Original illustration by Jenny Kroik
This puzzling quest is almost at its end. —James Rorimer, 1942
Nobody knows who made the Unicorn Tapestries, a set of seven weavings that depict a unicorn hunt that has been described as “the greatest inheritance of the Middle Ages.”
Without evidence, the La Rochefoucauld family in France asserted that the tapestries originate with the marriage of a family ancestor in the fifteenth century. The tapestries did belong to the La Rochefoucauld in 1793, before they were stolen by rioters who set fire to their château at Verteuil. The family regained possession sixty years later, when the tapestries were recovered in a barn. The precious weavings of wool, silk, gold, and silver were in tatters at their edges and punched full of holes. They had been used to wrap barren fruit trees during the winter.
In late 1922, the Unicorn Tapestries disappeared again. They were sent to New York for an exhibition, which never opened. A rich American had bought them and transferred them to his bank vault before anyone else could see them. In February 1923, John D. Rockefeller Jr. confirmed from his vacation home in Florida that he was the American who had acquired the tapestries for the price of $1.1 million. The tapestries were transferred to Rockefeller’s private residence in Midtown Manhattan.
Fourteen years later, Rockefeller donated the tapestries to the Cloisters, a new medieval art museum he had funded as a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The mysterious works were to be on regular public display for the first time in their five-hundred-year history. James Rorimer, the first curator of the Cloisters, had the intimidating task of interpreting them.
On July 26, 1942, the New York Times reported that Rorimer had identified symbols that proved the key to the mystery, among them a knotted cord, a pair of striped tights, and a squirrel. He identified these as symbols in a system that pointed to Anne of Brittany as their owner and decided the tapestries had been made to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII in 1499. No one who read the news that Sunday was able to see the Unicorn Tapestries for another two years. The weavings were moved to a secret location following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Rorimer was drafted into World War II, and served with the Monuments Men to recover works of art stolen by the Nazis. An assistant curator named Margaret Freeman took over at the Cloisters and eventually wrote the definitive book on the tapestries, published in 1976, which undid Rorimer’s cord, tights, squirrel theory. She posited that while it was possible the tapestries had been woven to celebrate a marriage, Rorimer had interpreted the symbols incorrectly. She wrote:
The squirrel of the tapestry may be intended to be symbolic, or it may be present merely to call attention to the tree in which it sits.
The next edition of the museum guidebook scrubbed Rorimer’s interpretation. Since then, the Met’s most eminent scholars have debated the finer points of the tapestries, each time removing more and more from the guidebooks and wall labels. Today at the Cloisters, the wall label for each of these tapestries, the most famous works in the museum, among the most famous works in the world, is only about one sentence long.
I first saw the Unicorn Tapestries in first grade, in the opening credits of The Last Unicorn, which animates the first scene in the cycle of seven tapestries. Twenty years later, I would find myself working at the Cloisters, explaining the tapestries to surly high school students, Brazilian tourists, Franciscan monks from the Bronx, and anyone else who attended the afternoon tour.
Constructed during the Great Depression, the museum is a feudal fantasy composed of fragments from five medieval French cloisters built around a steel-framed tower. It’s a secular sanctuary of flowers and stained glass, a peaceful oasis for stressed-out New Yorkers, though few people in the neighborhood go. Generations of Washington Heights residents have believed it’s an abandoned church.
The architecture imposed a monastic culture upon the staff. The director’s office was at the top of the tower and peeked out from Fort Tryon Park’s dense foliage. Built over a rock on one of Manhattan’s highest points, the office had 360-degree views, exceptional on an island where good views sell for millions. The bathroom had only a urinal.
The next most important curator had the entire floor below, then the third-ranking curator, followed by the library and the educational and administrative offices in descending order. Uniformed security guards paced across the museum, hands stuffed in their polyester pockets or clasped behind their backs. CB radios hooked on their belts burped out instructions from supervisors.
Guards could direct visitors to the gardens or the bathroom, but were forbidden to speak about the art itself. If a visitor ensorcelled by the Unicorn Tapestries approached a guard to ask why the hunters wanted to kill the unicorn, the protocol was to send them to the main hall, where they had purchased their ticket. Phone calls would ascend the tower in search of someone willing to come down and answer the question. If no one was available, the visitor was reminded that they could purchase the audio guide.
My first job at the Cloisters was behind the oak desk in the octagonal main hall, where I processed admissions tickets, untangled the audio guides, and listened to the chants of Hildegard von Bingen’s “11,000 Virgins,” which played on repeat from the gift shop for at least ten years. I wanted to ascend to lecturer, an opportunity that became available to me as I neared completion of my master’s in art history.
I spent my free time in the museum’s library, reading through several dozen books and articles assigned to prospective lecturers. The task was to digest the scholarly material written about the collection, then condense and transform it into a one-hour “highlights of the collection” tour. My lecture had to explain the collection in a way that was accessible to the general public while maintaining the highest levels of academic integrity.
