Weaving a concert

THIS is a ``verdure'' or ``millefleurs'' tapestry -- its background is like a meadow (though red in color) covered with flowers both growing and plucked. It is one in a set of six from the end of the 15th century in the Cluny Museum, Paris. They are known as ``The Lady and the Unicorn'' tapestries, though it has been pointed out that the fanciful unicorn's role in them is no more prominent than the part played by the lion placed opposite him in each composition. Both animals, for all their liveliness and variety of treatment, are essentially heraldic: They are not part of a story.

In the past there was a strong romantic urge to see the tapestries as telling a story, the more exotic and imaginative the better.

The l9th-century novelist Georges Sand, who excitedly described her encounter with these extraordinary examples of medieval art and craftsmanship when they were still hanging in the Ch^ateau of Boussac, in the Creuse d'epartement of southwest France, contributed to the myth. She recalled the tale that they were commissioned by Prince Zizim, brother of the Grand Turk Bayazet, who was held prisoner in the Creuse and fell in love with the lady he subsequently had portrayed in the tapestries. Another persistent legend was that they were given as a wedding present.

Though it is pleasant to repeat such notions, scholars today discredit them completely. There is instead a general agreement that five of the six hangings each represent one of the senses -- sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The sixth has given experts a much more difficult time, but the curator of the Cluny Museum, Alain Erlande-Brandenburg, confidently asserts in his study of them that this last (or possibly first) representation in the series shows the Lady discarding her richly jeweled necklace, an act that symbolizes ``the renunciation of all passion.''

An inscription over the tent in front of which she stands reads: ```A mon seul d'esir.'' Mr. Erlande-Brandenburg explains: ``We know what the philosophers meant by `free will': For Socrates and Plato it was the natural disposition to behave rightly, which we lose because, through our senses, we become the slaves of our passions.''

Before, everyone assumed that -- far from putting away her necklace -- the Lady was taking it from the casket proffered by her maid. Today's theory suggests just the opposite and seems more feasible than the usual resort to the status of ``unsolved mystery'' made by most previous commentators.

The single tapestry shown here -- in full and in some of its charming details -- is the one identified as ``Hearing.'' There is no question that the Lady is making music on the little hand organ placed on the richly carpeted table, and that her maid can be seen working the bellows at the back of the instrument. (In ``Sight'' the unicorn's face is reflected in a hand-mirror held up by the Lady; in ``Taste'' she is helping herself to a sweet from a dish while a monkey at her feet is about to nibble another, and a small dog sits on the train of her dress looking hopeful.)

Once it is accepted that sound or hearing is the symbolic subject of this picture woven in wool and silk, everything in it appears to contribute to the idea. The array of small animals that so abundantly inhabits the red background and the blue island seems to be listening to the music issuing from the organ. So do the lion and unicorn -- who are repeated in miniature sitting alertly on the end-posts of the organ.

The truth is, however, that if the rabbits and foxes -- not to mention the dogs, goats, lambs, monkeys, ducks, magpies, and many other animals -- in the other tapestries were to be transferred to this one, they too would seem to be aware of the music. They are lively and delightful, as lovably part of the mise en sc`ene as the multiplicity of flowers of all kinds around them, but they look like pattern-book creatures nevertheless.

It is an intriguing fact that in 1476 in Brussels, which was one of the centers of medieval tapestry weaving, a lawsuit occurred because of disagreement between the different corporations of craftsmen involved in the making of tapestries. In this process, three skills were called for: those of painter or designer, of cartoonist (who turned the original painting into a full-sized ``cartoon'' as a model for the weavers), and the weavers themselves.

The agreement that resulted from the lawsuit was that in the case of verdures the cartoonists and weavers were allowed to use their own imagination freely only in the depiction of leaves, trees, bushes, flowers, and animals. Everything else was the province of the painter. Clearly a painter of no mean skill and vision conceived the ``Lady and the Unicorn'' tapestries. Space is opened up in each tapestry by the island-stage on which the main figures stand, and in ``Hearing'' the perspective of the small organ provides an interesting axis for the composition.

There is no evidence as to where these tapestries were woven, and if it wasn't in Brussels then the artist may also have been involved in the flowers, animals, and trees, the holly, oak, fir, and orange. On the other hand, the rather poor drawing of the maid's head in this tapestry, inconsistent with the confident beauty of her mistress's, could be blamed on the insufficient painterly skill of the weavers.

The arms on the banners -- ``Gules, a Bend Azure charged with three Crescents Argent'' -- which mingle with all the other details of the tapestries in a way that is not known elsewhere, are those of the rising middle-class Le Viste family from the region of Lyon. And the date of between 1480 and 1500 now given to the series means that Jean Le Viste, who particularly distinguished himself in the Royal Administration in Paris, being nominated by Louis XI in 1471 as seventh master of the Court of Petitions, is considered the most likely member of the family to have ordered the tapestries. They seem to be part of his family bid for status and recognition: Tapestries of such superiority could only indicate success and wealth.

All the same, there does seem to be something of a contradiction between their use as emblems of family pride and the theory that they represent the renunciation of the senses. Certainly this latter symbolism is not overemphatic, and the five works depicting each of the senses appear to celebrate them rather than otherwise. On the other hand, the Lady in the tapestry, ``Hearing,'' for all her opulent apparel, her elaborate coiffure, and her jewelry, strikes the viewer today as quietly restrained in her musicianship. She is hardly indulging some uncontrolled passion!

The Cluny Tapestries are deservedly as popular as the Unicorn Tapestries in New York's Cloisters. Once thought similar, the differences between these two sets are now seen to be considerable. But both suggest to the modern observer something indelibly and vividly medieval.

The arrangement of the Cluny Tapestries in their own circular gallery in the Paris museum adds significantly to their charm. They are without doubt one of the artistic gems of that art-filled city.

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