Yuki Fukazawa explores the symbolism and meaning behind the six tapestries and explains why they trace the life of Joan of Arc and what she signified for France.
Do you know the series of tapestries called “The Lady and The Unicorn”?
This is the Lady
And this is the Unicorn
You may recognise them from a scene in Harry Potter. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries cover the walls of Gryffindor’s common room.
There are six tapestries, each representing one of the five senses.
This is smell.
A monkey is sniffing a flower.
This is taste.
The lady is feeding a parrot.
This is touch.
The Lady is touching the horn of the unicorn.
This is hearing.
The Lady is playing a pipe organ.
And this is sight.
The Lady is looking at the Unicorn, and the Unicorn is looking at himself in the mirror.
These are the five senses.
But the last tapestry is this.
The Lady is putting her jewellery back into a box. Is this about a sixth sense? How?
On the tent behind her is written, “MON SEUL DESIR”, which means “my sole desire” in French.
Who’s desire? The dog’s?
Or obviously the Lady’s?
But it never says what her desire is. What does she want? It’s a mystery.
The six tapestries are full of mysteries. They're called “Mona Lisa of the Middle Ages”.
It is believed the tapestries were commissioned around 1500 in northern France. They are very intricate and to commission such high quality would have cost a great deal at the time. So, who commissioned them and why?
The tapestries now hang in the Cluny Museum in Paris, but before they were purchased 1882 they were hung in the old crumbling castle of Boussac in central France.
How did the tapestries arrive at the castle in such a rural town? Nobody knows, but before they arrived at the museum, they had been left rolled up in a corner where rats chewed the edges.
Why would such expensive tapestries be neglected and forgotten? At the time painting and literature almost always conveyed layers of meaning, especially politically, so whoever commissioned these tapestries must have had something very important to say.
Let’s consider the historical background of the time in which the tapestries were commissioned.
Around 1500, when the tapestry was commissioned, France was one country United under the rule of a single French king. But this was actually an unlikely scenario and a remarkable outcome.
Medieval France was a politically turbulent place.
At this time, there were two French factions, the Burgundians and the Armagnacs who struggled for power.
This power struggle had weakened France internally enabling the English King Henry V to make sweeping gains. The Burgundians had allied with England, and in 1415 the English, having invaded, won a decisive victory at the Battle of Agincourt.
So the French King, Charles VI, signed a treaty, called The Treaty of Troyes, in which his son Charles VII was disinherited from the throne.
In this treaty, it stated that the next king of France would be this guy: Henry V, King of England.
Why was that?
Because in the Treaty, Henry would marry Catherine, the daughter of the French King, and their child would then one day become the new King of France, thus guaranteeing the succession of the French royal family.
But Henry V never became the King of France; he died just two years later, soon followed by the French King.
So who was going to be the next king? The English King’s son, Henry VI, was only a baby at the time and the French King’s disinherited son, Charles VII, had rebelled and joined the Armagnac.
Now, the town of Orleans was strategically critical for the Armagnac; if it fell, the English would conquer the rest of France.
And Orleans was currently besieged by English. Things were definitely not looking good for the Armagnac and Charles VII.
Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a 17 year old girl who had travelled through enemy territory, appeared before him and said she could defeat the English and make him King.
This, of course, was Joan of Arc.
Cornered, with no options left, he gave her his small army, and by inspiring the people to rise and defend France as a nation, she broke the siege of Orleans and liberated the town of Reims where Charles VII was then crowned King.
This is how Charles VII, the most unlikely candidate, became the King of France.
Unfortunately for young Joan, shortly afterwards she was captured just outside Paris, King Charles VII did nothing to help her and she was burned at the stake in the town of Rouen on May 30, 1431 aged just 19.
I believe the six tapestries trace the life of Joan of Arc and what she signified for France.
Let’s follow them chronologically.
The first one is the Smell tapestry.
The Lady looks young. Joan of Arc was about 16 when she started to hear the voices of angels.
She is making a crown from carnations.
In the bowl held by the Lady-in-waiting, there are only carnations.
But in the basket behind the Lady, there are carnations and roses. The carnations represent France and the roses England.
Why has the Lady chosen carnations for her crown? Because she believes the next king of France should be the French.
She is preparing the Crown for Charles VII, not Henry VI as agreed in the Treaty of Troyes.
The blue island that floats in a red field represents the land of France. Who is on the blue island?
And the Unicorn.
They face each other and are both looking at the Lady. They carry different shields. They are the two opposing factions of the Burgundians and the Armagnacs.
