Paris is really something. All those huge sweeping vistas acting as a backdrop for pain au chocolat and cool french people. When in Paris, an art interested first-time tourist typically does the following – Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and Pompidou Centre – before heading, time permitting, to other places of interest; one such possibility being the Musée de Cluny or its current moniker, Musée national du Moyen Âge. For the plant art fiend there’s one darkened room deep inside this building past all the stone artefacts that’s worth a visit. The Lady and the Unicorn or en français, La Dame à la licorne is touted as one of the best artworks of the Middle Ages. Each one of its six tapestries, woven in the early 1500s, show a woman, a unicorn, a lion and in some a monkey, engaged in various activities. Five of the tapestries are thought to represent the senses and it’s quite interesting to try and work out which is which before seeking out the plastic information sheet. The sixth tapestry, a.k.a the possible sixth sense, and what that is, forms the crux of ongoing debate. The plant interest comes in two forms: firstly, the backdrop to the main action is strewn with a variety of flowering plants – pine, orange, sessile oak, holly trees and more. This dense plant design, is called ‘Mille-fleur’ or thousand flowers and was a popular background motif for European art works in the MIddle Ages. Secondly, the colour of the tapestries are from plant based dyes, confirned during a recent clean of the whole thing. Rachel Donadio for The New York Times writes:
After cleaning the tapestries with a micro-vacuum, restorers worked to bring out the colors — a red background bedecked with flowers, animals and orange and pine trees. Chemical analysis found that plant and natural materials had been used to create the dyes — madder root was used for the reds, the woad plant for the blues, and orcein, a dye extracted from lichen, for the purple hues. To repair some patches, they dyed new wool with vegetable elements they had discovered in the restoration process. Restorers also placed new backings on the tapestries.
It’s the potential for uncovering a hidden knowing in the tapestry that gives it its magic, but without plants for support, it wouldn’t be half as good.
The sixth sense. What is it?