The Hunt of the Unicorn
The Hunt of the Unicorn, often referred to as the Unicorn Tapestries, is a series of seven tapestries
Tapestry is a form of textile art, traditionally woven on a vertical loom, however it can also be woven on a floor loom as well. It is composed of two sets of interlaced threads, those running parallel to the length and those parallel to the width ; the warp threads are set up under tension on a...

 dating from 1495–1505. The tapestries show a group of noblemen
Nobility is a social class which possesses more acknowledged privileges or eminence than members of most other classes in a society, membership therein typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be...

 and hunters in pursuit of a unicorn
The unicorn is a legendary animal from European folklore that resembles a white horse with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead, and sometimes a goat's beard...

. It is believed the tapestries were made in the Southern Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...



The tapestries were woven in wool
Wool is the textile fiber obtained from sheep and certain other animals, including cashmere from goats, mohair from goats, qiviut from muskoxen, vicuña, alpaca, camel from animals in the camel family, and angora from rabbits....

, metallic threads, and silk
Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The best-known type of silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity...

. The vibrant colors still evident today were produced with three dye
Natural dye
Natural dyes are dyes or colorants derived from plants, invertebrates, or minerals. The majority of natural dyes are vegetable dyes from plant sources – roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood — and other organic sources such as fungi and lichens....

 plants: weld
Reseda luteola
Reseda luteola is a plant species in the genus Reseda. Common names include dyer's rocket, dyer's weed, weld, woold, and yellow weed...

 (yellow), madder
Rubia is a genus of the madder family Rubiaceae, which contains about 60 species of perennial scrambling or climbing herbs and sub-shrubs native to the Old World, Africa, temperate Asia and America...

 (red), and woad
Isatis tinctoria, with Woad as the common name, is a flowering plant in the family Brassicaceae. It is commonly called dyer's woad, and sometimes incorrectly listed as Isatis indigotica . It is occasionally known as Asp of Jerusalem...


History and interpretation

Much of the tapestries' history is disputed and there are many theories about their original purpose and meaning, including suggestions that the seven tapestries were not originally hung together. However it seems likely that they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany
Anne of Brittany
Anne, Duchess of Brittany , also known as Anna of Brittany , was a Breton ruler, who was to become queen to two successive French kings. She was born in Nantes, Brittany, and was the daughter of Francis II, Duke of Brittany and Margaret of Foix. Her maternal grandparents were Queen Eleanor of...

 to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII
Louis XII of France
Louis proved to be a popular king. At the end of his reign the crown deficit was no greater than it had been when he succeeded Charles VIII in 1498, despite several expensive military campaigns in Italy. His fiscal reforms of 1504 and 1508 tightened and improved procedures for the collection of taxes...

, King of France.

The two major interpretations of the tapestries hinge on pagan
Paganism is a blanket term, typically used to refer to non-Abrahamic, indigenous polytheistic religious traditions....

 and Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...

 symbolism. The pagan interpretation focuses on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas Christian writings interpret the unicorn
The unicorn is a legendary animal from European folklore that resembles a white horse with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead, and sometimes a goat's beard...

 and its death as the Passion of Christ. The unicorn has long been identified as a symbol of Christ by Christian writers, allowing the traditionally pagan symbolism of the unicorn to become acceptable within religious doctrine. The original myths surrounding The Hunt of the Unicorn refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; subsequently, Christian scholars translated this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary.

The tapestries were owned by the La Rochefoucauld
La Rochefoucauld
La Rochefoucauld can refer to:People:* Antoine de La Rochefoucauld* Count Antoine de La Rochefoucauld , 19th century Rosicrucian* François de La Rochefoucauld , French author...

 family of France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 for several centuries. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
John Davison Rockefeller, Jr. was a major philanthropist and a pivotal member of the prominent Rockefeller family. He was the sole son among the five children of businessman and Standard Oil industrialist John D. Rockefeller and the father of the five famous Rockefeller brothers...

 bought them in 1922 for about one million United States dollar
United States dollar
The United States dollar , also referred to as the American dollar, is the official currency of the United States of America. It is divided into 100 smaller units called cents or pennies....

s and donated them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a renowned art museum in New York City. Its permanent collection contains more than two million works, divided into nineteen curatorial departments. The main building, located on the eastern edge of Central Park along Manhattan's Museum Mile, is one of the...

 in 1937. They now hang in The Cloisters
The Cloisters
The Cloisters is a museum located in Fort Tryon Park, New York City. The building, which is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was reconstructed in the 1930s from the architectural elements of several European medieval abbeys...

 which houses the museum's medieval collection.

Beginning in 1998, the tapestries were cleaned and restored. In the process, the linen
Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. Linen is labor-intensive to manufacture, but when it is made into garments, it is valued for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather....

 backing was removed, the tapestries were bathed in water, and it was discovered that the colors on the back were in even better condition than those on the front (which are also quite vivid). A series of high resolution digital photographs were taken of both sides using a customized scanning rig designed by museum consultant Scott Geffert of Center for Digital Imaging Inc. and the museum's photography staff that suspended a Leica S1Pro linear array scan camera and lighting over the delicate textile. The front and back of the tapestries were photographed in approximately three foot square segments. The largest tapestry required up to 24 individual 5000×5000 pixel images. Merging the massive data stored in these photos required the efforts of two mathematicians, the Chudnovsky brothers
Chudnovsky brothers
The Chudnovsky brothers are American mathematicians known for their wide mathematical ability, their home-built supercomputers, and their close working relationship....


Since January 2002, the Tapestry Studio at West Dean College
West Dean College
West Dean College is situated in the West Dean Estate, of West Dean near Chichester. The Estate was formerly the home of the poet and patron of the arts, Edward James. He was an avid admirer of the Surrealist movement, and formed one of the largest collections of their works during his lifetime...

 has been working on a recreation of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. The tapestries will be displayed in the Queen's Presence Chamber at Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle, located in Stirling, is one of the largest and most important castles, both historically and architecturally, in Scotland. The castle sits atop Castle Hill, an intrusive crag, which forms part of the Stirling Sill geological formation. It is surrounded on three sides by steep...

, part of a project to furnish the castle as it would have been in the 16th century. Historians studying the reign of James IV
James IV of Scotland
James IV was King of Scots from 11 June 1488 to his death. He is generally regarded as the most successful of the Stewart monarchs of Scotland, but his reign ended with the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Flodden Field, where he became the last monarch from not only Scotland, but also from all...

 believe that a similar series of 'Unicorn' tapestries were part of the Scottish royal collection
Scottish Royal tapestry collection
The Scottish royal tapestry collection was a group of tapestry hangings assembled to decorate the palaces of sixteenth century kings and queens of Scotland....

. The team at West Dean Tapestry visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York to inspect the originals and researched into medieval techniques, the colour palette and materials. This project is due for completion in 2014. The weavers are working at West Dean, West Sussex
West Dean, West Sussex
West Dean is a village and civil parish in the District of Chichester in West Sussex, England located north of Chichester on the A286 road just west of Singleton. The parish includes the hamlets of Binderton and Chilgrove....

 and at Stirling Castle.

In popular culture

The opening sequence of the 1982 animated movie The Last Unicorn
The Last Unicorn (film)
The Last Unicorn is a 1982 fantasy film produced by Rankin/Bass for ITC Entertainment and animated by Topcraft. The film is based on the novel of the same name written by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the film's screenplay...

was designed in reference to the tapestries, with many elements such as the fountain and lions, as well as the overall style being extremely similar.

The first tapestry in the series appears briefly in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, adorning the wall of a corridor near the Room of Requirement.

External links

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