The Promise of the Unicorn

I love specialists who make the effort to tell a good story, to translate their specialist knowledge into something which can move us all. Michel Pastoureau is such a person.

Pastoureau started as a medieval historian of heraldry: he studied coats of arms and their iconography, in particular the symbolic meaning of their featured animals, symbols and colours. Having written a great many specialist books, he moved on to delightfully insightful ànd greatly legible books on the colours blue, green and black. 

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My very personal version of worrisome Northern blue 😉

To give just one example: did you know that the classic Greeks and Romans disliked blue? They associated it with the eye colour of the worrisome barbarians from the North – which made it totally obnoxious. Much has changed since: it’s very likely that blue is your favourite colour, as it is for over half of the Western population!

Pastoureau’s explanation is that blue has become symbolically less ‘marked’ than other colours. Because of the association with security, calm and peace, the symbolism is almost neutral – which also explains why large international organizations such as UNESCO or the European Union choose the colour for their flags.

The author remains of course a specialist: almost imperceptibly he smuggles in an amazing amount of history which serves to demonstrate the social practices of the colour at hand: daily life, art, sartorial codes and, of course, the crafts involved to dye fabrics 😉 

And Pastoureau regularly returns with great panache to his old love of animals, as in the book in which he applies himself to uncover The Secrets of the Unicorn. LicorneIt was the Greek medic Ctesias who first described this intriguing creature at the end of the 5th century BC. This, incidentally, is an illustration of the cross-fertilization of the Silk Roads as the medic situates the unicorn in the East – which he never visited. And although “very few had the privilege of perceiving it”, it was only during the Enlightenment that it was decided the animal really didn’t exist. Amazingly Ctesias’ description survived all that time – and continued beyond, into romanticism, symbolism and further.

The unicorn is ‘known’ to be fast, therefore hard to catch. But because it is itself immaculate, it’s attracted by purity: a unicorn will lay its horn into a virgin’s lap – and thus risk death at the hands of hitherto hidden hunters, who are interested in the healing qualities of the horn. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was a considerable commerce in all products unicorn: powders, ointments, purgative waters, etc. And every important family, abbey and monastery had its own unicorn relic. 

What did change over time, was the gender of the unicorn. In Latin and the earliest vernacular languages the term was masculine, the later French word ‘licorne’ is female. The gender shift illustrates the feminization of the whole concept. As the unicorn was mentioned in the Bible, there was little reason to doubt its existence. Its purity and healing qualities were furthermore understood to symbolize the Christ, with the horn seen as a spiritual arrow or referring to the cross. At the end of the Middle Ages, the time of courtoisie, the unicorn came to be associated with profane love and the amourous chase; yet the feminization also allowed for an interpretation that celebrated the purity and spirituality of the Virgin Mary. Quite a layer of symbolic meanings!

In an extensive interview Pastoureau emphasizes how the imaginary is very much part of reality and that the unicorn is bien vivante today: from the moment the creature is definitively declared non-existant by science, it’s enthusiastically adopted by the arts, especially by the symbolist movement at the end of the 19th century. Even now the unicorn is “la vedette du bestiaire fantastique”. Think little girls’ toys, T-shirts and shoes, comic books, Harry Potter …, the list is endless.

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How exciting can shoes get?

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And Hergé’s Tintin album Le secret de la licorne is the explicit reason for the title of Pastoureau’s book – plural, because there are so many secrets. 

 

The most celebrated unicorn in Western art features in a series of late 15th-century Flemish tapestries called La Dame à la licorne. It is the director of the Cluny Museum in Paris which now houses them, who in Pastoureau’s book summarises the situation of the research. Yet despite her own very specialist expertise Elisabeth Delahaye stresses what is perhaps the most often mentioned characteristic of the unicorn tapestries: very little is known of their origin. 

And it’s precisely the mystery surrounding the tapestries that opens creative perspectives – to which call the American-British author Tracy Chevalier has answered with the delightful novel The Lady and the UnicornChevalier3Chevalier  is clearly a lover of fabrics: in another book, The Last Runaway, it’s quilting that takes centre stage. Here she operates within Pastoureau’s universe: she declares herself very much intrigued by the several layers of symbolic meaning in the tapestries. All its ingredients are present: the lady’s seduction of the unicorn, spiritual and corporal desires, the latter represented in the visual rendering of the five senses. And the question of how the people designing and making the tapestries wove together such different interpretations is very much at the heart of the author’s endeavour. 

