28 March 2018

Through mediaeval eyes

It was clearly different back then. Virgins, unicorns, lions and the rest. Strangely, they still concerned themselves with these things, but virgins were expected and inevitably horny creatures were everywhere in abundance. Or at least one unicorn and one lion and lots of flowers and a few dogs and rabbits and the like in every tapestry. This was the famed French Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series on show at the Art Gallery of NSW. We'd gone down to Sydney for other things but also this. It was a mercifully little exhibition but fabulously important and weirdly diverse. The series is 6 tapestries of much the same size, each perhaps 3m square. The first is called My sole desire with the young woman fronting a pavilion with the inscription Mon seul desir and attendant, dog, lion and unicorn, flags and the rest. Then five other tapestries labelled Smell, Touch, Taste, Hearing and Sight, each with the woman and the unicorn and lion and millefleur plus more. Each item symbolises something, love or fidelity or cunning or innocence or strength or chastity or whatever. We don't get this, of course, but it's lovely and delicate and immense work (est. 2.5 years work for 2 weavers). Sadly the colours are faded and there are repaired rat bites. The backs, protected from the light, display more vivid colours but they are not on show. But I love this odd, unfamiliar era which is the European middle ages. This was very late, ~1500, another world to our rational, open times, but still with some strangely common concerns. What a pleasure to see something like this so close. And then a quick run through a few other rooms.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are on loan from the Musée de Cluny (Musée national du moyen Âge) in Paris at the Art Gallery of NSW.

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