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The unicorn is found.

During the Middle Ages, tapestries were an exclusive art form that became more popular over time. At first, tapestries with religious subjects covered the walls of churches, but later tapestries with secular designs also decorated the interiors of courts and civic buildings. By the fifteenth century, tapestries with popular subjects not only ornamented wealthy homes, but also divided rooms or kept drafts away at doorways, while smaller tapestries with coordinated designs decorated beds, tables, and chairs.

About the Artwork

A tapestry represents the ultimate in collaboration and cooperation. First, an artist created a small-scale drawing or painting of the design. A specialist enlarged this into a cartoon--a color or color-coded line drawing on a sheet of linen or paper that was the full size of the tapestry and the mirror image of the initial design. The weft yarns that gave color to the tapestry were usually made of dyed wool and silk, created by a dyer. Besides the natural whitish color of its wool, the colors in this tapestry were created with dyes from five types of plants: fresh madder, fresh weld, dried sappan, selected dried bark of trees, and composted woad.

When it came time to weave, parallel warps of strong, undyed yarn were stretched vertically between the beams of a loom. Facing the reverse of the tapestry, the weavers (who were all male) wove following the cartoon, which was either folded or cut into strips before it was placed behind the warps on the loom. Heddles, connected to treadles or to an overhead bar, enabled the weavers to change the positions of alternate warps with a shift of their limbs. The dyed weft yarn, wound into small balls (or, later, wrapped around small wooden bobbins), was passed through the separated warp threads, called a weaving shed, which the weaver then compacted down onto the undyed warps with a comb-like tool. As the weaving progressed, the woven tapestry was rolled around the beam close to the weavers while the unwoven warps were unrolled from the other beam. When completed, the tapestry was removed from the loom; the beginning and finishing edges were stitched; straps to support the tapestry's weight were sewn on the back along with a lining; and rings or hooks were attached at the top.

The Unicorn Is Found tapestry is one of the famous seven Unicorn Tapestries hanging at The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum's branch of medieval art. On one level, the complex iconography of the series recounts the legend of the unicorn, a mythical creature believed both to have a magical horn that could purify poisoned water and powers that could be neutralized only by a virgin. Symbolically, the series represents love and marriage--notice the various pairs of male and female animals here--and, in a Christian interpretation, retells the story of Christ's suffering, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Here, surrounded by twelve hunters, the unicorn seems to be purifying a poisoned stream with his horn, a hypothesis supported by the presence of such plants as pot marigold under the hyena's chin, the medlar tree to the left of the fountain, the blue-flowered sage in front of the fountain, and an orange tree in the lower right corner of the tapestry. All stand close to the stream and all were used as antidotes to poison in the Middle Ages. The precision with which the plants are represented attests to the designer's careful observation. In fact, out of a total of 101 species of plants represented in all seven of the Unicorn Tapestries, more than eighty-five percent have been identified.

Resources

Cavallo, Adolfo Salvatore. Medieval Tapestries in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993.

Cavallo, Adolfo Salvatore. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.

Web Sites

www.metmuseum.org/explore/Unicorn/unicorn_ splash.htm

Dr. Michael Norris, associate museum educator, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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Title Annotation:All Levels: Looking and Learning
Author:Norris, Michael
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:648
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