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THE LADY AND THE UNICORN by Tracy Chevalier Kirkus Star


by Tracy Chevalier

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-525-94767-1
Publisher: Dutton

A delightful historical imagines the creation of the most famous medieval tapestries ever woven.

In the Cluny Museum in Paris hang six tapestries depicting a lady and a unicorn. Art historians speculate (based on the style and the coat of arms displayed prominently throughout) that the tapestries were woven around 1500 for the Le Viste family, but little else is known about them with any certainty. Chevalier (The Virgin Blue, p. 767, etc.) steps in to supply a history, envisioning one Nicolas des Innocents, a Parisian miniaturist of the 14th century, as the one commissioned by Jean Le Viste to create a set of hangings for a townhouse on the rue du Four. An ambitious social climber, Jean was eager to make a name for himself as a patron of the arts. Here, he originally requests works depicting the Battle of Nancy, but his wife, the pious and strong-willed Genevieve de Nanterre, conspires with Nicolas to change the subject to an allegorical representation of a lady seducing a unicorn. That’s easy work for Nicolas, a thoroughgoing cad who has already impregnated one of the maids in the Le Viste household and soon sets off in shameless pursuit of Jean’s beautiful daughter Claude. The artistic temperament’s licenses are not widely condoned in medieval France, however, and Genevieve quickly puts the passionate Claude under lock and key and threatens to marry Nicolas off to her plain lady-in-waiting, Beatrice. Eventually, the lovelorn Nicolas (who ends up modeling the lady in the tapestries on Claude) is sent off himself, to Brussels, to collaborate with master weaver Georges de la Chapelle. What’s the end result of all this (apart from the tapestries)? Let’s just say that a labor of love invariably costs more than a bit of one’s heart.

Marvelously imagined and sharply constructed, with a good feel for the people and the era: a fascinating portrait of the intersection of life and art.