Orenco Originals for the Artful Needleworker !


The Virgin and the Unicorn by Domenico Zampieri, known as Domenichino c 1602

The Virgin and the Unicorn by Domenico Zampieri, known as Domenichino c 1602


The unicorn (from Latin unus "one" and cornu "horn", also called monoceros by the Greek) is a mythological creature. Though the modern popular image of the unicorn is sometimes that of a horse differing only in the single spiral horn on the middle of its forehead, the traditional unicorn also has a beard of a buck, a tail of a lion, and cloven hooves — these distinguish it from a horse. The unicorn is the only fabulous beast that does not seem to have been conceived out of human fears. In even the earliest references he is fierce yet good, selfless yet solitary, but always mysteriously beautiful. He could be captured only by unfair means, and his single horn was said to neutralize poison.


Portrait of a Young woman with an unicorn by Raphael

Unicorns have been an intriguing animal throughout history. While the actual existence of these creatures is thought to be mythical, people still believe in the fable of unicorns. Historians and storytellers have looked at other mammals, such as the giraffe and the ostrich, as proof that unicorns could perhaps have existed. People are happy to endorse the myth and lore of the unicorn as having existed at some point in time. The ancient Asians believed that unicorns were a sign of good luck that only made revealed to humans in rare cases. It was thought that the appearance of unicorns is a good omen. In medieval times, the unicorn became a symbol of Christianity. The popular belief was that a unicorn could never be lured or tamed, except by the scent of a pure virgin.

The Lady and the Unicorn (French: La Dame à la licorne) is the modern title given to the series of six tapestries woven in Flanders from wool and silk.  The set, on display in the Musée national du Moyen Âge (former Musée de Cluny) in Paris, is often considered one of the greatest works of art of the Middle Ages in Europe.


 “A living drollery: now I will believe That there are unicorns...”

~William Shakespeare, The Tempest, c.1611


The Lady and the Unicorn  Tapestry  Desire.. À Mon Seul Désir


No group of medieval tapestry is more mysterious than the Lady and the Unicorn series which is currently on display at Cluny Museum in Paris France. The facts of its creation are unknown. We know nothing known about the origins of the original tapestry set. There are many different theories about these tapestries but historians have not been able to agree on their origins.

Each of the six artistic master pieces offers a scene of a unicorn with a woman. In medieval times, a unicorn was often thought of as a representation of Christ. The horn was thought to be a symbol of the unity between Christ and God. In each of the six Lady and The Unicorn Tapestries the unicorns represent the human senses. These are defined as sight, smell, touch, sound, taste and love.




Medieval Ages Museum Cluny Museum in Paris France


Five of the tapestries are commonly referred to as the five senses – taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch. The sixth displays the words "À mon seul désir". The tapestry's meaning is obscure, but has been interpreted as representing love or understanding. Each of the six tapestries depicts a noble lady with the unicorn on her left and a lion on her right; some include a monkey in the scene. The pennants, as well as the armor of the Unicorn and Lion in the tapestry bear the Coat of Arms of Jean Le Viste, who was a powerful nobleman in the court of King Charles VII.   The tapestries are created in the style of mille-fleurs (meaning: "thousand flowers").

The first historical mention of the tapestry occurs in 1814 in a description of the château de Boussac, in the Creuse department in central France, but it was not until 1841 that Prosper Mérimée, a French dramatist, historian, archaeologist and writer, best known for his novella Carmen, which became the basis for the opera by Bizet, discovered the tapestry. The tapestries in 1841 at Château de Boussac in France, where they had serious damage resulting from improper storage conditions. In 1844 the novelist George Sand saw them and brought public attention to the tapestries in her works at the time (most notably in her novel Jeanne), in which using the Ladies Dresses, correctly dated them to the end of the fifteenth century.  In 1863, The Tapestries were brought to the Thermes de Cluny in Paris where after careful conservation has restored them nearly to their former glory.

