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The Unicorn in Captivity (from The Unicorn Tapestries)
1495-1500
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
""The Unicorn in Captivity" may have been created as a single image rather than part of a series. In this instance, the unicorn probably represents the beloved tamed. He is tethered to a tree and constrained by a fence, but the chain is not secure and the fence is low enough to leap over: The unicorn could escape if he wished. Clearly, however, his confinement is a happy one, to which the ripe, seed-laden pomegranates in the tree—a medieval symbol of fertility and marriage—testify. The red stains on his flank do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from bursting pomegranates above. Many of the other plants represented here, such as wild orchid, bistort, and thistle, echo this theme of marriage and procreation: they were acclaimed in the Middle Ages as fertility aids for both men and women. Even the little frog, nestled among the violets at the lower right, was cited by medieval writers for its noisy mating." View high resolution

The Unicorn in Captivity (from The Unicorn Tapestries)

1495-1500

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

""The Unicorn in Captivity" may have been created as a single image rather than part of a series. In this instance, the unicorn probably represents the beloved tamed. He is tethered to a tree and constrained by a fence, but the chain is not secure and the fence is low enough to leap over: The unicorn could escape if he wished. Clearly, however, his confinement is a happy one, to which the ripe, seed-laden pomegranates in the tree—a medieval symbol of fertility and marriage—testify. The red stains on his flank do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from bursting pomegranates above. Many of the other plants represented here, such as wild orchid, bistort, and thistle, echo this theme of marriage and procreation: they were acclaimed in the Middle Ages as fertility aids for both men and women. Even the little frog, nestled among the violets at the lower right, was cited by medieval writers for its noisy mating."

The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn (fragments, from The Unicorn Tapestries)

1495-1500

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"In these two fragments of a single tapestry, the unicorn appears to have been tamed. He seems so docile, in fact, that he is oblivious to the dog licking the wound on his back and stares loving at the maiden who must have subdued him. Most of her figure is missing, the result of damage incurred after the tapestries were looted in 1793. The remaining traces include the maiden’s right arm, clothed in red velvet and visible between the beard and throat of the unicorn, and her fingers, seen gently caressing the bottom of the animal’s mane. She sits in an enclosed garden (hortus conclusus), often a metaphor for the purity of a maiden. The more complete female figure may be signaling to the hunter outside the garden, who in turn sounds the horn to summon the others."

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle
1495-1500
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"Two episodes of the hunt narrative are brought together in this hanging. At left, two hunters drive their lances into the neck and chest of the unicorn, as a third delivers the coup de grâce from the back. It has been suggested that the doomed unicorn is an allegory for Christ dying on the Cross; the large holly tree (often a symbol of the Passion) rising from behind his head seems to reinforce this association. In the other episode, at right, a lord and a lady receive the body of the unicorn in front of their castle. They are surrounded by their attendants, with more curious onlookers peering through windows of the turret behind them. The dead animal is slung on the back of a horse, his horn already cut off but still entangled in thorny oak branches—probably symbolizing the Crown of Thorns. The rosary in the hand of the lady and the three other women standing behind the lord encourage a deeper reading of the scene, perhaps as a symbolic Deposition by the grieving Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and the Holy Women." View high resolution

The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle

1495-1500

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Two episodes of the hunt narrative are brought together in this hanging. At left, two hunters drive their lances into the neck and chest of the unicorn, as a third delivers the coup de grâce from the back. It has been suggested that the doomed unicorn is an allegory for Christ dying on the Cross; the large holly tree (often a symbol of the Passion) rising from behind his head seems to reinforce this association. In the other episode, at right, a lord and a lady receive the body of the unicorn in front of their castle. They are surrounded by their attendants, with more curious onlookers peering through windows of the turret behind them. The dead animal is slung on the back of a horse, his horn already cut off but still entangled in thorny oak branches—probably symbolizing the Crown of Thorns. The rosary in the hand of the lady and the three other women standing behind the lord encourage a deeper reading of the scene, perhaps as a symbolic Deposition by the grieving Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and the Holy Women."

