Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Color Collaborative: September: Stitched


image via metmuseum.org

"The Unicorn in Captivity" is one of seven Medieval tapestries in the series known as "The Hunt of the Unicorn" or, simply, "The Unicorn Tapestries." Most of these tapestries, once owned by John D. Rockefeller, are now part of the permanent collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; the tapestries are exhibited in The Cloisters, a sort of annex of the main museum. The Cloisters is the home of the museum's extensive Medieval art collection.

Like the other tapestries in the series, "The Unicorn in Captivity" is mysterious. Not much is known about these tapestries. Art historians think they were made between 1495 and 1505. They were probably created in the Netherlands region. Scholars and historians have been at odds for centuries as to the symbolism depicted in them, with theories ranging from romantic love to Christian allegory. There are letters, probably A and E, present in all of the tapestries, but their meaning has been heavily debated too. What we do know is this: the tapestries were created from wool warps with wool, silk, silver and gilt wefts, making them quite luxurious. We also know that the botanical designs in each tapestry have been identified as real species found in Europe at the time, tens of thousands of miniscule stitches creating a vibrant field of plants and blooms. 

"The Unicorn in Captivity" is my personal favorite tapestry in the series. I saw it in person when I visited The Cloisters as a fifth-grader from the suburbs. We had studied Medieval tapestries in art class for awhile before the field trip, even making our own hand-stitched versions of the tapestry of our choice. I wish I still had my unicorn "tapestry," but I don't. I remember well the day I stood before the Unicorn tapestries in the museum, though. It was thrilling. Later, I studied the era's tapestries in college, and the fascination continued.

I suppose I'm cheating a bit writing about this tapestry; technically, it isn't "stitched," it's woven. But tapestry weaving is special; weft threads are twisted and manipulated freely, hooked and looped around the warp one tiny section at a time, to create intricate designs on the front of the fabric - much more like stitching than basic fabric creation.

image via metmuseum.org

What strikes me is the detail. Every flower, every leaf and fruit, has been artfully depicted in colored threads on a deep black ground. Leaves contain various shades of green, flowers are realistic, bearing the colors they would in nature. There are pale purple irises, yellow calendulas and pink lady-slippers. There are strawberries, snowdrops, bluebells and thistles. The backs of the tapestries, protected from the ravages of sun and time, are said to contain brilliant colors. The fronts are incredible enough. Do you see the frog in the above detail photo? He's tiny, but his coloration is perfect, and you can even see eyes and individual toes. 

This tapestry is made in the late-medieval millefleurs tradition: countless tiny flowers and plants densely arrayed throughout the work. This style captures my imagination. I've always been drawn to designs which depict intricate, brambly botanical features on dark backgrounds, whether in paintings, tapestries or even calico fabrics. I think of fairy-tale forests - the leafy domain of silent rabbits and deer, secret thickets of flowers and berries, patchy sunshine splitting the darkness. When I saw this tapestry at age eleven, I couldn't stop thinking about it for days.


image via metmuseum.org

Can you identify the fruits in the above detail? Those are pomegranates, rosy-gold and delicately crowned. They have long been known as a symbol of fertility, which is one reason for the romantic-love interpretation of the tapestry. Though the leaves of this pomegranate tree are botanically inaccurate, according to art historians, they are finely detailed, well-rendered in subtle shades of green.





In closer detail, the Unicorn himself is beautifully rendered too. He is a rich, creamy-white color, with a swishy tail and delicate hooves. His face is startlingly human-like, I think. He is believed to be symbolic of Christ. He is chained to the pomegranate tree with an ornate collar around his neck; the collar is rich with gilt threads, the chain's links are finely rendered in silver. There are droplets of blood, or perhaps pomegranate juice, on his snowy coat. The Unicorn's corral looks like real wood, as the brown threads create a subtle shaded effect. The Unicorn is surrounded by flowers and plants of every kind and he is resting comfortably in his corral. His collar is loose and the fence is low; he doesn't look unhappy to be in captivity, which is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.



The above video, made by the remarkable Khan Academy, offers a fascinating analysis of the symbolism and masterful artistry of "The Unicorn in Captivity." Two historians offer their opinions on these subjects and more. I learned a lot about this mysterious and beautiful tapestry from their discussion. You may also enjoy this interactive tool from the Google Cultural Institute, which allows the user to zoom in for a very close observation of the tapestry.

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 Don't forget to visit the other Color Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts. Just click on the links below: 

Annie at Annie Cholewa 
Sandra at Cherry Heart 

What is The Color Collaborative?
All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a color related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about color in new ways.