The Unicorn represents the Armagnacs. He seems enchanted by the Lady, and Joan of Arc was the saviour for the Armagnacs.
The Lion represents the Burgundians. The Lion is licking his lips, and staring at the crown. The Burgundians, with the help of English, wanted France for themselves.
Now let’s look at the animals represented on the red background.
A proud heron standing on one leg above the Lady.
An innocent lion cub.
These aren’t just adornments.
The rabbits represent the common people, the innocent who had suffered the most in the wars, but all they can do is to jump around. Joan herself came from a farmer's family.
The heron is John of Lancaster, younger brother of Henry V, the commander of the English army in France. His army was winning and about to take over France.
The lion cub is Henry VI, King of England who was only 6 at the time.
The magpie represents the angels talking to Joan, instructing her to visit the disinherited Charles VII and lead his army to break the siege of Orleans.
Perhaps you now see the Smell tapestry a little differently. Joan of Arc in the centre of France prepares a crown for Charles VII. The Armagnac and the Burgundian watch her intently, vying for power.
Next, let’s look at the Taste tapestry.
What is remarkable in this tapestry is the rose-covered trellis wrapped around the Lady. The roses again represent England and the rose-covered trellis represents the siege of Orleans by the English army.
The town of Orleans was the last stronghold of the Armagnac. Joan of Arc leading the Armagnac army successfully defeated the English forts that surrounded the town one after another.
Here she is celebrating breaking the siege of Orleans. She looks proud and confident compared to her depiction in the previous tapestry.
She shares sweets, the taste of victory, among the animals and she is feeding a parrot. The parrot represents patriots, who fought with Joan in the belief of a united France.
A monkey gets his share too. The monkey represents the anti-pope, the Bishop of Avignon.
A little spaniel waits his turn and sits on the train of Joan’s dress. The dog appears to have pedigree and looks well-pampered. The dog is Charles VII. He is waiting for Joan to invite him to be crowned King.
The Unicorn and the Lion are both standing on their hind legs, as if ready to strike.
The Unicorn looks victorious. With the victory of Orleans, and as the reputation of Joan of Arc spread, more soldiers wanted to join the Armagnac to fight for France.
The Lion by contrast, looks angry.
He may look fierce but he knows he is losing and his tail is between his legs. He is afraid of the Lady and the Burgundians are desperate.
There is another dog on the blue island. A kind of hunting dog sitting quietly at the front, he wears a collar, looks rather sad.
The dog is John II, the Duke of Alençon, a close comrade of Joan. He was still a prisoner of war from a previous battle, hasn’t paid his ransom yet so wasn’t able to join the Battle of Orleans. Wearing a collar suggests that he isn’t free.
Let’s look at the other animals. The magpie, an angel, is flying over the Lady, its wings spread wide, flying to protect the Lady from...
...the falcon, which sweeps overhead. The falcon is Henry V, who died 7 years before but he now appears as a falcon. He wants to remind everyone about the Treaty of Troyes and the fact he was meant to be the next French King.
The lion cub, Henry VI, is still a boy aged about 8. He is waiting in the background for his moment to become King.
A genet approaches from the left. The genet represents the House of Plantagenet, the royal House, which Henry V and VI belonged to.
There is a unicorn cub. This unicorn represents Gilles de Rais, a war hero among the Armagnac knights, who fought alongside Joan for Orleans. He was praised for his bravery, and was appointed as Marshal of France.
There are 10 rabbits on the whole tapestry. They are busy jumping around! The people of Orleans cheered Joan as she marched in.
'Taste' is actually about the breaking of the siege of Orleans and its celebration. Joan of Arc and the Armagnacs celebrate their victory.
Charles VII waits to be crowned King. The desperate Burgundians are about to strike although they are fearful of Joan.
Now with this in mind, let's look at what happens after Orleans.
Joan and the Armagnac advanced steadily north towards Reims, where French kings were traditionally crowned.
They defeat the Burgundians and free Reims, Joan then invites Charles VII to Reims to be crowned King.
After his coronation, she and the Duke of Alençon lead the army to free Paris.
Next is the Touch tapestry.
Now there is a change in the Lady’s expression. Her eyes are wide open and facial creases around her eyes and mouth suggest she is tense.
She grips the lance tightly...
...but her left hand touches the horn of the Unicorn tenderly.
The Unicorn is quietly watching the Lady. He too looks worried.
By contrast, the eyes of the Lion are big, his ears are standing up and he has a big grin on his face! He looks so happy and excited. What’s going on?
