Early Modern Times – lady & unicorn

Early Modern Times - lady & unicorn

Dear readers,

If you happen to find yourself in Sydney, Australia (e.g., if you plan a beach vacation in Sydney, NS and get on the wrong flight) before June 24, do check out the exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales of the enigmatic Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Each of the six tapestries is wall-length and depicts a garden scene with a lady, unicorn, and assorted animals (see above). Brigid Delaney’s recent article on the exhibition in the Guardian is headlined ‘Mona Lisa of the Middle Ages’–an odd description, given that the tapestries date from about 1500, and Leonardo’s most famous portrait was created c. 1503. Did the Middle Ages turn into the Renaissance in the span of those three years?–if so, I eagerly anticipate my middle age soon turning into a rebirth, but I’m not holding my breath. Or were the unknown creators like Baldrick, to whom the Elizabethan courtier Lord Blackadder remarks in this video clip that the Renaissance was something that happened to other people?

In any case, Delaney describes the colourful and ‘ragged’ history of the French tapestries, which had been kept in the Château de Boussac for hundreds of years where ‘they were exposed to damp and to rats, and rumours abound that the owners had cut them up for horse cart coverings and a foot rug’ (presumably to ease the owners’ uni-corns on their feet). Eventually, they were restored and ended up in the Musée de Cluny (not to be confused with Amal & George, the other Lady & Unicorn Clooneys), Paris; though ‘[d]uring the second world war, the tapestries were removed from Paris, in case they were looted or destroyed by the Nazis. They were holed up in another chateau in the middle of a forest until after the war’ (a plot-line that could form the basis of a screenplay for a sequel to the mediocre film Monuments Men, again starring George Clooney with unicorn-y jokes). Each tapestry has had its own plane (in case of a crash) for the move to Australia, and they have been carefully supervised and cleaned to prevent damage.

Delaney notes the mysteries surrounding how to interpret the scenes depicted on the tapestries. Does the unicorn symbolise courtly love, or perhaps Christ (as in other medieval artworks)? Are they meant to remind the viewer of the prelapsarian paradise of Adam and Eve? Early Modern Times has consulted its team of art-cryptographers and we are proud to reveal the truth of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries: they are, in fact, advertisements for an ice-cream parlour. The evidence is myriad and irrefutable. In the tapestry shown above, the sixth of the series, the banner reads, ‘À mon seul désir’: an anagram of ‘Ise! Man droeuls’, which in the obscure Cochon dialect of medieval French means, ‘Ice cream [for sale]! [Any] man [would] drool [over this].’ Note that the word ‘seul’ is directly above the Lady (obviously the proprietor of this establishment); the letters ‘s’ and ‘l’ refer to the various sizes of ice cream available (‘small’, ‘large’), while the initials ‘sl’, when reversed, are those of ‘Laura Secord’, the legendary heroine of the medieval War of 1218 (commonly misprinted as 1812) whose name is immortalised in a company selling none other than chocolates and ice cream.

What of the symbols and figures surrounding the Lady in this Garden of Eatin’? The crescent figures on the tent-poles and banner may represent ‘moon mist’ flavour. At her foot sits a small monkey, who is definitely not plump, indicating the shortage of ‘chunky monkey’ ice cream that day. To her right sit hounds and a lion on its hind-legs with a lengthy tail: an allegory of the popularity of her ‘dog-gone’ good ice cream and thus long ‘lion’-ups with an extended ‘queue’. To her left there is the mythical eponymous horse creature, a symbol of her wares–namely, uni-cornets de glace, ‘single ice cream cones’ in French. And what of the young woman between the Lady and the Unicorn? She is both her indispensable assistant and an allegorical representation of the special product on sale: ‘handmaid’ ice cream.

In our classes this coming week: In EMSP 2000, Laura Penny ponders Novalis’s famous praises of a 1980s TV show starring David Hasselhoff as the driver of a super-intelligent Trans-Am car, Hymns to the Knight Rider. Kathryn Morris‘s students in EMSP 3000 consider the work of Caroline Lucretia Herschel, an eighteenth-century German astronomer also known for her free-loving, bank-robbing ways which landed her in jail: hence ‘Herschel’s kisses’ and ‘Herschel’s bars’. Her class on Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe continues its examination of witchcraft and gender, including the accusation that witches not only killed their fathers and married their mothers, but were given to the consumption of cats, referred to in Freudian terms as the ‘eat-a-puss’ complex. Her ‘Body in Early Modern Europe’ students turn to the scientific classification of running competitions based on skin complexion, the invention of race and race-theory.

In her course on the ‘Renaissance Print and Cross-Cultural Exchange’, Jannette Vusich discusses ethnographic prints and the horrid practice of inserting snake-like fish into the large intestines of conquered and subjugated peoples, known as ‘colon-eel-ism’. Her class on Leonardo Da Vinci will debate his investigation into the disappearance of his designs for free-flying glider aircraft, The Paragone. My EMSP 4000 students will examine Immanuel Kant’s essay containing international recipes for preserving the lifespan of seed-pods indefinitely, ‘Towards Perpetual Peas’, while my course on The Pirate & Piracy will examine Asian piracy, including ‘crazy’ Japanese pirates known as ‘wako’.

This week also features an exciting Monday lecture and Tuesday discussion on ‘Universality, Cultural Difference, and the Construction of Philosophy as “Western”‘ by Dr. Franklin Perkins, University of Hawaii (see link for details). Dr. Perkins will no doubt disclose why philosophers should wear sleeveless undergarments when leavening bread, thus bringing together ‘vest’ and ‘yeast’.

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Studies Program

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