Saturday, September 12, 2015

510 (2015 #67). The Lady and the Unicorn

by Tracy Chevalier

The book cover initially caught my eye.  It has two cut-outs, through which you can see the Lady and the Unicorn of the famous six Middle Ages tapestries upon which this historical fiction novel is based.  The blurb on the back of the paperback says, "The Lady and the Unicorn is Tracy Chevalier's answer to the mystery behind one of the art world's great masterpieces."

Little is known of the background of the tapestries, but Chevalier has taken those bits of information and supposition and woven an imaginative tale about the creation of the tapestries around them.  For example, they were likely woven in Flanders, the center of expertise in the millefleur style of that period (1480-1520), which is when the tapestries were likely made.

The story has multiple narrators: Nicolas des Innocents (ironic as he's not at all innocent), the (fictional) painter who designed the tapestries; Claude Le Viste and Genevieve de Nanterre, the (real) oldest daughter and wife of the wealthy Paris man who wanted the tapestries made; as well as the fictional weavers and and artist in Brussels who made them a reality:  master weaver Georges de la Chapelle, his wife Christine du Sablon and daughter Alienor de la Chapelle, and the cartoon painter Philippe de la Tour.

Nicolas is a vain womanizer who probably sees himself as the unicorn (although it supposedly symbolizes Christ).  The women in the story end up appearing in some of the tapestries, which each represent one of the five senses, plus a sixth called "À Mon Seul Désir" (To My One Desire).  The book is fascinating with its detailed descriptions of the art and process of weaving, and Chevalier's story is clever. I liked the way she used the names of religious seasons (Lent, Easter, Whitsuntide, May Day, Septuagesima) to mark the passage of time over the two years it took to create the tapestries.

My paperback features six full-color plates with detail of the lady and the unicorn from each tapestry.  The hardbound copy I got at the library for comparison does not have those plates, but underneath the dust jacket (with cutouts like the paperback has) is a reproduction of "À Mon Seul Désir" that wraps around to the back of the book:

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[I own my copy of this book, but it is also available at the Hood County Library.]

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