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On view at the Cloisters Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Hunt for the Unicorn, or the Unicorn Tapestries, is a series of seven tapestries dating woven between 1495 and 1505, and woven in Brussels or Liège, and currently on display at the Cloisters - Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. The tapestries show a group of noblemen and hunters in pursuit of a unicorn. The Hunt for the Unicorn was a common theme in late medieval and renaissance works of art and literature. The tapestries were woven in wool, metallic threads, and silk. The vibrant colors are evident even today.  The colors were produced from dye plants: weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue). Most of the tapestries have survived however, only 2 fragments of one of the panels, The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn survives

There are a lot of opinions about the history of the tapestries.

The Hunters at the Start of the Hunt 

The original workmanship of the tapestries remains unanswered at the present. The design of the tapestries in the effect of the richness of figurative elements, near to the art of oil painting and influenced by the French style and reflected the woodcuts and metalcuts printed in Paris in the late fifteenth century.

The tapestries were highly probably woven in Brussels in the Flanders, where was the center of tapestry industry in the medieval European. As a series of remarkable works of Brussels looms, the mixture of silk, metallic thread with wool gave the tapestries finer quality and brilliance of colors. The wool was widely produced in the rural areas in Brussels, and easily obtained as the primary material in tapestry weaving, while the silk was costly in the weaving of tapestry, which symbolized the wealth and social status of the tapestry owner.

The Unicorn in Captivity

The tapestries were rich in floral in the background as a garden, features the "millefleurs" style, refers to a background style of a variety of small botanic, which was invented by the weavers of Gothic age, popular during the late medieval and wilted after the early Renaissance. There are more than a hundred plants represented in the tapestries, which scatter across the green background on the panels, eighty-five of which are identified by botanists whose interior meaning in the tapestries were designed to recall the tapestries' major themes. In the unicorn series, the hunt takes place within a closed garden, the Hortus conclusus, take the literal meaning of "enclosed garden", which was not only in conjunction with the Annunciation, but also a representation of the garden in the secular world.

The Unicorn at the Fountain

The seven tapestries are:

  • The Hunters at the Start of the Hunt

  • The Unicorn at the Fountain

  • The Unicorn Attacked

  • The Unicorn Defending Himself

  • The Unicorn is captured by the Virgin (two fragments)

  • The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle

  • The Unicorn in Captivity

The tapestries were owned by the La Rochefoucauld family of France for several centuries, with first mention of them showing up in the family's 1728 inventory. At that time five of the tapestries were hanging in a bedroom in the family's Château de Verteuil, Charente and two were stored in a hall adjacent to the chapel. The tapestries were highly believed woven for François, the son of Jean II de La Rochefoucauld and Marguerite de Barbezieux. And there was a possible connection between the letters A and E and the La Rochefoucauld, which are interpreted as the first and last of Antoine's name, who was the son of François, and his wife, Antoinette of Amboise. During the French Revolution, the tapestries were looted from the château and reportedly were used to cover potatoes – a period during which they apparently sustained damage. By the end of the 1880s they were again in the possession of the family. A visitor to the château described them as quaint 15th century wall hangings, yet showing "incomparable freshness and grace". The same visitor records the set as consisting of seven pieces, though one was by that time in fragments and being used as bed curtains.


The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle detail

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought them in 1922 for about one million US dollars. Six of the tapestries hung in Rockefeller's house until The Cloisters was built when he donated them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1938 and at the same time secured for the collection the two fragments the La Rochefauld family had retained. The set now hangs in The Cloisters which houses the museum's medieval collection.

In 1998 the tapestries were cleaned and restored. In the process, the linen backing was removed, the tapestries were bathed in water, and it was discovered that the colors on the back were in even better condition than those on the front (which are also quite vivid). A series of high resolution digital photographs were taken of both.

Ancient unicorn tapestries recreated at Stirling Castle

Historic Scotland commissioned a set of seven hand-made tapestries for Stirling Castle, a recreation of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, as part of a project to furnish the castle as it was in the 16th century.


The Unicorn is captured by the Virgin fragment

Be Sure to Check Out Our Counted Cross Stitch and Counted Needlepoint Charts-Patterns Inspired by these beautiful tapestries: