In Paris Review, Danielle Oteri described how, despite the efforts of curators, scholars, and even an obsessed high school teacher turned museum guard, our understanding of the complex symbolism in the tapestries has retreated rather than advanced over decades. She notes: “the Metâ€™s most eminent scholars have debated the finer points of the tapestries, each time removing more and more from the guidebooks and wall labels. Today at the Cloisters, the wall label for each of these tapestries, the most famous works in the museum, among the most famous works in the world, is only about one sentence long.”
Nobody knows who made the Unicorn Tapestries, a set of seven weavings that depict a unicorn hunt that has been described as â€œthe greatest inheritance of the Middle Ages.â€
Without evidence, the La Rochefoucauld family in France asserted that the tapestries originate with the marriage of a family ancestor in the fifteenth century. The tapestries did belong to the La Rochefoucauld in 1793, before they were stolen by rioters who set fire to their chÃ¢teau at Verteuil. The family regained possession sixty years later, when the tapestries were recovered in a barn. The precious weavings of wool, silk, gold, and silver were in tatters at their edges and punched full of holes. They had been used to wrap barren fruit trees during the winter.
In late 1922, the Unicorn Tapestries disappeared again. They were sent to New York for an exhibition, which never opened. A rich American had bought them and transferred them to his bank vault before anyone else could see them. In February 1923, John D. Rockefeller Jr. confirmed from his vacation home in Florida that he was the American who had acquired the tapestries for the price of $1.1 million. The tapestries were transferred to Rockefellerâ€™s private residence in Midtown Manhattan.
Fourteen years later, Rockefeller donated the tapestries to the Cloisters, a new medieval art museum he had funded as a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The mysterious works were to be on regular public display for the first time in their five-hundred-year history.