Chevalier does a great job. I have to admit that the first time I read the book, I was so keen to know what would happen to the main characters that I almost missed the textile focus. I reread the novel this Summer and was delighted – again.

The story starts in Paris, 1490. An ambitious French nobleman commissions six luxurious tapestries to flaunt his rising status at Court and hires the arrogant but superbly talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. The lady and the unicorn dominate the iconography, the explicit reference is that of the senses. Nicolas is, however, not as innocent as his name suggests: he creates havoc among the women in the house – mother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting – before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven. There, master weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has to finish the commission – his finest, most intricate work. The tapestries change the lives of all that are involved. And the result is simply magnificent.

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Touch,
sound
Sound,
smell
Smell,
sight
Sight,
taste
Taste, and:
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‘Mon seul désir’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chevalier’s story concentrates on the inner life: what is the désir of the different personages? But the craft of tapestry making itself features largely and adds to the novel’s riches. The reader learns about the particular challenge of weaving back to front, hence the need for ‘cartoons’ that are the mirror images of the original designs as well as of the final tapestries. Also, the weavers cannot see their work as each finished strip gets wound onto the loom – until the ‘cutting-off’ reveals whether the design has accurately been translated into wool. Throughout the story telling details sketch the times, such as the mentioning of little work in Winter as the roads are far too hazardous for commissioners to travel from Paris and elsewhere, or that the Guild would punish with closure any workshop that allowed women to weave. And as Chevalier realises very well, most readers are not familiar with the technical vocabulary of tapestry making (such as a heddle or a warp). So she lets the members of the workshop explain the terms to the Paris painter, who gradually becomes impressed with the quality of the Brussels craftsmanship.

I was very much charmed by the eminent role for the master weaver’s blind daughter. Aliénor maintains an exquisite garden which serves to provide the cartoonists and weavers with real examples of the flora that enlivens the so-called millefleurs background of the tapestries. The young woman knows the symbolic meaning of all those flowers, fruits and plants and it’s her expertise that allows the workshop to build its outstanding reputation on the realistic rendering of the millefleurs 

Realistic flora was indeed a crucial component of Flemish art at the time. Recent research has demonstrated that at least 423 different types of flowers and plants feature in thé masterpiece of the Flemish Primitives, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432). The project Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece allows you to zoom into any part of the triptych of Jan and Hubert Van Eyck and discover for yourself the elaborate details of flora ànd textile. 

Lam GodsIn addition the Provincial Cultural Centre Caermersklooster in Ghent (which incidentally is just around the corner from where I live!), holds until September a small but illuminating exhibition on the multitudinous flowers in the triptych and their symbolism. 

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Details of a Madonna lily,
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a pilgrim’s
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cloak,
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and male peonies.

 

 

 

 

 

The conclusion then is that medieval craftspeople – of both sexes! – owned a knowledge that is completely lost to us. This, according to Chevalier’s story, also goes for the symbolism of the unicorn: all the personages know the Biblical references to purity and healing, whereas it’s the Paris painter Nicolas who explains to any woman who happens to to come near him, the later interpretation of profane seduction. But he also saves Aliénor – I can’t elaborate without spoiling the plot, let it suffice to say that even he succumbs to the ‘charms’ of the unicorn. 

In short, the unicorn is rich in meaning. And its mysteries are full of promise. Perhaps that’s why little girls like them so much – and I propose that all non-little-girls equally be encouraged to be inspired by the wondrous creature.

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In its felted form it’s seductively soft. And great Christmas decoration 😉
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A while back I decided I wanted my own unicorn.

Purity may sound like a quality that doesn’t correspond well with our times. But do we really want to maintain that there is no past knowledge that might come in useful? In addition, would it be no improvement if we found a good way to allow different inter-pretations to co-exist without conflict? And perhaps most importantly, are many people not longingly in search of ‘healing’? Is the current interest in mindfulness not an indication that we want to be more aware, more connected with our senses – both corporal and spiritual? And do we not also hope for more appreciation for our inner life and its quality? 

