Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Bite 51: Unknown - Unicorn in Captivity, c. 1500

Unicorn in Captivity, Netherlands, c. 1500, tapestry, 368 x 252 cm
May be part of a narrative series or a stand-alone work, Unicorn in Captivity is one of the most beautiful and complex works that exists from the Middle Ages. Little is known about it or its authorship. In the Middle Ages tapestries were one of the most costly art-forms. This particular work incorporates gold and silver gilt and is finely detailed throughout. It would have taken several weavers a full year or more to complete it.

The letters 'A. E.' featured on the tapestry likely indicate a noble marriage. The symbolism of the many elements of the work, including flora and fauna, confirms this. The unicorn in captivity can be seen as both a metaphor for Christ, the red juice of the pomegranates representing his blood, as well as for the concept of the bridegroom. The animal is chained but not secured. The fence is low and he appears happy to have been captured, safe within a protecting environment. The exquisitely rendered tail appears to dance in the grass.

The wider narrative can be seen as a religious allegory as the unicorn, a traditional Medieval symbol for Jesus Christ, is killed in capture and miraculously comes back to life.

In the collection (of over 2 million works) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Can be seen in The Cloisters.