Making sense of medieval avatars

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The Western model of sexual equality — one that drives women to focus on careers but also contributes to lower birthrates — may not be an entirely unmixed blessing, but the roots of the West’s gender attitudes run deep and stem from some interesting places, as “The Lady and the Unicorn” exhibition at The National Art Center, Tokyo shows.

The centerpiece is a series of six enormous, 15th-century tapestries from Paris’ Musée de Cluny, all displayed in a large central gallery. Each one features the lady and mythical horned creature of the title, as well as a lion.

Both these creatures have a deeply symbolic meaning: the unicorn standing for purity and grace and the lion for nobility. The appearance of such heraldic beasts immediately puts the viewer in mind of the age of chivalry and romance associated with medieval Europe. This was a courtly culture, where the veneration of the right kind of lady served as a focus for knights to develop their less martial virtues, such as gentleness, courtesy, chastity, and cultural refinement.

Even though women were at the center of this culture, their role was essentially a passive one. It is tempting to see them as the grit around which the “pearl of chivalry” formed. This passivity seems reflected in the relatively unvarying character of the six great tapestries, which to modern eyes appear quite similar. Each one, admittedly, has the lady in different dresses, attended by her two heraldic beasts and occasionally by a female servant, against almost identical backgrounds of richly patterned flowers and small animals.

Each tapestry, but one, gets its distinctiveness through being associated with one of the five senses. For example, the one symbolizing sight shows the lady holding up a small mirror that reflects the unicorn. The sixth tapestry, titled “À mon seul désir” (“My Sole Desire”) is more enigmatic, with several theories on its significance, although it seems reasonable to associate it with some “sixth sense” of the soul, heart or understanding.

Despite their size and the great effort and skill expended on them, there is a low-key feeling to these tapestries, as if they were designed merely to serve as a luxurious backdrop to the lives of the nobles whose châteaus they adorned.

Symbolizing the senses through female figures in this way has a hint of Renaissance paganism in it. This use of female forms to stand for qualities and elements of nature, rather like the goddesses of antiquity, is a thread that runs through European culture. This was also evident at the recent Aphonse Mucha exhibition at the Mori Arts Center Gallery. Here, too, the feminine was used as an avatar for aspects of nature.

The exhibition is accompanied by a wide range of other artworks and artifacts, from stained glass windows and ceramic figures to paintings and jewelry. While the occasional male makes an appearance here, these items also convey an image of a courtly European society, where the fair sex held sway.

“The Lady and the Unicorn” at The National Art Center, Tokyo, runs till July 15; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Tue. www.nact.jp

  • Leah

    “The Western model of sexual equality — one that drives women to focus on careers but also contributes to lower birthrates — may not be an entirely unmixed blessing, but the roots of the West’s gender attitudes run deep and stem from some interesting places…”

    This paper is supposed to be a resource for English speakers in Japan, and Liddell consistently writes such awkward, embarrassing lines such as the quote above. Did we not learn anything from the “Asian Women’s Art” show debacle?