19 comments:

  1. What a beautiful tapestry you have shown us, Jennifer, and I can see why you have always liked it. The detailed weaving is quite wonderful, and like you, I love the botanical details, as well as the sweet frog. It was interesting to read that the unicorn represents Christ, and I wonder if that is the case in other tapestries of unicorns. In Paris we visited the Medieval Musee de Cluny and saw the series of 6 tapestries of a Lady with a Unicorn, from the same era. They were absolutely beautiful. And I have to mention that in Florence we saw Botticelli's painting, Primavera, with similar wonderful botanical detail scattered all through the figures in the picture. Thank you for a great post.

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  2. My chauvinism requires me to make a small remark ;-)))
    The origin of these tapestries is assumed to be in the former Southern Netherlands. Now known as... Belgium ;-)....
    There are still specialised artisans here, who do restorations of old tapestries. We had an antique family piece restored (a wall tapestry which was "attacked" by one of our dogs.... Sigh...). It took 3 years to be restored ! Can you imagine how long they must have worked to make such a detailed one like those from the unicorn series...

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  3. What a beautiful post today, thank you for sharing those beautiful tapestries, I can why you fell in love with them.

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  4. Such a stunning piece of work & a lovely post too.

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  5. Amazing tapestries, I can see why they have stayed with you. Such detail, I too wonder how long they took to make and how much they were designed and planned in advance. Thankyou for sharing :)
    Jillxo

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  6. What an absolutely amazing piece. I love to see really old works and imagine them being made and the things they have seen over the centuries. The detail is phenomenal, it is hard to picture how they were created - a real feat. Have you ever come across Candace Bahouth? She is a tapestry designer, amongst other things, and has written a book called "Medieval Needlepoint". I am sure she has gathered inspiration from The Unicorn Tapestries, I see many similarities in her designs. She has created unicorn designs and also closely spaced botanical images on a black background. I loved this post Jennifer, this is exactly the kind of thing that I find thrilling. CJ xx

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  7. It's amazing how these old pieces of work have survived for so long, especially as they must be quite delicate. The detail in this tapestry is fabulous.

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  8. Beautiful tapestry Jennifer and thank you so much for providing so much detail about it. I had never seen any of them before but can see why you're drawn to this one. I think the details are amazing.
    Blessings,
    Betsy

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  9. What an intriguing tapestry.
    I'm always in awe of the beauty of pomegranates. I didn't know they were the symbol of fertility, though - learnt some new things today! xxx

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  10. I love tapestry, particularly old tapestry. My friend Emma is a tapestry weaver and I have a little piece of art made by her in my house. Cx

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  11. It's a beautiful tapestry and the fact that it was all made by hand is so amazing. x

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  12. What an amazing piece of work, so fine. I remember I watched a programme about the Bayeux tapestry once and how they made the different stitches - thousands, probably millions of tiny, tiny stitches. Wow!

    S x

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  13. This is such an incredible piece of work. It always amazes me what people achieved hundreds of years ago, before the inventions and technology we take for granted today, and it kind of blows my mind that it's still in one piece. It's beautiful and the level of detail is quite remarkable. Thank you for sharing it with us today. x

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  14. Tapestries are so amazing aren't they, I don't know if you have ever seen the backs of any, but it is wonderful to see the vibrant colours that were originally used, especially the reds as they look so different from the often faded and worn fronts. This is so lovely, I have seen this image before, but never realised that it was part of a series of tapestries. It was very nice to read your thoughts. xx

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  15. Fascinating video ... lovely to learn a little more about a piece I've always admired ... I'm envious that you've seen it 'in the wool'!

    Have you tried tapestry weaving Jennifer ... it's really quite easy and very satisfying!

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  16. Wonderful interpretation of the month's theme.

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  17. I loved this post Jennifer. It's so beautiful, I can see why you were mesmerised by it and why it has stayed with you.

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  18. Ahhh, I love the Unicorn Tapestries. My interest was really piqued when I stumbled across the copies they are making of them at Stirling Castle in Scotland. They're re-doing all 7 of the tapestries -- they started in 2001 and were scheduled to be done in 2013 (so they must be finished by now?). It was amazing to watch the weavers work -- at least one weaver worked all day, almost every day of the year on the tapestries. Such intricate work! Thanks for a wonderful post!

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  19. A wonderful post on a fascinating subject. I love mediaeval art, especially illuminated manuscripts, and many of the artistic conventions are the same as shown here. When I visited New York for the first time a few years ago, one of the places I really wanted to visit was the Cloisters, but we just ran out of time. :( Your post has made me want to visit it even more...

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Thank you for leaving a comment. It's so good to hear from you! I don't always have time to reply but I try to answer questions when I can.

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