When wonder | wander | women went to see Heavenly Bodies in the Met Cloisters, we checked something else off the bucket list — seeing the original Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. Little did we know that someone had recreated them and hung them in a real Renaissance castle in Scotland.
The origin of these legendary tapestries is shrouded in mystery. Historians believe they were woven in Brussels, perhaps for the royal family, but no one knows for sure. The noble French family of La Rochefoucauld are the first recorded owners, but the tapestries were looted during the French Revolution and only found again sometime in the 1880s. In 1922 John D. Rockefeller bought them from the family and donated them to the Cloisters in 1938.
In 2001 the UK organisation Historic Scotland commissioned several studios, including West Dean Tapestry Studio, to recreate these masterpieces and hang them in the historic Stirling Castle, an ancient Scottish castle with a Renaissance palace built by the Scottish king James V.
The heads of the project travelled to New York to take meticulous digital scans of every inch of the tapestries, then spent fourteen years using traditional methods to recreate each beautiful stitch.
Now the tapestries hang in the Queen’s Inner Hall in the Royal Palace. Historical records show that James V did have a set of tapestries called The History of the Unicorn, made by a very similar workshop to the one in Brussels where the Met’s collection was woven, but those have been lost.
There is also a beautiful exhibition on the grounds of the castle showing how the tapestries are made. Visitors can touch sample pieces of weaving as well as the skeins of wool used, and sit at one of the looms used for the project.
Through a peephole next to the loom, you can also see a part of the long 14-year process of weaving these masterpieces. Medievalists.net has a fascinating article on the exhibition.
We also saw the “cartoon” — the drawing used as a guide for the craftsmen to place their stitches. It brought back memories of a colouring book we got on our first visit to the Met, as well as the cross-stitch projects we used to do in school. This time though, it was an experience on a grand scale reaching back through the centuries.
Around the room was a series of panels depicting the history, planning, scale and craft that went into the project. It was an awe-inspiring exhibition, set in one of the very studios that was used to weave the tapestries. As usual we were struck with creator envy and wished we could have a studio just like it.
Seeing the tapestries in fresh, living colour, in their natural setting — the royal chambers in a real 14th century castle — was even more astonishing. We couldn’t take our eyes off them and almost forgot to take pictures. Luckily we did manage to record those memories for posterity.
Aside from being one of the most majestic of mythical animals, the unicorn is also the royal symbol of the Scottish Kings, renowned for its purity and strength. Seeing the most famous unicorn legend installed in its rightful place filled me with joy and reverence. May it continue for many more centuries.