The Unicorn Defends Itself (from The Unicorn Tapestries)
1495-1455
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"Here the injured unicorn is being held at bay by three hunters ready to pierce him with their lances. The furious animal reacts with a gruesome attack on a greyhound before him, almost tearing the dog’s body apart. The horn-blowing hunter at the lower left wears a scabbard with the inscription AVE REGINA C[OELI] (Hail, Queen of the Heavens). He is often thought to represent the Archangel Gabriel, who announced to the Virgin Mary that she is to give birth to the Christ Child. The huntsmen and other figures are garbed in the fashions of about the turn of the sixteenth century, including round-toed shoes and fitted bodices, and their headdresses and hairstyles also reflect contemporary tastes. The mastery of the weavers is evident in the convincing representation of different materials and textures in the costumes, such as brocade, velvet, leather, and fur.

In order to make the tapestries, plain wool yarns (the warp) were stretched between two beams of a large loom; a bobbin then brought dyed and metallic threads (the wefts) over and under the warp threads to create the design. Chemical analyses reveal that the dye pigments used in the Unicorn Tapestries came from such plants as weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue), all of which are grown in the Bonnefont Cloister garden. With the aid of mordants, substances that help fix the dyes to fabric, these three primary colors were blended to achieve a dazzling spectrum of hues strategically highlighted by the addition of metallic threads.” View high resolution

The Unicorn Defends Itself (from The Unicorn Tapestries)

1495-1455

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Here the injured unicorn is being held at bay by three hunters ready to pierce him with their lances. The furious animal reacts with a gruesome attack on a greyhound before him, almost tearing the dog’s body apart. The horn-blowing hunter at the lower left wears a scabbard with the inscription AVE REGINA C[OELI] (Hail, Queen of the Heavens). He is often thought to represent the Archangel Gabriel, who announced to the Virgin Mary that she is to give birth to the Christ Child. The huntsmen and other figures are garbed in the fashions of about the turn of the sixteenth century, including round-toed shoes and fitted bodices, and their headdresses and hairstyles also reflect contemporary tastes. The mastery of the weavers is evident in the convincing representation of different materials and textures in the costumes, such as brocade, velvet, leather, and fur.

In order to make the tapestries, plain wool yarns (the warp) were stretched between two beams of a large loom; a bobbin then brought dyed and metallic threads (the wefts) over and under the warp threads to create the design. Chemical analyses reveal that the dye pigments used in the Unicorn Tapestries came from such plants as weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue), all of which are grown in the Bonnefont Cloister garden. With the aid of mordants, substances that help fix the dyes to fabric, these three primary colors were blended to achieve a dazzling spectrum of hues strategically highlighted by the addition of metallic threads.”

The Unicorn is Attacked (from The Unicorn Tapestries)
1495-1500
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"According to tradition, the unicorn cannot be disturbed while performing a magical act. The attack by the hunters thus presumably begins soon after the action depicted in The Unicorn Is Found, and the scene is one filled with chaos and commotion. The ferocity of the battle is conveyed by the converging lances aimed at the animal, the sounding of the hunting horns, and the menacing hounds. Already wounded on his back, the unicorn leaps across a stream in a desperate attempt to escape his encircling enemies.
The use of hounds to scout, chase, and eventually attack the quarry was typical practice in medieval stag hunts, and the palatial buildings in the background might be a further allusion to the hunt as a royal or aristocratic pastime. Unlike The Hunters Enter the Woods and The Unicorn in Captivity, this and the other hangings are set in realistic landscapes that enhance the drama of the hunt.” View high resolution

The Unicorn is Attacked (from The Unicorn Tapestries)

1495-1500

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"According to tradition, the unicorn cannot be disturbed while performing a magical act. The attack by the hunters thus presumably begins soon after the action depicted in The Unicorn Is Found, and the scene is one filled with chaos and commotion. The ferocity of the battle is conveyed by the converging lances aimed at the animal, the sounding of the hunting horns, and the menacing hounds. Already wounded on his back, the unicorn leaps across a stream in a desperate attempt to escape his encircling enemies.

