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Paris’ Cluny Museum: The Unicorn Tapestries

Paris, France
Contains mature topics

The highlight of the Cluny Museum is the 15th-century series of tapestries called The Lady and the Unicorn. Each piece celebrates one of the five senses. This fanciful, sensual work bids adieu to the Dark Ages and welcomes the humanistic Renaissance.

Complete Video Script

Having all this fun, it’s easy to forget that six centuries ago, Paris was a cultural leader as Europe was awakening from a long medieval slumber.

Just a couple blocks off the river, the Cluny Museum — filling a medieval mansion, takes us back to Paris in the late Middle Ages. In the 1400s trade was beginning to boom, and the Renaissance was moving in like a warm front from Italy.

The Cluny Museum is an under-appreciated treasure. Its rich collection of medieval art offers a rare peek into that mysterious age. The sumptuous ivory pieces, vibrant enamel work, and gorgeous sculptures reflect a surprisingly refined — and far from “dark” — society.

Its centerpiece is a 15th-century series of tapestries called “The Lady and the Unicorn.” In medieval lore, unicorns were solitary creatures that could only be tamed by a virgin. In secular society, they symbolized how a man was drawn to his lady love. In religion, the unicorn was a symbol of Christ.

These exquisite tapestries were inspired by both secular and religious traditions. They give us a peek at life — sensual life — from a time when the people of Paris were just stepping out of medieval darkness. It’s a celebration of all the senses.

Taste: A woman takes candy from a servant’s dish to feed it to her parakeet… while the little dog licks his lovingly woven chops.

Hearing: The elegant woman plays sweetly on an organ, calming an audience of wild beasts. In this fanciful world, humans and their fellow creatures live in harmony in an enchanted garden.

Sight: The unicorn cuddles up and looks at himself in the lady’s mirror, pleased with what he sees. The lion turns away and snickers. As the Renaissance dawns, vanity is a less-than-deadly sin.

Touch. That’s the most basic and dangerous of the senses. Here, the lady “strokes the unicorn’s horn”… and the lion looks out at us to be sure we get the double entendre. Medieval Europeans were celebrating the wonders of love and the pleasures of sex.

The words on our lady’s tent read: “To My Sole Desire.” What is her only desire? Is it jewelry? Or is she putting the necklace away and renouncing material things? Is it God? Love? The unicorn and lion open the tent. Is she stepping out… or going in to meet the object of her desire? Human sensuality is awakening, a dark age is ending, and the Renaissance is emerging.