Hello Cruel World
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
In The Cloisters of New York, a Unicorn awaits
CAPTURING THE UNICORN
by RICHARD PRESTON
How two mathematicians came to the aid of the Met.
Issue of 2005-04-11
In 1998, the Cloisters—the museum of medieval art in upper Manhattan—began a renovation of the room where the seven tapestries known as “The Hunt of the Unicorn” hang. The Unicorn tapestries are considered by many to be the most beautiful tapestries in existence. They are also among the great works of art of any kind. In the tapestries, richly dressed noblemen, accompanied by hunters and hounds, pursue a unicorn through forested landscapes. They find the animal, appear to kill it, and bring it back to a castle; in the last and most famous panel, “The Unicorn in Captivity,” the unicorn is shown bloody but alive, chained to a tree surrounded by a circular fence, in a field of flowers. The tapestries are twelve feet tall and up to fourteen feet wide ...
Timothy Husband, the curator of the Cloisters, walked in. He is a tall, polished man in his late fifties, and has been at the Cloisters for thirty-five years. We sat down in one of the window seats facing the tapestries. “There is a luminosity and depth in them,” he said quietly. “It didn’t come about by chance on the part of the weavers.”
I asked Husband how he felt when he was alone with the tapestries.
“That happens on Mondays, when the Cloisters is closed,” he said. He spends anywhere from a minute to an hour with the tapestries. “It can be an exceedingly frustrating experience. One ponders so many questions about the tapestries for which there are no more answers today than there were when I was in graduate school.” In some of the scenes, the unicorn may represent Christ. Alive and chained to the tree, after its apparent death in the hunt, it may speak of the immortality of the soul. Or the drops of blood may represent the pains of love. The truth is that the modern world has lost touch with the meanings in the Unicorn tapestries. “Sometimes I come in here and try to pretend I have never read anything about them, never heard anything about them, and I just try to look at them,” Husband said. “But it’s not easy to shed that baggage, is it? And my other reaction, sometimes, is just to say, ‘To hell with it, someday someone will figure them out.’ And then there is a solace in their beauty, and one can stare at them in pure amazement.”
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