August 04, 2013

Search for the Unicorn @ The Cloisters

In celebration of its 75th anniversary, The Cloisters has mounted a special exhibition on a topic that has engrossed people of all cultures since the beginning of time - the "Search for the Unicorn".  It's an appropriate subject for the medieval branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art as the main attraction to lure visitors up to the northern tip of Manhattan has got to be the beloved late Gothic masterpiece "The Unicorn Tapestries" on view in Gallery 017.

Let's take a moment to recap the history of this marvelous museum.  The original Cloisters opened to the public in 1914 as the brainchild of noted sculptor, collector and dealer of medieval art, George Grey Barnard.  Situated on four acres of land overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades of New Jersey, the building comprised elements from several medieval cloisters removed from France and other sites in Europe and re-assembled in chronological order.  Thanks to the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Barnard's Cloisters were acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1925, as was a 56 acre site that was transformed into Fort Tryon Park, the idyllic setting by which visitors now approach the museum.  Mr. Rockefeller not only financed the expansion of the museum property but also donated many works from his own collection and provided an endowment to fund operations and future acquisitions.  The new Cloisters opened to the public in 1938.

Of course the history of the unicorn goes back much further.  References to this magical white horse with the spiraling horn can be found in ancient Hebrew scripture, Greek philosophy, Julius Caesar's campaigns, Christian bestiaries, Shakespeare's plays, the Persian "Book of Kings" or "Shahnama", the Bible, and elixir vitae prescribed by the 12th century nun and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen.

Early Christian authors professed the unicorn to be an allegory for Christ and by the 13th century the unicorn had assumed mythical status.  It became the symbol for purity, grace and worldly love and was often depicted in works of art celebrating matrimony.  Legend had it that the unicorn could only be captured by a virgin and that its horn was capable of cleansing tainted water.  During the 15th century the unicorn as adopted by Scottish kings as their symbol of royalty and it remains to this day, along with the crowned lion, on the British coat of arms.

Depictions of unicorns can be found in all manner of art and objects dating back to the 14th century.  On display at The Cloisters are items as varied as a engraved playing card of a "Wild Woman and Unicorn" printed in Germany in the 15th century, a copper "Aquamanile" (a vessel that dispensed water for washing hands) also made in Germany circa 1425 (see right), a silver "Torah Crown" made in Poland in the 18th century, and an Italian painted "Desco da Parto [Birth Tray]" executed in Florence circa 1450 and featuring Chastity riding a chariot being pulled by a unicorn (see above left).

The exhibition concludes in the gallery where "The Unicorn Tapestries" hang in quiet splendor.  Although the origin of these magnificent objects is as mysterious as the mythical unicorn itself, they are assumed to have been executed circa 1495-1505 in the region of Brussels or Li├Ęge.  An intertwined "A" and "E" repeated several times in each panel gives no clue as to who commissioned the series but a coat of arms engraved on the collar of a dog may hold the key to their identity.

The tapestries tell the story of "The Hunt of the Unicorn" in seven chapters beginning with huntsmen and hounds entering the woods in search of their prey, the Unicorn being attacked and the Unicorn defending himself.  In one scene the Unicorn is using the magic powers of his horn to purify the waters (see below) but eventually he succumbs to the charms of a lovely maiden who traps him and he is captured.  Sadly the poor beast is killed and is transported back to the castle but in the final and most famous panel, he miraculously returns to life, albeit in captivity, chained to a pomegranate tree surrounded by a field of flowers.

The legend of the Unicorn remains as enthralling today as it was in the Middle Ages and despite modern research and technology we are no closer to solving the mystery of its genesis.  Indeed, there is no tangible evidence of such an animal ever having existed, but how to explain the claims of sightings and the multitude of mentions in art and literature throughout the ages?  A visit to The Cloisters will not answer these questions, but it will give you a lot of visual testimony to think about, and will make you wonder what exactly inspired such adoration through the ages.  The "Search for the Unicorn" closes on August 18th, but the tapestries remain on permanent view.

"The Unicorn Purifies Water"

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