Here, in the curious vault-like setting of a circular room with dimmed lighting, you can gaze upon the six magnificent tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn.
Now one comes upon them by chance, among chance corners, and is almost frightened to be here uninvited. But there are others passing by, though they are never many. The young people scarcely even halt before them, unless somehow their studies oblige them to have seen these things once, because of some particular characteristic they possess. Young girls one does occasionally find before them. For in the museums there are many young girls who have left the houses that can no longer keep anything. They find themselves before these tapestries and forget themselves a little.
— Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke
The tapestries were commissioned by a wealthy judge in Lyon named Jean Le Viste, and woven in Flanders towards the end of the 15th century. These masterpieces are extraordinarily beautiful. They exploit a narrow palette of colors—mainly reddish orange, greenish blue and pale gold—but the hues are blended exquisitely to produce enchanting visual poetry. The themes are strangely sensual, although we cannot readily decipher the coded language of the scenes. One wonders, obviously, why the fair lady is accompanied constantly by that exotic white beast with a huge horn jutting out from its forehead.
The most mysterious of the six tapestries is the one shown above, in which the elegantly-attired lady stands in the opening of a luxurious tent labeled with an enigmatic inscription: A mon seul désir (To my desire only). She has removed her necklace, and is placing it in a jewel box held by her maid. Is she simply starting to undress, or does this ritual removal of the necklace have a deeper signification?
Not surprisingly, the beauty and the mysterious nature of these amazing medieval creations gave rise to legends about their origins. I'm particularly fond of the most ancient and tenacious legend, because it places the origin of the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn in the immediate vicinity of my home alongside Pont-en-Royans. Funnily enough, although the story I'm about to relate culminates in a fictitious explanation concerning the reason why the tapestries were created, almost everything else in the tale is perfectly authentic. Like all good stories, this one will take a little time to be told... particularly when it's me, the story-teller.
One of my earliest blog articles, appearing on 23 December 2006, was entitled When is a castle not a castle? [display]. I pointed out that there's an ancient watchtower on the slopes of a nearby mountain, just above Pont-en-Royans, at a place designated as Three Castles. It has that name because, once upon a time, from that observation point, you could in fact see three great castles down in the valley, in the territory known as the Royans. In my article of 20 June 2008 entitled Old times, forgotten places [display], I evoked the greatest of these three castles, called La Bâtie, which was the home of the Sassenage lords. Today, it has totally disappeared. But the ruins of one of the three ancient castles still stand, at Rochechinard, seen here:
In the 15th century, this fairy-tale castle received an unexpected and exotic guest, and modern authors are still writing books about him. Everybody has heard that the great Byzantine city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, whereupon its name was changed to Istanbul. In fact, many scholars consider this event and this date as marking the end of the Middle Ages. The conqueror of Constantinople was named Mehmed II. He had made it clear that he wished to be succeeded by his second son, Djem Sultan, also known affectionately as Zizim. Understandably, the elder son, Bajazet, didn't like this idea one little bit. So, after Mehmed's death, Bajazet chased his brother away. Zizim sought refuge in Rhodes with the knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem.
The grand master of that order was Pierre d'Aubusson, from the Château de Monteil (known today as Le Monteil-au-Vicomte, to the south of Guéret, and to the west of the great tapestry town of Aubusson). Acting no doubt with the approval of the pope, Pierre d'Aubusson actually kidnapped Zizim, in the vague hope of using him as a hostage capable of playing a role in the recovery of Constantinople. So, poor Zizim, who had dreamed of becoming the prince of Istanbul, found himself transported to France.
A senior member of the knights of the Order of Saint John was a certain Charles Alleman, whose family owned the castle at Rochechinard, not far from Saint-Nazaire-en-Royans, at the delightful spot where the Bourne runs into the Isère. One thing led to another, and our Zizim soon ended up as a permanent castle guest at Rochechinard.
At this point in my story, the plot thickens through the inclusion of a delicate dose of sexy spices, or spicy sex (depending on your tastes, if I may be excused for using that soupy metaphor)... To appreciate this new dimension of the tale, you need to know that, just down the road from my place, at the time of Zizim's extended holiday in our charming countryside alongside the Bourne and the Isère, the village of Pont-en-Royans happened to be the home of one of the most beautiful noble females who had ever appeared on the surface of the planet Earth. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of the lady in question, but I can tell you that her name was Philippine de Sassenage, and that she was the fourth child and second daughter of Jacques de Sassenage, the lord of the Royans. She was such a stunning female that people had given her the Grecian nickname Helen, evoking Helen of Troy. But I hasten to add that her three sisters—named Françoise, Huguette and Isabeau—were said to be equally attractive. Here's a contemporary description of Philippine:
"Her face was oval. Her mouth was small. Her eyes were profound, black and full of spirit. Her physionomy was happy, and her character was surprising. She was only sixteen years old when she emerged from the convent at Saint-Just where she had been educated. Upon her return to the family castle of La Bâtie in the Royans, she was pursued by a crowd of admirers, including Saint-Quentin, Baron de Bressieu, Philibert de Clermont, the young man of Hostun, the lord of Claveyson, the lord of Murinais, and several others." We are told that Prince Zizim "soon joined in, increasing the number [of admirers] by placing his Ottoman pride at the feet of lovely Philippine".
Now, we've almost got back to the tapestries. There are just a few final phases in our complicated story. At about the time that Zizim started to fall madly in love with Philippine, his crusader keepers decided that he should be moved to another region: the Creuse department in the center of France. [I drive through there, with immense pleasure, every time I visit Christine in Brittany.]
The crusader folk arranged for the construction of a tower to house Zizim in the village of Bourganeuf, not far from the family castle of the individual who had betrayed Zizim in Rhodes: the knight Pierre d'Aubusson. Zizim remained imprisoned in his tower at Bourganeuf for about four years, giving him ample time to forget about Philippine before being bundled off to Rome, where he was imprisoned and finally poisoned.
I return, at last, to the tapestries, which became the focal point of a lovely legend. Maybe this legend was fueled by the fact that the patronymic of Pierre d'Aubusson evokes a great tapestry town in the Creuse. Maybe the legend reached a climax when the famous tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn, inherited by descendants of the judge Jean Le Viste, were hung for a century or so (before being purchased in 1882 by the museum in Paris) in the Château de Boussac, not far from Aubusson, Bourganeuf and the region associated with Zizim.
According to this legend, the tapestries are so splendid, so ethereal and so mysterious, that they were surely a gift that the Turkish hostage Zizim had commissioned for the most beautiful creature on Earth: his future bride Philippine de Sassenage.
One final word. It is said that, if he had been liberated and given the opportunity of marrying Philippine, Zizim would have gladly abandoned his Islamic faith to become, like his wife, a Christian. In such circumstances, the crusader armies would have surely helped him defeat his evil brother Bajazet and obtain the throne that his father Mehmed had bequeathed to Zizim at Constantinople. Lady Philippine and her exotic Turkish unicorn Zizim would have surely changed the entire future course of world history. And today, we would have hordes of tourists from the Bosphorus and the eastern Mediterranean flocking to Rochechinard to take photos of the place where it all began...