Understand the unicorn to stand for authenticity, for a strong désir to reconnect with our own true selves and grow as a result of it, and it becomes very contemporary indeed.

Crafty Globalization

I must start this post with an admission: I got the timing of my vacation in Pafos, Cyprus, seriously wrong.  

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The rock-hewn necropolis known as the Tombs of the Kings.

 

Let there be no mistake: the area around Pafos is absolutely lovely, of course there is the glorious combination of sea and sun ànd the historian in me was delighted with a terrain of almost 300 ha that is Unesco World Heritage.IMG_1497

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Although very worn, the mosaics are abundant and absolutely beautiful.

 

There was of course a lot of ‘rubble’ too – and this time not only on the ancient sites.IMG_0796 For there is virtually no street in the old town of Pafos that is not broken up in a massive project of public construction works – hence the mistake of my timing: Pafos will be the European Capital of Culture in 2017. 

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Next year one can thus expect an endless lineup of interesting exhibitions, events, all sorts of exciting activities which, with different timing, would have me exposed to serious choice stress. Then but also now the focus of a fabrics blog comes in handy 😉 

Trying to find the bus stops in broken up Pafos I entered a small office, where there was no information whatsoever to be obtained (this resembles the public transport service in Flanders ;-( But my eye spotted a promising leaflet – which set me off ‘climbing’ the streets of the city. 

The Place is an interesting new initiative set to sustain and promote traditional crafts and allow them to survive, including innovative ways to further develop them. Imagine my joy when I discovered these colourful silk cocoons and their application to modern jewelry!

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I was even more lucky: the artist, Angelika Stratinaki was present and explained how she also employed them to continue the old craft of silk embroidery.

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I’ve never seen anything like it. Silk cocoons are cut up in a wide variety of forms and then, carefully because of the fragility of the material, sewn into beautiful designs. I was very happy to buy the bird decoration on the right, a true gem as textile souvenirs go! Alas I don’t seem to be able to find any information on this so-called traditional craft. I have no idea when it started, how broadly it was developed, how many people were and are involved.

What I did find, was a brochure on Pafos 2017. Its motto is “to link continents – to bridge cultures”: the city aspires to be the first European Capital of Culture which will link East and West. The motto also highlights the self-declared need for bridging the differences between the Greek and the Turkish Cypriot communities.

Perhaps there will be an exhibition on the position of Cyprus on the Silk Roads. But what struck me in my textile focus first, is the obvious impact the separation of the island by the Turkish invasion of 1974 is still having. The Cyprus Handicraft Service was set up shortly afterwards in order to provide employment for refugees from the occupied areas who had much experience in the various branches of Cypriot handicrafts. The aim of the Service is “the systematic revival of traditional folk art”. 

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The Limassol centre of the Cyprus Handicraft Service

With shops in all the towns of “the free areas of Cyprus”, the Service further hopes “to promote the revival of our traditional culture”. It is unclear to which extent this includes innovation. Also surprising is that the Service does not actively search for craftspeople. In the shop in Limassol they knew of only one old woman continuing to practice the craft of silk cocoon embroidery- and that can’t have been Angelika ;-).

Cultural antropologist Eleni Papademetriou has done substantial research on the Cypriotic crafts. In Textiles from Cyprus she mentions the omnipresence of silk on the island to the extent that “every family reared silkworms and there was such a supply of silk that in Cyprus rich and poor alike were dressed in silk.” Surely this is an amazing statement! Alas, there is no elaboration on when this happy time has been nor any reference to silk embroidery. 

A documentary to which Papademetriou contributed, does contain some historical periodization: silk appeared on the island in Byzantine times and grew into a substantial economic sector during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Firmly positioned on the Silk Road, Cyprus was the silk manufacturing and trade centre of the Mediterranean and supplied, for instance, the Western Church. I would have loved more historical detail but the documentary mainly shows traditional methods and interviews the last generation of silk producers, a couple of refugees from the North being the predominant characters throughout the film. Documenting the silk crafts in difficulty aims in short to secure their continuity.

