London Slant: The Lady and the Unicorn are back—in glory

I’m always on the lookout for an excuse to revisit Paris’ Museum of the Middle Ages.  It’s full of treasures that culminate in its six exquisite Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. To me, they’re the most wonderful woven works of art ever.

Lady and Unicorn tapestries

“To my only desire”, the most celebrated—and mysterious—of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.

So imagine my excitement on my recent Paris trip when I spotted posters up and down Boulevard St Michel emblazoned with the words “The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, as you’ve never seen them before”. Yes, these medieval gems had just been conserved and redisplayed. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better reason to go and lap them up again.

The museum itself is a fascinating Gothic-Renaissance mansion, built over Roman baths. Just stepping inside is like entering a swirl of French history, from the ruins of the calderium (hot chamber) to rooms displaying brilliant stained glass panels, gold caskets, illuminated books and marble sculptures. There’s even a medieval-style garden outside.

Cluny Museum Paris

Heads of French kings displayed in the remains of the Roman baths.

But I was here to enjoy the mysteries of the Lady and her mythical beast. The six hangings show the pair surrounded by trees, flowers and other animals. Five appear to depict the five senses, while the sixth  is enigmatically entitled A mon seul désir  (To my only desire).

Freshly cleaned, their rich colours sing out from their crimson backgrounds. Hi-tech lighting picks out every thread. There are dozens of different recognisable flowers: chrysanthemums, roses, daisies, bluebells. Luscious fruit is plentiful: on strawberry plants and orange tress. Rabbits play in the grass. Foxes, deer and dogs leap and pose. If the statuesque central figures and heraldic animals seem straight out of a fairy tale, these delights of nature are instantly recognisable as something we might spot on a country walk today.

A new, circular display enables visitors to stand among the tapestries and be absorbed into the action. We might wonder at the mystery of this ethereal lady in her gorgeous robes, yet instantly relate to the birds fluttering over her head and feel a part of this sylvan scene.

Lady and Unicorn Music

Hearing: the Lady plays a portable organ, powered by bellows.

Lady and the Unicorn

Touch: the Lady holds the unicorn’s tusk.

Lady and Unicorn tapestries

Taste: the Lady is offered a tempting dish.

I spent far too long relishing every holly berry and pine cone, every naughty monkey and snooty stoat. Now I have just one problem. How can the museum come up with a better reason to draw me back again?

More details: Musée National du Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages, in the Hôtel de Cluny)

Images of tapestries courtesy of RMN-Grand Palais/Michel Urtado

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