The mystery surrounding The Unicorn Tapestries, created around 1500, is complicated by layers upon layers of symbolism. One specific symbol, the pomegranate, can offer clues to the creation and purpose of these seven paneled tapestries. Like many artistic works from the Middle Ages, this piece functions on many levels, both secular and religious. Through the representations of the pomegranate in the second, third, and seventh panels of the tapestries one can dissect and analyze these different layers and their purpose.
The first representation of the pomegranate can be found on the fountain depicted in the second panel, "The Unicorn at the Fountain," which contains a stone jet that is shaped like the fruit. This shape, paired with the fountain, alludes to the classical myths relating to Persephone and the emergence of spring. The myth states that this goddess had been abducted by Hades and was brought into the underworld as his queen. Her mother, Demeter, pleaded with Zeus to retrieve her, and he agreed as long as Persephone had not eaten any food. Unfortunately, because of Persephone's consumption of a pomegranate, she was forced to remain in the underworld with Hades. Clearly upset, Demeter refused to allow the growth of fruits and grains until a deal was made where Persephone could return for six months of the year. Her reemergence each year ushered in the forces of spring and the growth of vegetation, causing Persephone and the pomegranate to forever be linked to the emergence spring.
The fountain mirrors this return to earth by using a pomegranate as an instrument through which water is brought from the underworld to the surface to nourish the land. In relation to the Christian symbolism throughout the tapestries, the pomegranate carved into this fountain could also be religiously significant. After the death of Christ, he was said to have descended into Hell to defeat Satan in order to ensure the life after death for all mankind. The use of the pomegranate, which was significant the "pagan" beliefs, represent the resurrection of Christ and the promise immortality (Williamson 97-101).
The pomegranate was not only important to these pre-Christian beliefs, but it was also associated with Christ himself. A deep cut into the pomegranate is required to get to its appetizing juice, which many theologians believe mirrors the need to deeply understand the suffering of Christ in order to understand his sacrifice (Freeman 131). Similarly, the red juice of the pomegranate is also associated with the blood of Christ and therefore the Crucifixion (Williamson 102). The pomegranate is also known for its many seeds, which can be symbolic of the church and its abundant and diversified congregation. Similar to this is the pomegranate's association with the Virgin Mary. The many precious seeds represent the gifts Mary offered mankind, the main one being her son, Jesus Christ. The pomegranate is commonly included in statues and paintings depicting the Virgin Mary and Jesus, in order to enhance the interpretation of the individual pieces. The pomegranate is used in a similar fashion in the final panel of The Unicorn Tapestries, where the garden scene seems to parallel images of the Garden of Eden. The pomegranate becomes essential in this portrayal because of its supposed snake repellant qualities (Freeman 131). This central tree within the seventh panel can also be seen as a representation of the Judeo-Christian Tree of Life (Williamson 78). Conversely, the unicorn can be seen as Christ on the Cross, as the unicorn is chained to the pomegranate tree in a related way. In the fifteenth century manuscript Somme le Roi there is an illustration that depicts Christ bound to the Tree of Life, which was mean to clearly symbolize the Crucifixion in similar manner. Adding to its religious significance, the Old Testament mentions the pomegranate tree as the only tree allowed in the inner sanctum of the temple, the Holy of Holies. The reason for this was that the fruit was never eaten by insects, and has therefore become a symbol of incorruptibility. Because of this, the pomegranate became an important symbol to Solomon and the building of his temple (Williamson 200-202). The plentiful seeds within the pomegranate were also associated with the guaranteed fruitfulness of the Promised Land (Freeman 131).
Besides the religious meaning of this panel, this restrictive collar worn by the unicorn can also have a secular meaning relating to marriage and fertility. Essentially the tapestry depicts a unicorn with a powerful horn that acts as phallic symbol attached to a pomegranate tree that bears fruit that is bursting with feminine fertility, therefore acting as an emblem of copulation. Along with this symbolism, the chain between these two could represent a marriage between to important figures. The pomegranate is commonly associated with female genitalia and fertility, which would complement the matrimonial theme.
The pomegranate was not only symbolically significant within the tapestries, but their depictions also provided a clear distinction between the creations of the various panels. The two millefleurs panels contain unrealistic depictions of plant life, specifically "The Unicorn in Captivity," where an unrecognizable tree bears ripened pomegranates. In the third panel of the tapestries, a pomegranate tree is depicted in a more botanically-correct fashion. The difference in the representation of this fruit and its tree suggests that the two millefleurs panels were designed and possibly woven by a different artist or artists than the remaining panels or that the two botanically-rich panels were constructed later than the others (Williamson 6).
While it is fairly obvious that The Unicorn Tapestries served a religious function, it is undeniable that there are secular undertones related to marriage. This classification depends mostly on the designated recipient of these tapestries. A number of possible owners have been suggested, but no reliable answer to the question of their origins has been found. One possible owner of The Unicorn Tapestries is Anne of Brittany. The initials "AE" match the first and last letter of her name, and the tapestries could have been commissioned to commemorate her marriage to Louis XII. The "FR" initials, which were added at a later date, could refer to the La Rochefoucauld family and their possible ownership of the tapestries. This collection of works would have been created to mark the marriage of Francios La Rochefoucauld and his second wife, Barbe du Bois. At this point it is impossible to reach a definitive answer to this question of ownership (Freeman 155-74). These unanswered quandaries leave the original question of whether the tapestries are religious or not still unanswerable. Many of the symbols, like the pomegranate, can be interpreted as both spiritual and secular. Much of the love and passion associated with the life of Christ parallels the love and devotion involved in courtly love. Is the secular world of today misinterpreting the religious implications of The Unicorn Tapestries or are the religious leaders and art historians misreading the symbols of love and devotion? Sadly the state of the tapestries denies scholars complete answers to these questions.
Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. NY: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1976.
Williamson, John. The Oak Kin, the Holly King, and the Unicorn: Myths and Symbolism of the Unicorn Tapestries. NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1986.