In the background are a genet
A transformed Unicorn cub
And two monkeys
All these animals wear collars, which implies captivity. What does this suggest about the Lady’s situation?
After the coronation of Charles VII, Joan marched on Paris, but was captured by the Burgundians before she arrived.
Look how excited the Burgundians are! “We got the Maid of Orleans!”
After she is captured, gently touching the horn of the Unicorn is her way of saying farewell to her friends and comrades.
Now look at the heron, its feathers are all standing up and its claws are out.
Since her appearance, John of Lancaster, the commander of the English army, has been losing. With the news of the capture of Joan of Arc, he rushes to strike back. This is the time for revenge.
The falcon, Henry V, hovers watchfully above.
What will happen to the Lady?
Notice the two partridges. One is plain and is slowly heading towards the Lady.
The other is more colorful and is rushing towards the Lady, its body half appears from the left edge.
Who are they? What do they want? What’s the rush?
These represent two bishops. The plain one is Cardinal Beaufort, an English bishop who belonged to the royal House of Plantagenet.
The other is Pierre Cauchon, a French bishop who had been allied with the English.
The English claimed that Joan was a witch, accused her of heresy and sorcery, and demanded she be inquisitioned.
Bishop Cauchon negotiated with the Burgundians to sell Joan to the English. He was well paid by the English for that!
Cardinal Beaufort controlled Joan's imprisonment and presided over the interrogations.
This is how the trial of Joan of Arc started. Her inquisition was heavily controlled by the English, her worst enemy.
The 'Touch' tapestry depicts the capture of Joan of Arc by the Burgundians and all the main players in her inquisition driven by the English.
So what happens to Joan of Arc after she is captured? Let’s look at the Hearing tapestry.
On one side the Lady is serenely playing a pipe organ.
On the other side by contrast, the Lady-in-waiting works the bellows of the organ. She looks sorrowful and there are eye bags under her eyes as if she’s been crying.
The Unicorn looks alarmed by the music and twists his neck uncomfortably.
Even the Lion has to endure the music. His mouth is tight and his ears are down. He clutches a lance and his tail is coiled between the hind legs.
What kind of music is the Lady playing? And why is the organ on top of an exotic oriental tapestry?
'Hearing' alludes to the trial of Joan of Arc. The pipes of the organ are the bars of her prison.
After Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English, she was imprisoned and inquisitioned by Bishop Cauchon, who was being paid by the English. The exotic carpet represents heresy, of which she was accused.
Armagnac knights, represented by the Unicorn, tried to rescue Joan, but they failed.
For the Burgundians, represented by the lion, listening to the inquisition was uncomfortable. Here was a French Bishop, prosecuting a popular French heroine on blatantly false charges.
The lion cub, Henry VI, enters the blue island of French territory. After Joan’s execution, Henry VI also gets crowned King of France, meaning there were two Kings!
The falcon, Henry V, sweeps just above the Lady’s head, reminding us that in the Treaty of Troyes the king of France should be his son Henry VI.
The Hearing tapestry is somber. But there is one happy animal in the tapestry however. Can you see it?
His wings and beak are wide open. We can almost hear him “quack, quack, quack!”
He is laughing!
The duck is John of Lancaster, the commander of the English army, who bribed Bishop Cauchon. He was depicted as a heron before, but here he is a duck. He is impatient for the verdict and Joan’s execution and tries to pressure Bishop Cauchon to hurry the trial.
But Cauchon’s charge that she was a witch was unsuccessful because Joan’s testimony was too strong. Instead he eventually charged her for cross dressing!
'Hearing' is about the trial of Joan of Arc. The organ is her jail, the oriental carpet is heresy.
Her inquisition was just a show trial by her enemies, both the Burgundians and the English, and even her allies, King Charles VII, who wanted to get rid of her.
Meanwhile, a dog sits quietly listening to the music, deep in thought. The Duke of Alençon was with Joan when she was captured and he tried to rescue her. When he wasn’t successful he appealed to the King for help, but was sent away to Brittany instead. Nobody came to her rescue.
In the Sight tapestry, the Lady is looking at the Unicorn, but the Unicorn is looking at himself in the mirror.
The Lion has turned away. Nobody is looking at the Lady.
The Unicorn is looking intently into the mirror the Lady is holding.
In the reflection of him, he is looking very pleased.
In contrast to the Unicorn’s look of satisfaction, the Lady’s expression looks weary and sad, with bags beneath her eyes.
Why is she holding a mirror? What does the mirror signify?
