The late 15th century marked a time of economic growth for the Low Countries, specifically the Netherlands. The economic prosperity of the Netherlands allowed Dutch artists to expand their opportunities with the new resources available. Dutch art contributed to and was influenced by the Northern Renaissance art movement. The Medieval art movement included the aspect of mythical creatures. During the Gothic era, the art style took use of mythical creatures as symbolism.
Tapestries were considered to be art of high society in all of Europe during the 15th century and were often found in castles or mansions of wealthy dukes and nobles. Some of the most valuable tapestries came from the southern Netherlands. Many of these tapestries use legendary creatures to show that the artwork is illustrating an analogy rather than a specific event. Many of the plants, animals, and human figures reference the scriptures. The unicorn is symbolic of purity and virtue along representing Christ himself.
The Unicorn Tapestries are woven in the southern Netherlands during 1495 and 1505 by an unknown artist. This collection consists of seven tapestries that are influenced by Dutch society during the Renaissance. This exhibition will show how the tapestries are a visual parable of the sufferings and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the use of Medieval Narrative Christian Symbolism.
Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., The Hunters Enter the Woods (from the Unicorn Tapestries),1495–1505, (368.3 x 315cm), Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts, The Met, 37.80.1.
The Hunters Enter the Woods begins the journey of the wealthy hunters in search of the mythological unicorn. The hunters show prosperity through the vibrant polychrome woven into their garments. Their puzzled expressions suggest that they are not only in search for the unicorn but also the answer to a deeper question. The greyhounds symbolize loyalty as they stay by their master’s side and obey their command to follow the unicorn’s trail. In the background, there is planted many cherry trees which in the Dutch culture of the 1500s is a suggestion of paradise, eternal life, and the Virgin Mary.
Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr.,1495–1505, The Unicorn is Found (from the Unicorn Tapestries), (368.3 x 378.5cm), Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts, The Met, 37.80.2.
The Unicorn is Found is the second tapestry in the story and the first tapestry to illustrate the unicorn in the Unicorn Tapestries. The unicorn is shown purifying the stream so that the other animals can drink the water. The unicorn is symbolic of Jesus and this scene can be explained in the Bible when Jesus met a Sumerian woman at the well and told her a similar parable saying: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a fount of water springing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14).
Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., The Unicorn is Attacked (from the Unicorn Tapestries),1495–1505, (368.3 x 426.7cm), Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts, The Met, 37.80.3
The Unicorn is Attacked is the third tapestry in the series and it depicts the change from the peace one would find in heaven, to the corrupt violence found on earth. The hunters now appear to be cruel much like those who worshiped Christ and later crucified Him. In front of the stream there is a pomegranate tree which is a symbol in Dutch culture for fertility due to its many seeds. The fruit is also an analogy of Christ because in the same way that the red juice sprays out of a pomegranate when cut, Christ’s red blood and water gushed out when he was speared on the cross.
Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., The Unicorn Defends Itself (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505, (368.3 x 401.3cm), Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts, The Met, 37.80.4.
The Unicorn Defends Itself is the fourth art piece and shows a violent side of the Unicorn. The violence of the unicorn can be interpreted as the jealousy of God. The hunter blowing the horn personifies Gabriel the messenger from heaven. He may be present to tell the hunters that the unicorn is Christ and it would have to be killed for the Annunciation and Incarnation to take place which is symbolized in the submission of the virgin maid depicted in the next tapestry.
Two fragments from the fifth tapestry, The Unicorn Is Captured by the Maiden, remain and what is seen is a virgin maid calmly beckoning to a hunter that the unicorn may now be
taken. They are in a closed garden called the bortus conclus which in the Middle Ages was a symbol for chastity.
Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505, (368.3 x 388.6cm), Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts, The Met, 37.80.5.
The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle is the sixth tapestry and visibly shows the contrast between the violence of the unicorn being killed and the sorrow the citizens express after they realize the religious significance the unicorn has. The blackberry bush wrapped around the hazelnut tree is a reminder of Mary; the bush Moses found in flames in the desert was thought to be a blackberry bush. The Holy Spirit caused the bush to in flames just as he illuminates the mother of Christ.
Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505, (368 x 251.5 cm), Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts, The Met, 37.80.6.
The Unicorn in Captivity is the final tapestry in the collection and illustrated a peaceful, living unicorn. Just as Christ was crucified on the cross and came back to life, the unicorn was also killed and lives once again. The unicorn is surrounded with fruitful plants which once again signifies the paradise after death. Due to its nail-shaped cloves, the curation flowers symbolize the nails used to hang Jesus on the tree. The Virgin Mary is represented by the Madonna lily woven in the tapestry.
Although upon first glance the tapestries may appear to have a secular subject derived from Dutch folklore, they reference the scriptures many times through the use of symbolism in the plants, animal, and human figures strategically woven into the tapestries. The main
underlying religious symbolism throughout the seven tapestries is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.