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Following the Thread

I've been to so many art museums in my life and seen so many paintings, sculptures, and other highly wrought handmade objects of beauty. Yet I've never been too taken by tapestries, for some reason, usually choosing to walk past them and into another gallery where I can find more paintings to look at. But during my visit a few weeks ago to the Musee de Cluny (the medieval museum, basically) in Paris, I saw some things that made me stop in admiration.

There were rooms full of these gorgeous images, 10 feet by 15 feet or larger, created in tapestry in the 1400s or 1500s. The museum's collection is quite small and actually has hardly any paintings, so this forced me to spend more time on woven stuff than I normally would. I'm glad I did, because the artistry of the mainly anonymous craftsmen who made these pieces is astonishing. Look at the perfectly proportioned figures and animals, the rich colours, and the teeming imagination that fills every inch of them.

The prize of the collection is the series The Lady and the Unicorn, an allegorical set of six tapestries that were created for a well-born lady in 1500.


Again, they burst with life and imagination and artistry. Two things struck me: the skill it takes to create perfect chiaroscuro out of cross-woven threads; and the fact that the floral pattern that fills every available space consists of depictions of plants that are as individually different as snowflakes. You might imagine that the artists/weavers could just have repeated the same design a hundred times, but in fact no two are exactly alike.

Interesting historical sidenote: the tapestries were rediscovered in a castle in central France in the 1840s by Prosper Merimee, who wrote the noel upon which the opera Carmen is based.

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