Tracy Chevalier chases the unicorn

December 21, 2003|By Lisa Simeone | Lisa Simeone,Special to the Sun

The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier. Dutton. 248 pages. $23.95

In the National Museum of the Middle Ages, better known as the Cluny Museum, in Paris, one room is devoted to six enormous tapestries. Each depicts a richly robed noblewoman and a white unicorn, on a colorful background of animals, trees and flowers -- a millefleurs background, literally, "a thousand flowers."

The tapestries are so beautiful, and so strangely mesmerizing, they inspire a kind of awe: How could human hands have done this? How long did it take? How many people worked on them? Why were they made? What do they mean? In her latest historical novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, Tracy Chevalier attempts to answer those questions.

The verifiable facts about the tapestries are few. They bear the coat of arms of a man named Jean Le Viste. The weaving techniques point to the late 15th century, and to northern Europe, probably Brussels, a celebrated center for millefleurs at the time. Just as she did with Vermeer paintings in her bestseller Girl With a Pearl Earring, Chevalier takes a little information about some objects and fabricates a story behind their design and execution.

Nicolas des Innocents, the cheeky, entrepreneurial painter who is hired to create the images on which the tapestries will be based, is thrilled when he is summoned to the home of Jean Le Viste. But he quickly finds himself in an impossible position: Le Viste wants battle scenes; his wife, Genevieve, will not put up with images of gore and mayhem. If Nicolas pleases Mr. at the expense of Mrs., he probably won't get any more commissions for the pretty miniatures of noblewomen that are his claim to fame.

The solution comes in a roundabout way, one that gives credit to the women of the household while flattering Jean's vanity. Every scene will be brimming with the Le Viste coat of arms. But instead of battle, the tapestries will depict the seduction of a unicorn.

The unicorn was a popular symbol in the Middle Ages, both sacred and sexual.

According to legend, the unicorn's horn possessed magical powers; it could, for instance, purify the water of a poisoned well. While fierce to all other creatures, the unicorn would approach a virgin in a forest and lay its head in her lap. Christians believed the animal was a symbol of Christ, and its horn Christ's cross. The more secularly inclined did not need Freud to tell them that the horn signified something else entirely.

Along the way, almost everyone in the book contributes, physically or figuratively, to the tapestries' design. A servant girl suggests a pun on the name Le Viste, which means "fast" in French. The weaver's daughter Alienor tends a magnificent garden, which provides the inspiration for the millefleurs. Nicolas copies the faces of the women he admires for the depiction of the lady and her maidservants. Le Viste's broker suggests each panel depict one of the five senses, culminating in an allegory of desire.

Thus, in Chevalier's imagination, the design of the tapestries is as much a collective effort as is the physical weaving of them.

If this book lacks the quiet intensity, the current of concealed passion of Girl With a Pearl Earring, perhaps that's to be expected. A painter is solitary, as is his canvas. A tapestry is the work of many hands, and the passion in this book diffused among many narrators, adding up to a whole that is not quite greater than the sum of its parts.

Lisa Simeone is the host of National Public Radio's World of Opera and the weekly TV show on foreign affairs, Superpower. Her 20-year career in radio and TV includes reporting for cultural, news, and public affairs programs, and acting as host for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. She lives in Baltimore.

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