New York – “Search for the Unicorn” commemorating the 75th anniversary of The Cloisters Through August 18th, 2013

August 6th, 2013

The Unicorn in Captivity (1495-1505), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The word Manhattan conjures images of glass and concrete skyscrapers, bustling streets, and the sounds of honking cars, but a trip to the Cloisters, the evocatively monastic outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located on the Hudson river vallery, truly transports visitors away from the urban metropolis.  Visitors enter a space of leafy pathways, stone arches, stained glass, hushed hallways, and intricate courtyards. seemingly more at home in the serene South of France than cacophonous Manhattan.

Unicorn Aquamanile from Germany (1425–50), via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The current exhibition, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the unlikely landmark, is suitably focused on the medieval myth of the unicorn. Specifically, the celebration is an expansion on the Unicorn Tapestries, which are permanent features of the complex. Its intricate threadwork reveal a series of complex and passionate scenes, concluding in the capture of the mysterious animal in a flower filled garden. While most certainly beautiful, the image of the unicorn in captivity also holds tinges of cruelty and isolation.  The tapestries were donated by John D Rockefeller, Jr. and previously hung in his home.

Unicorn and Ram, from the Meshal ha-Kadmoni (Fable of the Ancients) (1491), Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

In fact, the majority off the artifacts in the Cloisters, as well as the building itself, were donated by John D Rockefeller Jr., purchased for $700,000 and donated to the Met in 1925.  The building was designed by Charles Collens, with the intention of evoking a medieval atmosphere without copying a specific building. Rockefeller also donated a 56-acre park to surround the complex, and 700,000 more acres across the Hudson river to ensure the preservation of the picturesque view.  The Cloisters were originally owned by American George Grey Barnard, who had foraged for medieval artifacts and architectural components in France, and had moved his findings from their homes in 1913. The original Cloisters were opened in 1914 on Fort Washington Avenue in Manhattan.


Animals of the Holy Land, from Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (Pilgrimage to the Holy Land) (1486), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The precise origins of the Unicorn Tapestries are unknown. Inventories of the de la Rochefoucault family  reveal that they were hung at the family chateau at Verteuil during the early 18th century, but during the French Revolution, the now prized pieces were used to dry potatoes in a damp cellar.  In 1922, Count Gabriel de la Rochefoucault sold the works to Rockefeller for $1 million, allegedly with the intention of financing his private golf course. Subsequently, Rockefeller restored the treasures to their present condition.

A Maiden Taming a Unicorn, from the Workshop Bestiary English, Courtesy The Pierpont Morgan Library

The show displays multiple different representations of unicorns, including tableware, narwhal tusks posing as the horns of unicorns, and book illustrations. The items come from all over the world, from England to Persia, and depict the mythical creatures in a variety of settings, including the newly discovered America, Mount Sinai, and other, more fantastical lands.  One prominent piece is a 14th century copy of the 10th century Persian text Shahnama (The Book of Kings), which depicts Alexander the Great killing the Ethiopian unicorn from the land of Habash. Another illustration, from 1701, taken from The Wonders of Creation and the oddities of Existence by Zakaria bin Muhammad bin Mahmud Abu Yahya Qazwini of India, shows a horse-like animal with a long, thorny horn on it head.  

Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso, Birth Tray (Desco da Parto) with the Triumph of Chastity (recto) and Naked Boys with Poppy Pods (verso) (1450-1460), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The broad selection of works and their historical contributions to the myth of the unicorn are expertly assembled, perfectly underscoring the Cloisters’ strong ties to the middle ages.  Trailing this mystical figure through cultures and centuries, Search for the Unicorn is a fitting exhibition for a space so tangibly removed from the modern era.


Read More:
Search for the Unicorn, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum, New York – review [The Financial Times]
Chasing Unicorns in Art Across the Ages [Art News]
SHOWS THAT MATTER: Unicorns, Good and Evil, at The Cloisters [Blouin Art Info]