popular New York City landmark incorporates elements of original Romanesque and Gothic architecture dating from the twelfth to the fifteenth century.
These contemplative spaces include three beautiful gardens, which are cultivated with plant species known from tapestries, medieval herbals, and other historic sources. The verdant plantings and open vistas are integrated with artistic masterworks inside the galleries, offering visitors an oasis of calm and inspiration.
Whether you’re a New York resident or live thousands of miles away, you are probably familiar with the Unicorn Tapestries at The Met Cloisters. The iconic textiles (South Netherlandish, 1495–1505) are among the most celebrated medieval works in the Museum’s collection. Luxuriously woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads, the seven individual hangings vividly depict scenes associated with a hunt for an elusive, magical unicorn.
A mythical composite of a horse and a goat, the unicorn was first mentioned by the Greek physician Ctesias in the fourth century B.C., and it was a popular image throughout the Middle Ages. The otherworldly animal was heralded for its invincibility and for the therapeutic property of its horn, so that coveted narwhal tusks (from a small Arctic whale) became known as “unicorn horns.”
The Unicorn Tapestries were most likely designed in Paris and woven in Brussels. Their beginnings are undocumented; they were first recorded in 1680 as hanging in the Paris home of François VI, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. The tapestries were looted during the French Revolution, but luckily they survived relatively intact through the nineteenth century. In 1922, John D. Rockefeller paid $1 million for the set, and in 1937 he donated them to the brand-new Cloisters.
The botanical richness and drama of the seven hangings have inspired numerous readings. They ostensibly present a hunting narrative: they begin with a tapestry in which hunters enter the woods; continue with scenes in which the animal is found, attacked, and defends itself; and end with the beast captured and secured in a pen.
The tapestries have variously been interpreted as Christian allegories or as a chronicle of romance and married love, or perhaps a combination of the two. A related theme appears in the famous “Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries” at the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris, and unicorn imagery from both of these renowned tapestry series was featured in the Harry Potter films.
Several scenes in the Unicorn Tapestries are depicted against a millefleurs (thousand flowers) background: a field of dark green dotted with blossoming trees and flowers. Of the 101 plant species represented in the series, 85 have been identified, including great leopard’s bane (Doronicum pardalianches) and calendula (Calendula officinalis). To this day the multifaceted hangings continue to be endlessly rewarding as historic documents, teaching us about medieval plants, animals, costume, hunting practices, courtship, religion, the textile arts, and so much more.
With The Met’s cooperation, the Unicorn Tapestries were recently re-created at Stirling Castle in Scotland, where an exhibit illucidates their meticulous production over the course of 13 years. They now hang on the castle’s interior walls as an illustration of how such magnificent tapestries once enhanced the surroundings of their elite patrons with prestige, warmth, and beauty.
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