The use of hounds to scout, chase, and eventually attack the quarry was typical practice in medieval stag hunts, and the palatial buildings in the background might be a further allusion to the hunt as a royal or aristocratic pastime. Unlike The Hunters Enter the Woods and The Unicorn in Captivity, this and the other hangings are set in realistic landscapes that enhance the drama of the hunt.”

The Unicorn is Found (from The Unicorn Tapestries)
1455-1500
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"In this tapestry the unicorn kneels before a tall white fountain that has a pair of pheasants and a pair of goldfinches perched on its edge. Other animals both exotic and native to Europe lounge about, while twelve hunters in the back of the scene discuss the discovery of their quarry. Flora and fauna play a significant role in the narratives of the Unicorn Tapestries. Plants prescribed in medieval herbals as antidotes to poisoning, such as sage, pot marigolds, and orange, are positioned near the stream, which is being purified by the unicorn’s magic horn." View high resolution

The Unicorn is Found (from The Unicorn Tapestries)

1455-1500

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"In this tapestry the unicorn kneels before a tall white fountain that has a pair of pheasants and a pair of goldfinches perched on its edge. Other animals both exotic and native to Europe lounge about, while twelve hunters in the back of the scene discuss the discovery of their quarry. Flora and fauna play a significant role in the narratives of the Unicorn Tapestries. Plants prescribed in medieval herbals as antidotes to poisoning, such as sage, pot marigolds, and orange, are positioned near the stream, which is being purified by the unicorn’s magic horn."

The Hunters Enter the Woods (from The Unicorn Tapestries)
1495-1500
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"This tapestry is one of seven hangings at The Cloisters that depict the hunt of the unicorn, a mythical creature first mentioned by the Greek physician Ctesias in the fourth century B.C. In the Middle Ages the animal was best known for its supposed invincibility and for the therapeutic property of its horn. So strong was the belief in the horn’s miraculous cures that by the twelfth century the tusks of male narwhals, a small whale native to the Arctic, came to be regarded as "unicorn horns."
The Unicorn Tapestries, as the group of seven is known, were probably designed in Paris but woven in Brussels. They are first documented in 1680, when they hung in the Paris home of François VI de La Rochefoucauld. By 1728 five of them decorated a bedroom at the family’s château in Verteuil, in western France. The tapestries were looted during the French Revolution but were recovered in the 1850s; by 1856 they had been restored and rehung in the château’s salon. No documentation sheds light on the early history of the tapestries, including either their commission or sequence of hanging. Striking differences in dimension and composition have prompted scholars to question whether the hangings constitute one set or are, in fact, from multiple sets.
The Hunters Enter the Woods, like The Unicorn in Captivity, is set against a millefleurs background: a field of dark green spangled with blossoming trees and flowers. Of the 101 species of plants represented, 85 have been identified, including the prominent cherry tree behind the hunters and lush date palm in front of the sniffing hound. The cipher “AE” that is woven into each of the Unicorn Tapestries—and repeated here five times—alludes to their original owners, who remain unknown.” View high resolution

The Hunters Enter the Woods (from The Unicorn Tapestries)

1495-1500

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"This tapestry is one of seven hangings at The Cloisters that depict the hunt of the unicorn, a mythical creature first mentioned by the Greek physician Ctesias in the fourth century B.C. In the Middle Ages the animal was best known for its supposed invincibility and for the therapeutic property of its horn. So strong was the belief in the horn’s miraculous cures that by the twelfth century the tusks of male narwhals, a small whale native to the Arctic, came to be regarded as "unicorn horns."

