Tapestries weave a spell

Tree of a bygone era still relevant today


Life & Style
'Taste' c. 1500AD, from 'The lady and the unicorn' series, Musée National du Moyen Âge (Musée de Cluny), Paris. (Photo © RMN-GP/M Urtado, ‘The lady and the unicorn’ exhibition.)

'Taste' c. 1500AD, from 'The lady and the unicorn' series, Musée National du Moyen Âge (Musée de Cluny), Paris. (Photo © RMN-GP/M Urtado, ‘The lady and the unicorn’ exhibition.)

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Garden guru Fiona Ogilvie says we should check out The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, currently showing at the NSW Art Gallery.

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The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, currently showing at the NSW Art Gallery, include four trees: Oak, Pine, Holly and a Citrus tree. The six tapestries represent five senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight, together with a possible sixth, perhaps love, perhaps understanding. Intriguingly, the trees are shown differently in each tapestry.

For example in ‘Taste’ a Citrus tree and a Pine stand above small clusters of Hollies and Oaks. ‘Sight’ has two large trees only, Oak and Holly. ‘Touch’ shows a large Pine and Holly with smaller Citrus and Oaks, and so on.

The tapestries are hung in a circle in one room at the gallery. Each shows an exquisitely dressed girl with attendant lion and unicorn against a background of ‘millefleurs’ or ‘thousand flowers’ and many small birds and animals. They are big and so closely woven that even the minutest details are easily seen despite necessarily dimmish light.

Up to forty flowers and herbs can be identified (though no vegetables).  Daffodils, columbines and foxgloves and many other deeply familiar flowers were clearly as loved by gardeners in the Middle Ages as they are today, providing a vivid and endearing connection to the past. 

Although the ‘millefleurs’ background provokes much interest among gardeners, to me the four trees were the most appealing and interesting element of these great works of art. 

Foxgloves and many other deeply familiar flowers were clearly as loved by gardeners in the Middle Ages as they are today, providing a vivid and endearing connection to the past.

Citrus trees include lemon and orange, showing fruit and flowers borne simultaneously. The lemon has alternate leaves and yellow fruit. Peering closely you can see the flower stalks are free of tiny shoots or ‘wings’, another characteristic of lemons. Citrus are Mediterranean natives and must have been luxuries in Lyon, the original home of the tapestries. 

The Stone Pine with drooping needles, bluish when young, surrounding large cones. Cultivated in Europe for thousands of years, it is the source of pine nuts, an essential ingredient of pesto sauce. Its needles supply green dye and its resin is used for varnishes and waterproofing.

The European Holly, whose berries are toxic to humans but food for birds, who nest safely among its prickly leaves. It resists lightning, so was planted near houses to protect people from lightning strikes. It must be significant in the context of this series that only female holly trees bear berries.

Oaks include Sessile Oak, whose acorns have no stalks (sessile), and English Oak (Q. robur) with acorns on stalks.  According to Michael Pembroke in his book Trees of History and Romance (2009), Sessile Oak is the preferred tree in France for wine barrels and the government controls and harvests vast forests essential to the wine industry. 

The fact that we can identify these trees, woven into tapestries so long ago, testifies to the knowledge and powers of observation of the artists and weavers who created them. Apart from its beauty, the exhibition is worth seeing for this reason alone.

Heads up: The Lady and Unicorn exhibition runs until June 24. Entry $18 adult, $16 concession, $14 member, country members free. www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/

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