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Is there a Sixth Sense in the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries?
By Anne Davenport
The New Arcadia Review, Volume 4 (2011)
Introduction: What did our medieval forebears (those strangers for whom we feel a mixture of hostility and regret) have to say about hosting the stranger? In medieval tapestries, the most visible stranger, often a mythical animal, may serve as a playful lure designed to initiate the viewer into the far greater strangeness of his own soul. Unicorn-like, human freedom cannot be circumscribed. It comes from a mythical elsewhere and behaves mythically, as a causa sui. It inhabits time without belonging to it. It dwells wherever a stranger is hosted, but suffers no gravitational pull, forever replenished. Mythical to itself, strange, incomprehensible, the human soul must, above all, renounce its own founding myths in order to welcome itself as what is impossible to itself. Is this the task of a sixth sense?
To welcome history is to expose ourselves to selves that are stranger than fiction. Woven of silk and wool, combining warmth and luster, the six Unicorn tapestries that were transferred to the Paris Cluny Museum from the moldy château de Boussac in the late XIXth century fascinate us by their beauty but also their mystery. Who designed them? Where were they executed? For what purpose? With what intention? We sense that they communicate an urgent but lost meaning, perhaps even a paradox related to desire. Why, for example, if the tapestries depict the five senses, does the protagonist in the tapestry depicting Taste taste nothing?
Scholars believe that the tapestries were commissioned in the late XVth century by a member of the Le Viste family, most likely by the successful magistrate Jean IV Le Viste, perhaps to mark his advent as head of the family in 1484 or perhaps to celebrate his appointment as President of the Court of Aids in 14892. With regard to their content, a variety of hypotheses has been put forth. The standard view is that the tapestries depict the five senses, to which is added a sixth sense, possibly moral judgment, liberum arbitrium. Elaborating on this interpretation, Michel Serres has argued that the sixth sense is the “internal sense” that marks the beginning of personal identity and language. Anna Nilsén, in turn, has argued that the theme of the five senses is combined with “the eternal human struggle between moral ideals (the unicorn) and bodily inclinations (the lion).” Nilsén thus denies that any sixth sense is depicted, interpreting the panel with the inscribed pavillion to introduce the theme of moral combat, not to close the cycle. The far-fetched interpretation that the tapestries depict the Virgin Mary likewise does away with the idea of a sixth sense, as does Kristina Gourlay’s interpretation that the tapestries depict a courtly romance and were commissioned as a wedding present. The most severe blow against the idea of a sixth sense, however, came with Marie-Elizabeth Bruel’s compelling evidence that the tapestries represent, not the five senses plus a sixth sense, but six courtly virtues drawn from the XIIIth century allegorical poem on the Art of Love, the Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris. Is the hypothesis of a sixth sense thus finally put to rest?