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    The Unicorn Returns
by Fred Stern
 
     
 
The Unicorn Tapestries Room
 
Third tapestry of The Hunt for the Unicorn
 
Fifth tapestry
 
Seventh tapestry
 
Detail of the Nine Heroes Tapestries, showing Julius Caesar
 
The West arcade of the Cloisters
 
The Metropolitan Museum's Cloisters, located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan, is the perfect spot for a summer afternoon. Thanks to cool breezes and breathtaking views of the New Jersey Palisades, the Hudson River and the Tappenzee Bridge, the medieval museum seems miles away from the bustle of the city. And best of all, after a considerable absence, the captivating Unicorn tapestries (The Hunt for the Unicorn) are back on view in a newly refurbished gallery.

Last summer the tapestries were displaced to the Metropolitan's galleries on Fifth Avenue, and then sent to a restorer, while the Cloister's leaky roofs were refurbished. Both the tapestries and the roof have to be repaired from time to time, so be sure to visit the Cloisters when everything is intact.

The tapestries remain a mystery in many ways. No one is certain when they were woven, though the general consensus is around 1500. Apparently, they were made in Brussels to celebrate a royal French or Flemish wedding, but it's not clear which monarch was marrying. According to the Cloister's catalogue, the designer was familiar with French art, as several of the figures in the tapestries are believed to resemble specific figures in Parisian prints and miniature paintings of the period.

Documents indicate that the tapestries were in the Duke de Rochefoucauld's house in Paris -- the same Rochefoucauld of the Maxims -- and that during the French revolution they were taken by peasants to protect their trees and vegetables. When they were returned to the Duke some years later, several were in very bad shape, especially the fifth tapestry.

In the first tapestry a hunting party sets out to find the unicorn and bring him to the castle, dead or alive. Like the other tapestries, it sparkles with the colors of thousands of plants and flowers -- millefleurs, daisies, violets, strawberries and periwinkles.

In the second tapestry, the unicorn purifies the water as he dips his horn into a royal fountain. In the third and fourth tapestries, the hunt really takes off, and dogs and hounds pursue the unicorn. In the fifth tapestry, the fabled beast is drawn to a maid and rests his head in her lap, but the hunters come upon him and slay him so the lord and lady of the castle can keep his magic horn. In the last of the tapestries the unicorn comes back to life to finish his days in captivity.

The mystical Hunt for the Unicorn is an intriguing story for children and adults alike, and certainly the most popular work at the Cloisters. But the Nine Heroes Tapestries, which depict medieval court life, shouldn't be missed.

These three tapestries, also known as the Nine Worthies, have been sewn together from over 90 fragments, most of which were donated by the Rockefeller family in the late 1940s. In concordance with the medieval iconography of the "Neuf Preux," they show three groups of worthies, but some of the images have been lost. Of the pagan heroes, only Julius Caesar and Hector (or is it Alexander?) have survived, of the Hebrews, only Joshua and David (Judas Maccabeus is lost), and of the Christians only Arthur. The parts of the tapestry representing Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon and maybe even a tenth worthy are missing. Based largely on the period clothes worn by the heroes and the attendant figures, experts have determined that the most likely date of weaving is around 1400, for the court of Jean, duke of Berry (1340-1416) in France or the Southern Netherlands.

Don't forget to have a look at the stone and wood sculptures of saints and peasants, kings and commoners from the eighth century to the Renaissance, and the illuminated manuscripts brought by the queens of France on their rides to Notre Dame.

And finally, take advantage of the summer weather and check out the four cloistered, outdoor courtyards transplanted from France and Spain. Splendid herb gardens reproduce the centuries-old gardens of the Benedictines. You get the uncanny feeling that you might see a cowled monk feverishly reciting his morning prayers in one of the cloistered walkways, or an elderly woman in peasant clothes looking for a kindly Madonna sculpture to whom she could tell her story.

About 250,000 people, or eight percent of the Metropolitan's annual attendance, make the trip each up to Fort Tryon each year. There are shuttle buses between the Cloisters and the Met, and MTA buses from midtown Manhattan along Madison Avenue.


FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.