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The Hunt of the Unicorn, often referred to as the Unicorn Tapestries, is a series of seven tapestries dating from between 1495 and 1505, now in The Cloisters in New York. The tapestries show a group of noblemen and hunters in pursuit of a unicorn. It is believed the tapestries were made in the Southern Netherlands. 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, still evident today, were produced with three dye plants: weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue). One of the panels, the tapestry called The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn, only survives in two fragments.
The tapestries are subject to scholarly debate with about the iconography, the artists who designed the tapestries, and questions surrounding the sequence they were meant to be hung. Possibly the seven tapestries were not originally hung together. However it seems likely that they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany, to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII, King of France.
The tapestries show pagan and Christian symbolism. The pagan themes emphasize the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas Christian writings interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. The unicorn has long been identified as a symbol of Christ by Christian writers, allowing the traditionally pagan symbolism of the unicorn to become acceptable within religious doctrine. The original pagan myths about The Hunt of the Unicorn refer to an animal with a single horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; Christian scholars translated this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary.
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 the chateau's bedroom and two were stored in a hall adjacent to the chapel. During the French Revolution the tapestries were looted from the chateau and reportedly were used to cover potatoes – a period during which they apparently sustained damage. By the end of the 1880's they were again in the possession of the family. A visitor to the chateau 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.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought them in 1922 for about one million United States 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 sides using a customized scanning device suspending a linear array scan camera and lighting over the delicate textile. The front and back of the tapestries were photographed in approximately three foot square segments. The largest tapestry required up to 24 individual 5000 × 5000 pixel images. Merging the massive data stored in these photos required the efforts of two mathematicians, the Chudnovsky brothers.
Since January 2002, the Tapestry Studio at West Dean College has been working on a recreation of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. The tapestries will be displayed in the Queen's Presence Chamber at Stirling Castle, part of a project to furnish the castle as it would have been in the 16th century. Historians studying the reign of James IV believe that a similar series of "Unicorn" tapestries were part of the Scottish royal collection. The team at West Dean Tapestry visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to inspect the originals and researched the medieval techniques, the colour palette and materials.
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