The Unicorn Tapestries, as the group of seven is known, were probably designed in Paris but woven in Brussels. They are first documented in 1680, when they hung in the Paris home of François VI de La Rochefoucauld. By 1728 five of them decorated a bedroom at the family’s château in Verteuil, in western France. The tapestries were looted during the French Revolution but were recovered in the 1850s; by 1856 they had been restored and rehung in the château’s salon. No documentation sheds light on the early history of the tapestries, including either their commission or sequence of hanging. Striking differences in dimension and composition have prompted scholars to question whether the hangings constitute one set or are, in fact, from multiple sets.

The Hunters Enter the Woods, like The Unicorn in Captivity, is set against a millefleurs background: a field of dark green spangled with blossoming trees and flowers. Of the 101 species of plants represented, 85 have been identified, including the prominent cherry tree behind the hunters and lush date palm in front of the sniffing hound. The cipher “AE” that is woven into each of the Unicorn Tapestries—and repeated here five times—alludes to their original owners, who remain unknown.”

Plaque
Benin Empire, 16th-17th century
The National Museum of African Art
"According to local court histories and the accounts of early-17th century Dutch travelers, the oba or king of Benin covered the piers of his palace courtyard with hundreds of plaques such as this. As a sheer display of wealth and power, this act would rival covering the White House with gold from Fort Knox. But more than excess, it reveals aspects of artistic technique, local history and a society in which art was essential. Today, some 900 plaques survive in public and private collections, but there is no documentation to indicate how they once were arranged. After 1700, travelers’ accounts do not mention the plaques, and an 1897 British military force found them in a palace storehouse. A few plaques show narrative scenes, such as battles and hunts; some depict symbolic animals; most, like this example, have one, two or more male figures in court regalia.
Benin art served as both a sign of status and a record of court life. The oba, nobles, officials and attendants were depicted on various objects, including plaques. Costumes and regalia indicated their relative position in the court hierarchy. The warriors on this plaque carry swords and short bows and wear headdresses made from imported horsetail. According to early accounts, horsetail headdresses symbolized military authority and were worn by war chiefs. Fanning out in low relief behind the heads, the horsetail is sculpted in a manner similar to Benin depictions of European hair or the fins and tails of the mudfish, a symbolically significant animal. Both Europeans and the mudfish are associated with Olokun, the god of the waters and bringer of wealth.
Benin art emphasizes patterns and texture; empty space is avoided. A background pattern of quatrefoil “river leaves” is typical of most Benin plaques. Symbolically the background design is another reference to Olokun, who is linked with the oba and wealth, and to the oba’s monopoly on foreign trade. Artistically the loose, freehand quality of the linear foliate motif contrasts with the formal pose, frontality and high relief of the figures. The well-defined musculature of the legs on this plaque is unusual and may be the style of a particular artist. 
This recurring emphasis on wealth and foreign trade leads back to the most basic and blatant of symbols, the metal itself. The most obvious effect of Benin’s overseas trade with Europe was a dramatic increase in the availability of copper and brass. European ingots and imported metal trade goods provided the raw material that was transformed into royal Benin art by metal casters who worked solely for the oba.” View high resolution

Plaque

Benin Empire, 16th-17th century

The National Museum of African Art

"According to local court histories and the accounts of early-17th century Dutch travelers, the oba or king of Benin covered the piers of his palace courtyard with hundreds of plaques such as this. As a sheer display of wealth and power, this act would rival covering the White House with gold from Fort Knox. But more than excess, it reveals aspects of artistic technique, local history and a society in which art was essential. Today, some 900 plaques survive in public and private collections, but there is no documentation to indicate how they once were arranged. After 1700, travelers’ accounts do not mention the plaques, and an 1897 British military force found them in a palace storehouse. A few plaques show narrative scenes, such as battles and hunts; some depict symbolic animals; most, like this example, have one, two or more male figures in court regalia.

