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Art as allegory

By Christopher Andreae / December 20, 1983



The hunt is a favorite subject in medieval poetry and art. While actual hunting practices might be accurately described or shown, the subject could also carry quite different meanings. As with this small tapestry in the recently opened Burrell Collection in Glasgow, the ''hunt'' could be an allegory.

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This tapestry, notable for its fine drawing and lively detail, is believed to come from Alsace. In that part of the Upper Rhineland, 15th-century tapestry weaving was carried out in convents and houses rather than as a large-scale industry. Such German tapestries can be modest in size and quite simple in concept and design. This one is comparatively accomplished - though it still appeals for its childlikeness. Wealthy and patrician families commissioned this work. Perhaps ''The Pursuit of Fidelity'' celebrated a marriage. It is easy to imagine it adorning the house of a newlywed couple, appreciated for its mixture of status symbol and admonition.

Its subject is not really the trapping of a stag, but the pursuit and capture of ''fidelity'' - ''than which'' (according to one translation of the scroll) ''nothing dearer can be found.''

There are all kinds of variations on the hunt theme in the literature and art of the 14th and 15th centuries. A tapestry similar to the Burrell ''Pursuit of Fidelity'' is in the Hermitage, Leningrad; the words on its scroll are different: ''Grief turns into happiness.'' In a 14th-century poem there is an allegory about a ''poet-lover'' who is pursued by ''Love,'' the huntsman. His hounds have such names as ''Beauty,'' ''Kindness,'' ''Intelligence,'' and ''Gentleness.'' Their quarry is finally driven into a net that symbolizes ''Desire.''

In many ''hunt'' tapestries and woodcuts of the period, it is the fabulous unicorn, a symbol of chastity, that is being chased. The ''Unicorn'' tapestries in New York's Cloisters are a superb example.

A less accomplished Swiss tapestry of the late 15th century has an interesting exchange between a huntsman and a lady (who has, incidentally, a small and ferocious-looking unicorn at her feet, apparently protecting her). Her scroll is thought to warn: ''He who hunts for sensual pleasure will find grief for himself and his path.'' The huntsman-lover, who takes this little sermon personally, protests in his scroll: ''I hunt for faithfulness; if I should find it I would never have a better time in all my life.''

The Glasgow ''Pursuit of Fidelity'' shows a couple with no apparent conflict of motive or desire. They seem the best of friends. In fact, everyone involved in the scene seems to prance through the woods and meadow-flowers with a kind of buoyant delight, almost as if they were just out to enjoy the exhilarating movement and the fresh air together.

Although it would be wrong to doubt the seriousness of its moral, this little allegory does appear to be essentially lighthearted in its depiction. The stag, symbolizing fidelity, is scarcely perturbed as it leaps with noble elegance toward the net. The dogs (in the medieval mind also symbols of fidelity) seem to run alongside rather than pursue the stag; they show little aggression toward their prey. One of them might almost be distractedly sniffing a plant. A duck paddles upstream unconcerned, and a goldfinch swoops in its flight, contributing its own inadvertent touch of direction to the general chase. The leaping, dappled horse with flying, fiery mane and alerted ears provides a suitably courageous mount for the young couple; and as for them - they might come straight out of a folk tale. They are types, of course, she modest, he bold, and they seem perfectly united. Infidelitym would appear to be as far from their thoughts as winter is from summer.

And then there is the vigorously sprouting oak tree, acting as an upright for the net. It should be no surprise, in this rich ambiance of symbolism called a tapestry, that even the trees and leaves mean something. In her fascinating book on the Unicorn tapestries, Margaret B. Freeman has written that ''in the (medieval) language of love, the strong, long-lived oak was an important symbol of fidelity. Its leaves 'betoken steadfastness' (according to a German folk song) . . . and 'whoever wears them at the command of his true love is expected to remain faithful'. . . . The oak may be associated with happiness in love.''

In ''The Pursuit of Fidelity'' everything - even the flowers (each no doubt a symbol of some apt quality), the bushes, the tall pine trees, the rock, the scroll itself - seems designed to celebrate the same cheerful state: happiness in love.