I have had the Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries in various Estate of Chenier properties for years. In that time, I have contemplated each tapestry, and the circumstances under which they were commissioned and made.
They are now on display at the Chenier Embassy to the Second Life Mainlands, as shown below: The four tapestries from center to left show vain attempts of men to capture the noble, magical Unicorn, who escapes with a few wounds, but free.
The tapestry directly behind me, “The Hunters Enter the Forest” is (along with “The Unicorn in Captivity” seen later in this post) one of the two tapestries considered to probably have been designed and woven later than the five others in the collection. Those two share major stylistic differences I’ll discuss later.
For now, consider the ornate border around the tapestry and the lush green background. Compared to the next tapestry in the narrative (if not in time of creation), “The Unicorn is Found” which you see at far left, “The Hunters Enter the Forest” is also much less “busy”. It’s almost as though the designer of “The Hunters Enter the Forest” thought better of the earlier works and resolved to do better – a more mature hand at work, or perhaps even a sharp rebuke from whoever paid for the tapestries?
To fully understand what makes these tapestries important to me, you must get to know the person generally credited as having had the tapestries made – Anne of Brittany.
Brittany is now the northernmost part of France, but before these tapestries were commissioned it was politically independent of France. The Duke of Brittany lost the “Mad War” between Brittany and France – resulting in a peace treaty that required him to get permission from the King of France before permitting his daughters to marry.
As he lay dying from injuries from a fall from a horse, the Duke made his oldest daughter Anne swear never to allow Brittany to be subjugated to France, then made her his heiress and political successor. When he died, the young teenager Anne of Montfort became the sovereign Duchess of Brittany, Countess of Nantes, Montfort and Richmond, and Viscountess of Limoges.
To fulfill her father’s dying wishes, Anne contracted a marriage to Maximillian I of Austria, head of the Habsburg dynasty controlling Austria and Castile (part of modern-day Spain). However, Maximillian was busy in a war with Hungary at the time – when the French declared war on Brittany because Anne broke the peace treaty by marrying without the French King’s permission, the might of Habsburg could not protect her.
After a two-month siege of Rennes, the city where she and her forces had retreated, Anne agreed to marry Charles VIII of France if he were eligible to do so. She may have considered the fact that she and Charles were too closely related to be married under Canon law, her current marriage to the King of Austria and Charles’ betrothal to Margaret of Austria to be impediments which could not easily be overcome. She was wrong.
Charles compelled fourteen year-old Anne to marry him, and Pope Innocent VIII annulled her marriage to Maximillian of Austria and dispensed Charles to marry her despite the remaining impediments to their marriage in exchange for important concessions from France to the Papacy.
This is where “The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn” comes in. Anne and the Duchy of Brittany ought to have been safe from French interference, by the laws of Europe and the Roman Catholic Church. Trickery and corruption made those things meaningless – just as, in the Mystic Capture of the Unicorn, the maidens shown in the fragments of that tapestry take the Unicorn by the mystic power of their virginity when strong men could not.
It’s almost a wicked parody of the folk tale, the similarity between the fate of Anne and her homeland and the capture of the Unicorn through subterfuge. I don’t know this was the message behind “The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn,” but the parallels are strong, aren’t they?
The same thing happened seven years later – Charles VIII hit his head on a door lintel and died not long afterward (probably from a subdural hematoma), but not before Anne became pregnant at least six times. Anne bore Charles four male heirs, most of whom died after having been born prematurely. The oldest died at the age of three from measles.
The marriage contract imposed on her at her first wedding obliged her on Charles’s death to marry the next King of France, Charles’s second cousin Louis, Duke of Orleans, who was already married to the King’s sister. Again trusting to the Church to obey her own laws, she agreed to the marriage if Louis were legally eligible to marry within a year.
Pope Alexander VI, also known as Roderic Borgia, issued another dispensation annulling Louis’ existing marriage and allowing him to marry the Queen Dowager Anne of France. This time, Anne was 21 years old, and more self-confident – her new marriage contract allowed her to style herself Duchess of Brittany, which Charles earlier forbade her to do.
Anne seized the chance to go back to Brittany, rule in her own name (even after her marriage to Louis XII, his orders in Brittany were issued in her name), strike coinage with her image on it (the prerogative of rulers), assemble the Estates of Brittany, earn a reputation as an able administrator, and become a renowned patroness of the arts and letters, which no other Queen of France had done.
Life as Queen of France, however, was still a trial for Anne. She became pregnant at least nine more times by Louis, miscarrying five times and bearing two stillborn sons and two daughters who lived to perpetuate the Montfort bloodline.
It was during Anne’s marriage to Charles what are regarded as the earliest five tapestries were woven, ending with “The Unicorn is Killed”.
The Unicorn’s death in this tapestry is almost hidden away in the top left corner of the tapestry – I focused in on it because otherwise, the eye is drawn to everything else happening in the courtyard where the Unicorn dies. All of Anne’s children by Charles died largely unheralded by history. Anne traveled where Charles did, trying to bear children while a child herself.
Scholars think that the first tapestry in the narrative, “The Hunters Enter the Forest,” and the last in the sequence, “The Unicorn in Captivity” were done much later, designed by different hands, and may be part of a different set of tapestries. Their backgrounds are a lusher green, and both feature the “millefleurs” or “thousand flowers” background with detailed representations of over a hundred different kinds of plant, some which may now be extinct. Compared to the other, earlier tapestries, these two are much less cluttered.
As dismal as Anne’s life was in the French court, “The Unicorn in Captivity” may show acceptance of Anne’s fate – a political captive, Duchess of a realm about to lose its independence to the whim of French kings, but not without hope, and still able to fight for herself and her people. The red spot on the Unicorn in this tapestry may be blood; perhaps the blood under Anne on her wedding bed, and on the beds where she gave birth so often, losing all but two children either at birth or early in life?
Anne Montfort of Brittany, Queen of France, who never gave up trying to keep the Bretons free and proud, died in 1514 of a kidney stone. She was 37 years old.
I may be the only person who thinks the Hunt of the Unicorn has any special connection to Anne of Brittany’s life. I like to think that though she could not even whisper her resentment of her captive status, these tapestries shrieked it out for anyone with eyes to see. That they were presented to Louis XII as Anne’s wedding gift is, to me, a sublime statement of her true feelings.