The lady and the unicorn tapestries were created in around 1500, as the Medieval world was being transformed by the Renaissance. The six tapestries are a superlative example of the Mille fleur (“thousand flowers”) style. I saw them at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last weekend, where they have been on loan from the Paris Musee de Cluny- Musee national du Moyen Age.
These tapestries are thought to present an allegory of the five known senses and a mysterious sixth sense, variously interpreted as the “sole desire”, “heart” or free will.
The figures of a grand Lady, her maid, and the powerfully symbolic lion and unicorn, dominate the scenes. In the background, thousands of beautifully represented flowers create the enclosed cosmos within which stories from the poetic world of the senses, the spirit, romance, chivalry and morality, are played out by the main characters.
The Mille fleur style, which shows small flowers and plants, was used in European tapestry from about 1400 to 1550. Many different sorts of individual plants, usually depicted in blossom, are dispersed to give the impression of a flowery meadow, and evenly cover the whole decorated field.
Each “bouquet” or plant was individually designed, and improvised by the weavers as they worked. Plants were the source of many of the dyes for the yarn used in the tapestries. Madder, woad, weld, and fustic are not depicted in the tapestries but their subtle, rich colours maintain the vitality of these masterpieces of the dyer’s craft.
The forty or so different species represented in the Lady and the unicorn tapestries are the common flora of the Middle Ages. The great majority of them are wild flowers and herbs of the fields or woods, including daisy, wild pansy, periwinkle (white and blue), Roman hyacinth (white and blue), violet (yellow, white and purple), lily-of-the-valley (pink and white), speedwell, pimpernel, wild strawberry, campion, oxeye daisy, and many more lovely species. There are also a few garden flowers- jasmine, red and white pinks, and pea and bean flowers.
Gazing at these remarkable works of art and craft, I felt the medieval artisans’ love of these simple, common flowers, reaching out and touching me, across half a millennium.