Page 13

Scholars remain at odds about whether the four central narrative panels (which are a set) represent a classical stag hunt, with the Unicorn as Love and the Hunter as Lover or the Mystical Hunt of the Passion with the Unicorn as Christ.7 Iconographic interpretation is not my primary concern here.8 Instead, the question remains: what is the relationship to text?

In spite of the interpretative problems, I see this set as an example of the compelling relationship between narrative and tapestry in this period. The way the tapestries are exhibited (in their modern context) invites us to decode them as a single narrative, even if such a narrative has little bearing on the original intent. In fact, in doing so, we have invented an ekphrastic story which functions in a manner similar to Homer’s notional ekphrasis of Achilles’ shield, but in reverse. The tapestries function (however we interpret them) as a visual description of an imaginary text.

So far we have looked at tapestries based on actual and imagined texts. There is one remaining group of tapestries to include in this system of poetics: and these are tapestries based on multiple texts.

An example of this group is from the nine tapestry set Los Honores woven around 1525. These tapestries now hang in the Patrimonio Nacionale in San Idelfonso and were designed by Bernart van Orley assisted by humanist rhetoricians drawing on multiple literary sources including St. Augustine, Boethius, Plato, Ovid, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Dante, Christine of Pisan, Alain de Lille, Vincent of Beauvais, Valerius Maximus and many others. In fact, in this panel no less than thirty-one named authors are portrayed in the balconies of Fame’s gallery.

This set represents an allegorical program of good behavior for a monarch (probably for the young Hapsburg Emperor Charles V). The tapestries were shown on state occasions such as the Entrées Joyeuses (when royalty visited or passed through a town) or royal marriages. Guy Del Marcel, in his book on the set,9 discusses the relationship of these tapestries to medieval pageantry. He points out that the word pageant actually means a movable cart that carried groups of emblematic figures arranged in a tableaux vivant. The same artists that designed the tableaux also designed tapestries and the tapestries indeed resemble a collage of tableaux.

The sixth panel in the series (figure 11) [illustration top of next page] represents the triumph of Fame. There are both French and Latin inscriptions. Many of the figures are named. The composition is divided into upper and lower registers presenting the viewer with multiple examples of the famous drawn from medieval mythology. Center top is Fama, blowing two trumpets, and riding on a triumphal elephant. She is seen in the center of the gallery of writers, not all of whom represent literary sources in the tapestry, although many do, including Petrarch, the author of the I Trionfi sonnets. On the upper left side of the tapestry is Pegasus and in the upper right is the hag Mala Fama of which the only two examples in the tapestry are Catiline and Mohammed. All the other figures surrounding the gallery are justly famous. The iconography here is primarily from Petrarch, Bocaccio, the Moralised Ovid, and Valerius Maximus although many others are quoted. These tapestries are in fact a vast collage of literary allusion.

7 Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo, The Unicorn Tapestries, (New York, 1998), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 47-75.
8 Campbell, pp 70-78.
9 Guy delMarcel, Los Honores, Flemish Tapestries for the Emperor Charles V, (Belgium, 2000) Pandora/Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoom,
pp. 18-21.

next page