In the Temple of the Unicorn

By Vita Forest

On Saturday, after Ghost netting at The Australian Museum, I took my last visit using my unlimited season ticket to The Lady and the Unicorn exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  Sunday being the last day before those great tapestries were rolled up again and sent back again across the seas to their home in France.

You pass under red banners decked in garlands and into a darkened chamber with spot-lit quotes by Rilke in framed gothic window silhouettes on the wall.  You walk into the dimly-lit inner hexagonal room and are immersed in the mysterious, peaceful world within it.  Each wall bearing a different tapestry.  The tapestries hang side by side, across from each other, conversing among themselves, reflecting details and differences, harmonious even as the components alter as you look harder and closer.  Visitors’ heads swivel and get lost in the world of animals  and plants and women floating on their blue islands on fields of red.

In the centre of the room is a split hexagonal bench, each side facing a different tapestry.  You can sit on both inside and outside the hexagon and look forward and also back across to the tapestries behind.

It is unknown what the real purpose of these medieval images are, allegories to the senses seems most likely, as in each tapestry you can note the Lady showing the unicorn his reflection (sight), or playing music (hearing), or feeding a bird (taste), or holding the horn of a unicorn (touch) or inhaling the scent of a flower (smell).

I sit on the bench looking inwards and across.  From here I can see three tapestries easily.  Can search the upper reaches of each one for the heron and the eagle.  I overhear a lady wearing a unicorn brooch tell her friend that she has an eagle in her life too.  An eagle she has watched plummet and dive to catch and kill another more fragile bird.  She talks about the satisfaction of finally getting here, to this room, to this place, after all this time, on the day before the exhibition closes.  She talks about ordering the catalogue weeks ago, how it arrived in the mail, how she will go home and read it through and through.

And I remember Fleur who made a special pilgrimage to this gallery to the see this exhibition as a way of celebrating her birthday.  How lovely to sit there amongst the blossoms and the frolicking animals and breathe in the peace on her special day.

I look up at the rabbits, at the foxes, at the dogs, at the goats, at the monkeys that remind me of Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials (even though they are not yellow).  I wonder if the unicorn is the Lady’s daemon?  If he has to stay near her, attached by an invisible pull so strong that to break it would make them both ill.  (As I sit and write this,  I have my own little white daemon cat sitting beside me lounging against my thigh and nuzzling my hand).

I listen to a very interesting conversation behind me between an elderly couple and a not so elderly woman.  The oldest woman remarks that the unicorn has cloven hoofs like a goat, and a beard like that animal too, is it closer to a goat than the horse it is often compared to?  She tells the story of how her horse once broke a mirror when it saw its reflection for the first time.  It saw her with another horse and wasn’t happy about it.  She points out that the unicorn seems to know it is looking at itself in the mirror.  Seems to know what it sees.  I think that mirror is safe from hoofs, cloven or otherwise.

I watch two children with their pencils and worksheets squatting down in front of a tapestry, pointing up at the weaving and tallying up the numbers of different animals they see, recording their results in neat handwriting on the page.  I watch families stand in front of their favourite image and turn away from it to grin into the lens of a camera, their bodies enveloped in the soft red landscape behind them.

I think that these scenes somehow remind me of Totoro, that neighbour of Satsuki and Mei from that movie, the scenes of forest spirits and children, perfectly comfortable in each other’s presence, Mei falling asleep lying on the belly of the biggest Totoro as butterflies dance and plants sway in the shaded hollow under the tree where they rest.  Perhaps it is the peace, perhaps it is the magic, perhaps it is the sense of everything being just how it should be.

And I wonder if the Pre-Raphaelites saw these same tapestries, and remember that room in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where I used to sit, all those years ago, that quiet hushed room with the similar dim light and peaceful atmosphere, where full-lipped maidens walked barefoot among equally detailed, recognisable trees, under trellises of roses, pomegranates and oranges.

And I think about the biggest tapestry – To My One Desire, and wonder what that was?  To simply be, in this place, with these animals and plants and women, where everything is safe and calm and timeless and as it should be.