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New York, New York

Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters

Mysterious 500-year-old tapestries depict a unicorn hunt. 

Comprised of seven wall hangings, each at least 12 feet high by 8 feet wide, the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters were created 500 years ago by an unknown artist for unknown royalty in Western Europe.

In violent and disturbing detail, the series tells the story of hunters stalking through the woods with their canines, hunting the mythical beast. As the story progresses, the unicorn is found and surrounded, ambushed and eventually attacked from all sides. Despite getting away from the hunters, the unicorn is eventually calmed by a virgin maiden and killed while under her charm.

Most people who have studied the tapestries believe they come from 1495-1505, from somewhere in southern Holland. Although even those details are often debated. Despite a general geographic location, the identity of the author is completely unknown. The tapestries’ only connection to the past is a small cipher, showing the letters A and B intertwined by some rope, which may signify the artist or the owner of the work.

From this slight hint, some have devised that Anne of Brittany commissioned the works to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII, but there is no conclusive proof and the code of the Unicorn Tapestries remains unbroken. Despite the mystery, art historians have reveled in the chance to interpret the tapestries, often comparing the hunt of the unicorn to the Passion of Christ. The unicorn itself, once a pagan symbol, became a symbol for Christ.

All of the vibrant tapestries are available for personal interpretation and are held in the Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan. The exhibit is accompanied by the 6-foot long horn of a narwhal, which many in 16th century Europe confused with the horn of a unicorn, inspiring stories and depictions of the magical beast.

Know Before You Go

Currently displayed in gallery 17

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atimian
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