The Cluny tapestries
A sequence of images of a lion and unicorn
in relation to a Lady


Professor Francis Thackeray © 2001
Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI), University of the Witwatersrand
PO WITS, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa

The Musee National du Moyen Age, Thermes & hotel de Cluny, in Paris, curates a remarkable set of large tapestries which date to the late 15th century. They all feature a lion, a unicorn and a female who may be referred to as the "Lady" of the tapestries. Five of the tapestries have been interpreted in terms of representations of five senses, namely hearing, smell, taste, sight and touch, with the sixth "sense" relating to matters of the heart (Jean-Patrice Boudet 1999). A question arising from close analysis of this set of images is whether at least five of them can be arranged in a consecutive sequence based on the position and posture of the lion and unicorn, relative to the Lady.

Here I put forward the suggestion that five of the images can be arranged in the following sequence :

Firstly, in the image representing hearing, the Lady is playing a musical instrument, but notably both the lion and unicorn have their backs towards the Lady, yet both animals are turning to look in her direction. Both animals are holding standards with the coat of arms of the Le Viste family from Lyon. The Lady is wearing a necklace.
Cluny 1a

Secondly, in the image representing smell, the Lady is holding flowers, but notably both the lion and the unicorn have turned to face the Lady, and both animals are in a position in which they are almost "sitting" on their haunches with their forelimbs moderately raised, holding the standards with the coat of arms of the Le Viste family. A monkey appears to be freely picking up fruit from a basket and holding it to its nose. The Lady is wearing a necklace.
Cluny 2a

Thirdly, in the image representing taste, the Lady is taking an item from a bowl and a monkey in the foreground appears to be freely eating fruit, but notably the lion and unicorn have now leaped up, such that both are effectively standing on their hindlimbs, both facing the Lady. The Lady is wearing a necklace.
Cluny 3a
Fourthly, in the image representing sight, the Lady is holding a mirror to the face of the unicorn, and it is only the lion that holds a standard of the family of Le Viste. Notably, the unicorn has advanced to a position in which its forelimbs are now in the lap of the Lady. The Lady is wearing a necklace.
Cluny 4a
Fifthly, in the image representing touch, the Lady has now grabbed hold of the unicorn by its horn, and two monkeys have chains around their necks and are "captured". A dog has a collar around its neck. In her right hand the Lady is now holding a standard with the coat of arms of the Le Viste family, having "captured" the unicorn with her left hand. She is still wearing a necklace.
Cluny 5a

The sixth image shows the Lady at the entrance of a tent-like pavilion, with both the lion and unicorn holding the flaps of the entrance open. The Lady has now taken off her necklace, and appears to be placing it in a chest of jewels. An inscription in gold at the entrance to the pavilion reads "A mon seul desir" (to my only desire"), which may relate to the feelings of the heart, as noted by J.-P. Boudet. The lion and the unicorn appear to have resumed their positions on either side of the Lady, and both are again holding standards with the coat of arms of the Le Viste family.

The tapestries of Cluny may be understood in terms of a sequence of events in which both the lion and the unicorn advance upon the Lady, and when the unicorn has approached sufficiently close to the Lady, she captures it, as shown in the scene associated with touch. This scene, which includes images of two monkeys in chains, may be related to the myth that the capture of a unicorn can be facilitated by the presence of a virgin, as discussed by Odell Shephard. A moral behind the sequence of tapestries is likely to be that feelings of the heart have supremacy over the five senses of hearing, smell, taste, sight and touch.

J.P. Boudet. 1996. Le sixieme sens et la theologie de l'amour (essai sur l'iconographie des tapisseries a sujects amoureux a la fin du Moyen Age. Journal des savants, pp. 137-153.

J.P. Boudet. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries - an unsolved enigma and an endless source of fascination. Le Peregrinateur, Toulouse.

Odell Shepard. 1979. The Lore of the Unicorn. Harper Colophon, New York.

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