After breaking the siege of Orleans, the Armagnac took towns previously occupied by the English. King Charles VII expanded his territories and Armagnac knights were well rewarded.
The mirror signifies vanity. The Lady’s mirror reflects the vanity of the Armagnac, the Unicorn.
She is showing him with her mirror how small and ego-centric his ambition is.
In contrast, Her goal was to unite France under the rule of a French King.
But the Unicorn innocently looks into the mirror, and happily smiles at his small reflection. The Lady looks at him wearily.
The Lion, Burgundians, look away with a faint smile. While it's convenient to get rid of Joan, it leaves them a little uncomfortable.
The Sight tapestry is about the execution of Joan of Arc.
Nobody looks at the Lady, except maybe one dog. He sits quietly near the edge looking up.
The Duke of Alencon had been an enthusiastic supporter of Joan, and could not believe that King Charles VII, who owed his crown to her, abandoned and allowed her to be executed.
But there is one more King.
Shortly after Joan’s execution, Henry VI, the Lion cub, was crowned King of France in Paris.
In the centre of the blue island, the genet proudly stands with its neck stretched. The royal House of Plantagenet are asserting their rights to rule France.
By executing Joan, the English were trying to demonstrate that Charles VII, already crowned King, was illegitimate.
'Sight' is actually about not seeing. The Unicorn in particular, is so busy with his own image, that he cannot see the bigger picture of the united France in which the Lady believes.
The tapestries can now be read in historical order: Smell, Taste, Touch, Hearing, Sight.
But the final tapestry is Mon Seul Desir (My Sole Desire), whose title comes from the inscription on the tent.
But whose desire? And for what exactly?
Here, her expression is softer, and she looks a little older. She’s aged. Joan heard and saw angels and this final sixth tapestry celebrates her extraordinary sixth sense that changed the course of French history. Without her and her ability, France would have been ruled by the English with Henry VI as the king of France.
She is taking off her jewellery and is preparing for something.
Behind the Lady is a pavilion tent, whose fabric is held open ...
...by the Lion ...
...and the Unicorn.
In this last tapestry the Burgundian and Armagnac are reconciled.
By holding open the tent, the Lion & the Unicorn have eventually learnt to cooperate with each other, the first time they’ve done so.
Four years after Joan’s death, the Burgundians broke off the alliance with England and reconciled with the Armagnac. The civil war ended and the Burgundians accepted Charles VII as King of France.
By the side of the Lady, on a luxurious cushion, sits a pampered spaniel.
The dog, Charles VII, consolidated his position as King of France against a rival claim by Henry VI of England. The cushion and the wooden bench are a King’s throne.
The King of France sits on his throne.
Above the tent are the falcon and heron. Having now lost their allies, the English are desperate to defend their territory.
The Falcon is carrying two rings. Wedding rings.
The rings are the wedding rings of Henry V and Catherine of Valois and the falcon carries them as a symbol of their marriage and the Treaty of Troyes. The falcon, Henry V, is again condemning Charles VII as an illegitimate King and asserting the right of the English to rule France.
The heron, looking very dissatisfied, is desperately stretching its legs, trying to strike. The heron, John of Lancaster, has been losing battles since the appearance of Joan, is now fighting desperately.
The dog with a collar watches from a distance. After the execution of Joan, the Duke of Alencon was devastated and disillusioned. He fell out with the King, was arrested and imprisoned.
The inscription on the tent is whose desire? The Lady’s?
What does she desire? Joan’s only desire was for France to be united as one country. Once the civil war ended, the Armagnac and Burgundians ended their destructive rivalry, kicked the English out of France and united France under a French King.
Joan’s wish came true.
But what does the tent signify? The tent is only held by two ropes, on the left it is secured to a pine tree.
On the right it is tied to a holly tree.
There is no apparent structure holding up the tent. In such a detailed picture, it’s unlikely that the structure was simply forgotten. Without support, the tent is floating, the two ropes are just securing it to the ground. The tent is her gateway to heaven.
The Lady is taking off the jewellery, preparing for heaven. Once inside, the Lion and the Unicorn will close the tent, untie the ropes, and the tent with the Lady inside, will ascend to heaven.
The sixth tapestry is about Joan’s wish for a united France and her ascension to heaven.
The story of Joan of Arc and it's historical context offers a new framework in which to see these tapestries. If correct, it’s fascinating that this interpretation has been lost for so long.
Many questions remain. What do the trees that appear in all the tapestries represent? Who commissioned these tapestries and more importantly why? What were they trying to say with such politically sensitive images?
I invite others to challenge my interpretation, add further details or offer new insights.