The Lady and The Unicorn Tapestries on display at the Cluny Museum in Paris France

The red background of each tapestry is dotted with a rich variety of flowering plants and features pine, orange sessile oak and holly trees, the repeated motif of a coat of arms of three white crescents on a blue background, and animals including numerous rabbits, monkeys and birds.

Some historians believe that in five of the six panels, the mysterious lady with the unicorn is Mary Tudor, third wife of Louis XII and sister of Henry VIII, who was Queen of France from August 1514 to 1 January 1515.

The Tapestries are:


The lady stands with one hand touching the unicorn's horn, and the other holding up the pennant. The lion sits to the side and looks on.


The lady is taking sweets from a dish held by a maidservant. Her eyes are on a parakeet on her upheld left hand. The lion and the unicorn are both standing on their hind legs reaching up to pennants that frame the lady on either side. The monkey is at her feet, eating one of the sweetmeats.


The lady stands, making a wreath of flowers. Her maidservant holds a basket of flowers within her easy reach. Again, the lion and unicorn frame the lady while holding on to the pennants. The monkey has stolen a flower which he is smelling, providing the key to the allegory.

The Lady and The Unicorn Tapestries on display at the Cluny Museum in Paris France


The lady plays a portative organ on top of a table covered with an Oriental rug. Her maidservant stands to the opposite side and operates the bellows. The lion and unicorn once again frame the scene holding up the pennants. Just as on all the other tapestries, the unicorn is to the lady's left and the lion to her right - a common denominator to all the tapestries.


The lady is seated, holding a mirror up in her right hand. The unicorn kneels on the ground, with his front legs in the lady's lap, from which he gazes at his reflection in the mirror. The lion on the left holds up a pennant.

À Mon Seul Désir

This tapestry is wider than the others, and has a somewhat different style. The lady stands in front of a tent, across the top of which is written "À Mon Seul Désir", an obscure motto, variously interpretable as "my one/sole desire", "according to my desire alone"; "by my will alone", "love desires only beauty of soul", "to calm passion". Her maidservant stands to the right, holding open a chest. The lady is placing the necklace she wears in the other tapestries into the chest. To her left is a low bench with a dog sitting on a decorative pillow. It is the only tapestry in which she is seen to smile. The unicorn and the lion stand in their normal spots framing the lady while holding onto the pennants.

The Lady and The Unicorn Tapestries on display at the Cluny Museum in Paris France

In 2017 the tapestries, once again can be seen in all their vibrancy and detail after a major cleaning and restoration. Two years ago, in 2015, the tapestries were taken down from display at the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris, where they had been since 1882. Time and decades of dust had taken their toll on the colors, and the lining from which the tapestry was hung was deforming its shape and designs. Over the following months, a team of five restorers removed and replaced the linings and cleared the dust using a form of micro vacuum cleaner. Finally, all six of the panels were rehung in a newly designed room at the museum. "The tapestry has really come to life again," Audrey Defretin, a spokeswoman for the museum stated. "Already the panels were exceptional and emblematic because of their famous history and the mystery of their meaning, but now they have been cleaned and rehung we have some idea of how they might have looked in the Middle Ages. They are really extraordinary."

The tapestries have inspired novels and songs, been featured in Harry Potter movies and puzzled historians for the best part of 500 years. The Lady and the Unicorn, regarded as the Mona Lisa of woven artworks, is one of the greatest surviving artefacts of its kind from the Middle Ages.

Album Cover For John Renbourn

The Lady and the Unicorn was the title of a 1970 album by folk guitarist John Renbourn and shows the A mon seul désir panel on its cover. The tapestry is also depicted in the 2003 Tracy Chevalier Novel The Lady and the Unicorn, and several of the panels can be seen hanging on the walls of Harry Potter's Gryffindor house common room in the blockbuster films.

Lady with Unicorn by Luca Longhi 16th Century


Be Sure to Check out our Orenco Originals Counted Needlepoint and Counted Cross Stitch Patterns Inspired by these tapestries!