Sunday, July 7, 2013

Search for the Unicorn

Search for the Unicorn is an exhibition at the Cloisters, an arm of the Metropolitan Museum, built in 1937 at the top of Fort Tryon Park at 195th street in Manhattan thanks to a gift from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  The current Bulletin from the Metropolitan Museum is devoted to the Cloisters if you wish to learn more of its history.

 It is a magical space where you can actually imagine yourself going back in time to the Middle Ages in Europe.  It is the perfect location to imagine the mythical figure of the Unicorn. There is a quote on the wall of the show which I think is perfect.  It is from Lewis Carrolls Through the Looking Glass, Well, now that we have seen each other said the Unicorn, “’f youll believe in me, Ill believe in you.  Is that a bargain?’”

I have been infatuated with this mythical animal with his white coat and single horn since I was a child when my father took me to the Cloisters where he pointed out all the works of art that had come through the family's hands.  But what I liked the most was this group of tapestries, known as the Unicorn Tapestries.   They were given by Rockefeller just before the Cloisters opened to the public in 1938.  They tell the story of the hunt for the Unicorn and consist of 7 large tapestries made in Flanders around 1500.  They represent noblemen and hunters searching for the Unicorn and the maiden who entraps him.  There is so much detail that the flora and fauna alone are captivating.  (A different series of Unicorn tapestries with a red background exists at the Musée Cluny in Paris.)  One of the Met series is the centerpiece for the current exhibition.

Courtesy of the New York Times

The Narwhal is a medium sized whale that lives in the arctic.  Narwhal Tusks have been known to grow up to 10 feet long, and were thought to be the horns of Unicorns.  As a result they were safeguarded in churches.  The Cloisters have one in their collection but there is a larger one on loan for the show from a private collection.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum

A piece that I particularly liked was a Majolica dish with the coat of arms of Matthias Corvinus (1440-1490) King of Hungry and his second wife, Beatrix of Aragon, a princess from Naples. The symbolism of the sleeping Unicorn in the maidens lap as she combs him represents the King who has collapsed in the lap of the maiden who will become his wife.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum

I was surprised to find that the Unicorn could be found in other cultures and religions.   In the exhibition there is a silver Torah Crown from Poland made in the 1778,

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum

as well as a page from the Shahnama, the 14th century Book of Kings written in early modern Persian. Since the book has 50,000 verses it had been split up at the beginning of the 20th century. Rosenberg & Stiebel sold one of the volumes for a member of the Rothschild family to a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum who split the book again, giving one half to the Metropolitan and selling the rest.  Iran bought a few pages for many times what we had sold the entire book for.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum

Several of the other objects in the show came through our hands.  I know that one came into the Cloisters collections during my tenure at the firm and this was a wooden box made in the Upper Rhine circa 1300. There are images on both sides of the box but just one of the Unicorn on the left side.  There are over 300 works of art from my family in the Met but only a fraction of those were sold directly to the museum.  Most came through private collections that were given or bequeathed to the Met.  This particular one we sold to a dealer who had closer ties to the museum at the time and she sold it to the museum.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum

As you walk around the Cloisters you come across still more images of the Unicorn, a frieze over a doorway made in the Auvergne, France in the early 16th century.

and, of course, the six other tapestries from the Hunt of the Unicorn series in one room all together, enveloping you in the magic of the Middle Ages.

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