This then seems to be the ‘official’ line: the occupation of the North predominates the interpretation of the craft heritage to the extent that survival takes center stage – and leaves very little space for projects of renewal and innovation. The pessimistic tone may in fact discourage a contemporary appropriation of the heritage.

In the epilogue of her book on Cypriotic textiles Papademetriou is equally despondent. She lays stress on the fact that skill used to be interwoven with daily life. “With the leveling of the economy and globalization, this inspired tradition is under threat today more than at any other time. It can, though, be its own unique pebble in the mosaic of not only European but also world art, if we manage to preserve it and to promote it as it truly deserves. We have very little time.” (my italics)

I don’t know whether Papademetriou is involved in the organization of Pafos Cultural Capital. To me it would be obvious that crafts receive ample attention, ideally as part of a larger discussion on what the good life may be and how that may not only require preservation but also adaptiveness, flexibility and an open attitude to the world. The antropologist refers indeed to globalization, but in the gloomy and increasingly prevailing sense that it constitutes an almost insurmountable threat to virtually all our traditions and values. 

Fortunately, there was the Summer reading which I announced in an earlier post: Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads. A new history of the world. As the subtitle indicates, this is an ambitious book which sets out to demonstrate how our standard view of Europe as the centre of the worldSilk Roads is ‘only’ a few centuries old. In fact, Frankopan argues, the navel of the world lies between the Black Sea and the Himalayas, in the other words in central Asia. The reason why the author concentrates on the importance of non-European regions is, of course, historical revisionism but perhaps more important for the wide audience Frankopan hopes to reach: a broader viewpoint on globalization – which currently scares us so.  

The Silk Roads (it was the late 19th-century geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen who coined the term Seidenstraßen) present an alternative frame of reference: it is a history of networks, first of all economic but very much religious, intellectual and cultural too. The Mediterranean – with Cyprus at its very east -, is thus the terminus of the Silk Roads that stretched all the way from China across Central Asia. With legion references to neglected rulers, peoples, cities and empires, Frankopan stresses time and again how the world has always been connected, far wider than traditional historiography has led us to believe. Whether exploring the Roads of (among others) silk, religion, fur, slave trade, gold, wheat or oil, the emphasis is on the century-old global exchange of goods, ideas, arts and crafts.  

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The fabrics of the Silk Roads were highly desired all over the then known world. They were sometimes even used as currency!  Here the famous horses of central Asia (8th or 9th century AD).

Three examples of how cross-fertilization influenced what standard historiography recognises as Western historic highlights. 

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Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna by the Fontain (1439). Also note the amazing rendering of the fabrics!

(1) The commercial success of the Italian city states in the ages of the Crusades was largely due to the stability and good relations between the Muslim and the Christian world. (2) The delightful paintings of the so-called Flemish Primitives would look very different indeed without the deep blue, pigment made of lapus lazili, original to Afghanistan and traded over hundreds of miles. (3) The Renaissance had not been possible without the Arabic translations of the classic Greek texts, made available again to European scholars through the intensification of commercial and cultural contacts between East and West. 

In short, the velocity of communication (to which the Frankopan pays surprisingly little attention) may have increased but the ground motive is always the same: the world is so fundamentally interconnected that to reject globalization is to deny the light of the sun. Our traditions and values have always been influenced by developments along or at the other side of the Silk Roads. And to establish how significant those cross-fertilizations were in the past is helpful to imagine and shape the future.

Obviously this doesn’t mean globalization does not inspire feelings of insecurity and fear. But it’s not new, it’s a fact of history – and it’s unlikely that such an ingrained pattern will change in our lifetimes. Wouldn’t it be better then to concentrate our energy on a better understanding of the actuality? On establishing what is possible within the long-standing frame? On imagining flexibility and innovation rather than conservation of what is in flux anyway? I would hope we all can adopt (more) constructive attitudes – which may set us on the path of renewal in many different areas. In Pafos 2017 a contemporary appropriation of Cyprus’ rich craft heritage – and all that it can contain, would be a crafty contribution indeed.

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An attractive update of Cypriot heritage at the airport of Pafos.

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