Simple and mysterious
The fame of the tapestry series entitled “The Lady with the Unicorn” comes both from the simplicity of its composition and the depth of its mystery. The charm of the Lady and young Lady accompanying her, the placidity of the mythical, exotic and familiar animals, the background decorated with trees bearing fruit and thousand of spring flowers give the impression of a poetic world imbued with strong sense of serenity.
The whole set was created at the end of the 15th or the beginning of the 16th century, probably at the request of a nobility family, the coat of arms of which can be found on each of the tapestries. The creation and realization were probably entrusted to a workshop from the Master of Anne of Brittany. After an eventful journey, the six tapestries ended up in 1882 in the Museum of Cluny in Paris. The relationship between five of the tapestries and the five senses, by A.F. Kendrick in 1921, has notably improved the comprehension of the series. The last tapestry, entitled “My sole desire”, was interpreted as a “sixth sense” and gave rise to many commentaries. This “sixth sense” is usually interpreted as a “sensitive intuition” that lets us “feel” things.
The tapestries are presented in a sequence in accordance with the medieval hierarchy of the five senses. The sense hierarchy the most frequently seen in the texts from that time is based on their more or less proximity with the soul. That is in increasing order: Touch, Taste, Smell, Hearing and Sight, all crowned by My sole desire.
Lady with the Unicorn
National Museum of the Middle Ages
Now, the soul represents, at the individual level, an intermediary domain between the physical and spiritual ones. The soul is the individual reflection of the Principle at the source of all things, the Unity that governs the world. It consequently depicts a unifying principle of the various aspects of the being in general and his five senses in particular. A principle that is impalpable, without taste or odour, inaudible and invisible and not accessible by the sensitive way. In fact, only the immediate and direct way of intuition, beyond the simple sensation of feeling something, can give access to the principle knowledge. All the ambiguity of the meaning of the sixth tapestry results from the withheld approach: the strictly sensitive way of the physical being or the supra-sensitive way of the soul proper to the truly human being.
When manifested, the Principle successively actualizes the spiritual, psychical (including the individual soul) and physical aspects. Being a matter for the soul domain, the sense integration principle precedes the appearance of the five physical senses. Conversely, when the ordinary being follows the reversed way, he integrates the various aspects of his person, starting with the most physical, the five senses, which are resorbed into their unifying principle. Note that this double movement of descent and ascent, metaphysical and cosmological, can be found in all the traditional forms, including medieval.