After an absence of several months, the standout masterpiece The Lady and the Unicorn returned home to the Musée de Cluny
on December the 18th in an entirely revamped exhibition room. Showcasing exceptional quality in its execution, this set of six tapestries, captivating and shrouded in mystery, is amongst the most remarkable of artistic achievements from the Medieval era.
A complex and cryptic masterpiece
Discovered in 1841 by Prosper Mérimée in Boussac castle (in the French department of Creuse), the tapestries were acquired by the first director and curator of the Musée de Cluny Edmond Du Sommerard, in 1882. The tapestries were celebrated by writers of the time, such as George Sand and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and more recently by contemporary writer Yannick Haenel. In fact, they have come to be viewed as the Musée de Clunys very own Mona Lisa. Such praise is testament to The Lady and the Unicorns widespread appeal as a truly complex and intriguing work of art.
Historians generally agree that the tapestries depict the five senses. More controversial however is the sixth and final one, bearing the motto Mon seul désir (my sole desire) the meaning of which is still up for debate. It has been suggested that this is the inner sense, the Heart, in both a philosophical and human understanding, as either a call to the viewer to rise above material pleasures or as a coded tribute to physical love. These two hypotheses are not necessarily in contradiction with each other.
The tapestries raise other questions, such as the exact identity of their commissioner. The coat of arms - red with a blue band set with three silver crescents moons - borne by the lion and the unicorn, point to a male member of the Le Viste family from the city of Lyon. The tapestries are therefore symbolic of the familys recently acquired power and of the will to assert a newfound social position.
The Mille Fleur background of the tapestries conveys a poetic atmosphere with an array of flowers and familiar animals such as rabbits, birds and lambs. Although this type of background was fairly common at the end of the Medieval era, the more unusual use of red further emphasises the unique nature of the tapestries. More remarkable still is the association of red and blue, as seen on their blazons, which was in theory prohibited by the heraldic rules.
The Lady and the Unicorn Project : conservation, exhibition, appreciation
In 2011, a team of experts surveyed the tapestries, revealing a high level of dust on the surfaces as well as excessive tensions caused by the hanging of the tapestries. This led to the launch of an extensive conservation-restoration project for the Lady. The campaign, which started in 2012, represents a major step in the life of this work of art. This latest restoration effort has taken into account previous interventions on the tapestries that took place shortly after their arrival at the museum and again during the Second World War.
The five restorers working on the tapestries first removed the old lining before removing the dusting using microaspiration. Following a cleansing phase the weak spots of the woven structure were consolidated. The materials chosen for the restoration were picked with careful regard for Medieval techniques. Analyses made during renovation revealed the gain in colour intensity as well as the vegetal dyes which were originally used : madder for the reds, woad for the blues, weld for the yellows and orcein, a colour extracted from lichen, for the purples. The restoration was completed by a large-scale photo campaign conducted by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais.
A revamped space for the six restored tapestries
Originally exhibited on the first floor of the building constructed by Paul Boeswillwald, the tapestries were transferred after the Second World War to a rotunda providing zenithal lighting designed by Jean Trouvelot. The space was rearranged in 1992 and equipped with optical fibre lighting. A survey led by the scientific committee concluded that resulting damage called for a reassessment of the layout of the room to give the Lady a brand new setting.
A new room conceived by Paul Barnoud, chief architect of Historical Monuments and in charge of the museums buildings and the latest presentation of the tapestries both favour a better understanding and appreciation by the public, whilst meeting improved conservation standards.
In a physical configuration which is much closer to the type of space in which tapestries were shown during the Medieval era, the chosen order goes from the most material sense (taste) to the most spiritual (eyesight). The scenography takes an intimate approach favouring direct contact between the visitors and the tapestries. A discrete LED lighting system on the ceiling contributes to this atmosphere and highlights the colours revived by the restoration.
Mediation tools - including educational materials and audio guides - will provide visitors with a better understanding of the tapestries and their broader historical context without disrupting their contemplation of the masterpiece. The installation of a ramp will allow access to people with reduced mobility. The graphic elements installed along the visiting path are an invitation to discover the poetry of a much celebrated piece.
The first step of an ambitious project : Cluny 4
This museographic renovation marks the first step of the Cluny 4 project as supported by the Ministry of Culture and Communication. This project aims to improve visiting experience at the museum and to enhance the Thermes de Cluny (the Roman baths building), whose outside ruins remain difficult to understand by the public. It also complies with guidelines set by the State to improve physical accessibility. Following an architectural design competition set to take place during the first semester of 2014, a new space overlooking the Boulevard Saint-Michel, will offer upgraded public facilities and greater comfort for visitors.