Benin art served as both a sign of status and a record of court life. The oba, nobles, officials and attendants were depicted on various objects, including plaques. Costumes and regalia indicated their relative position in the court hierarchy. The warriors on this plaque carry swords and short bows and wear headdresses made from imported horsetail. According to early accounts, horsetail headdresses symbolized military authority and were worn by war chiefs. Fanning out in low relief behind the heads, the horsetail is sculpted in a manner similar to Benin depictions of European hair or the fins and tails of the mudfish, a symbolically significant animal. Both Europeans and the mudfish are associated with Olokun, the god of the waters and bringer of wealth.

Benin art emphasizes patterns and texture; empty space is avoided. A background pattern of quatrefoil “river leaves” is typical of most Benin plaques. Symbolically the background design is another reference to Olokun, who is linked with the oba and wealth, and to the oba’s monopoly on foreign trade. Artistically the loose, freehand quality of the linear foliate motif contrasts with the formal pose, frontality and high relief of the figures. The well-defined musculature of the legs on this plaque is unusual and may be the style of a particular artist. 

This recurring emphasis on wealth and foreign trade leads back to the most basic and blatant of symbols, the metal itself. The most obvious effect of Benin’s overseas trade with Europe was a dramatic increase in the availability of copper and brass. European ingots and imported metal trade goods provided the raw material that was transformed into royal Benin art by metal casters who worked solely for the oba.”

Key
Benin Empire, 16th-19th century
The Metropolitan Museum of Art View high resolution

Key

Benin Empire, 16th-19th century

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bronze Figure of a Portugese Soldier
Benin Empire, 17th century
The British Museum
"During the second half of the fifteenth century Portuguese navigators began to explore the West African coast. They arrived in Benin between 1472 and 1486, finding a sophisticated society ruled by a monarch, who was probably Oba Ozolua or Oba Esigie. The Portuguese had hoped to convert the people of Benin to Christianity but discovered them to be more interested in trade. The arrival of the Portuguese coincided with great political and artistic developments under the guidance of the oba (king); from then on most of the Benin ‘bronzes’ were cast from European brass acquired through trade.
Coral beads and large quantities of brass manillas, which were melted down by Benin smiths, were traded by the Portuguese for pepper, cloth and ivory, and for slaves.
Figures of Europeans such as this Portuguese soldier were kept on royal altars or on the roof of the royal palace in Benin city. The Portuguese were represented in Benin art in various forms. Their arrival by sea and the bringing of luxury goods enabled the Portuguese travellers to be incorporated into Benin ideas associated with the god Olokun, ruler of the sea and provider of wealth. Legend has it that the Oba fought with Olokun on the beach, subdued him and stripped him of his wealth. The exhibition of European figures probably commemorated and celebrated this victory.” View high resolution

Bronze Figure of a Portugese Soldier

Benin Empire, 17th century

The British Museum

"During the second half of the fifteenth century Portuguese navigators began to explore the West African coast. They arrived in Benin between 1472 and 1486, finding a sophisticated society ruled by a monarch, who was probably Oba Ozolua or Oba Esigie. The Portuguese had hoped to convert the people of Benin to Christianity but discovered them to be more interested in trade. The arrival of the Portuguese coincided with great political and artistic developments under the guidance of the oba (king); from then on most of the Benin ‘bronzes’ were cast from European brass acquired through trade.

Coral beads and large quantities of brass manillas, which were melted down by Benin smiths, were traded by the Portuguese for pepper, cloth and ivory, and for slaves.

Figures of Europeans such as this Portuguese soldier were kept on royal altars or on the roof of the royal palace in Benin city. The Portuguese were represented in Benin art in various forms. Their arrival by sea and the bringing of luxury goods enabled the Portuguese travellers to be incorporated into Benin ideas associated with the god Olokun, ruler of the sea and provider of wealth. Legend has it that the Oba fought with Olokun on the beach, subdued him and stripped him of his wealth. The exhibition of European figures probably commemorated and celebrated this victory.”

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