I became fixated on the Unicorn Tapestries, the artwork that made visitors gasp when they suddenly recognized it in the dark gallery. My palms were damp before every tour I gave, worried my boss was hovering near the doorway, ready to reprimand me for my pronunciation of Rochefoucauld. The sheer size of the Unicorn Tapestries required me to use my entire five-foot-three body to draw a narrative line through them.
First the unicorn is discovered in front of a fountain, dipping his horn into a stream that flows from a fountain. I swooped my left arm in an arc to reveal the twelve hunters surrounding it.
“What does the number twelve remind you of … yes, twelve apostles, because the hunt for the unicorn is also an allegory of Christ’s Passion.”
I pointed to the next scene, making everyone quickly turn their heads to see the hunters grab their weapons and chase the unicorn across a stream. To see the third scene, I took visitors on a slow walk across the gallery, a strategic pause before the violence started. I jabbed my pointer finger at the hunter about to stab the unicorn in the rear end, then to the almond-shaped gash the unicorn tore with his horn into the side of the dog. I pointed to the rose forming from the dog’s bloody wound, a detail I had never even noticed until an eighth-grade boy asked me about it. Stunned that I hadn’t seen the rose before, I asked my boss, a twenty-five-year veteran of the museum, if she had. She hadn’t, but told me it wasn’t worth considering as it had never been mentioned in any of the official scholarship on the Tapestries.
The fourth scene was placed above the door that led to a gallery of much older tapestries. In two small fragments it was possible to see how the unicorn had been trapped in an enclosed garden by a maiden. I looked directly at the visitors and enjoyed seeing them nod when their gaze fell on the unicorn’s supplicant face.
“He’s smiling so much you can see his gums,” I said, eliciting their own smiles, then pushed their gazes toward the regal hand of the woman stroking the unicorn’s mane.
The fifth tapestry had two scenes in one weaving.
“Look at the unicorn being murdered,” I said, my voice ferocious. The visitors winced as they observed the hunter’s spear jammed into the unicorn’s side, his tongue falling out the side of his mouth and his eyes rolling backward. Then I’d lift my arm, bringing their gazes softly downward, to hover over a cute squirrel who seemed to watch the dead unicorn presented to a group of royals. In this scene, fairy tales come to life. Men and women in royal garb stand in front of a castle, swans swim in the surrounding water, guardsmen look out from the crenellations, and there is the proverbial lady locked in the tower.
Hanging on either side of the gallery’s windows are two additional tapestries, which look wildly different from the rest,but share the same cipher of an a and a backward e tied together with a cord. They should be initials, but haven’t been found duplicated in any other painting or manuscript. The most beloved tapestry, the unicorn surrounded by a golden fence, provides the happy ending the tour needs. The unicorn has somehow transcended the hunt, and is now chained to a tree ripe with pomegranates, a fertility symbol. Scholars hypothesized that it was made to hang behind the bed of a noble couple on their wedding night.
In 1992, Howard Comeau circled an advertisement in the New York Times for security guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He needed a steady paycheck after losing his job teaching Latin in a local high school. He was happy to be assigned to the Cloisters, which was so close to his apartment that he could walk to work. Howie, as most people called him, never took a course on medieval art, but fell in love with Giotto and Filippo Lippi while hitchhiking around Italy in the late sixties. Howie’s mastery of Latin and his rigorous Catholic education made learning the Met’s collection easy.
His first day at Fordham University, Howie had discovered the word aesthetics, defined as the science of the beautiful. It was a concept that shaped the rest of his life. But halfway through a Ph.D in classical philology, he felt too overwhelmed to write his dissertation. His time in Italy, where strangers had invited him into their homes to share meals, opened him up to how easy and beautiful life could be. He abandoned his doctorate and taught Latin in Westchester and Connecticut high schools for the next twenty-five years.
Security guards were stationed in different galleries throughout the day on assigned rotations. Howie enjoyed being posted near the Unicorn Tapestries. He was supposed to stand in the doorway, but he couldn’t resist moving deeper into the dark gallery to hear the lecturers give their tours.
He was amused that the lecturers frequently contradicted one another, and it bothered him that few ever seemed to look at the tapestries, that they took no joy in them. Their explanations to an enraptured audience were just an academic exercise of enforcing the museum’s sanctioned scholarship. He began to look deeper at the tapestries, especially at the symbols related to the allegory of the unicorn as Christ, and grew more curious about them.
On his days off, Howie visited the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library to learn more about the era associated with the tapestries, and one day when he requested three books about Charles VIII, he found a piece of information that electrified him. When the French king made his ceremonial entry into Reims, along the carriage route were tableaux vivants, allegorical and historical “living pictures” performed by actors and designed and choreographed by court artists. Howie had the idea that maybe the designers of the Unicorn Tapestries had used imagery from performances, which is why no one had been able to locate similar scenes in manuscripts or paintings.
He became obsessed with studying the tapestries. He read through everything the French court would have read at the time: the Bible, chansons, and the Grandes Chroniques of French history, and tried to understand how the artist’s mind worked. Still loath to write, Howie made a mental matrix of symbols relevant to the French court around 1500, then used every opportunity he had during the workday to stare at the tapestries as though they were the night sky, searching for constellations.
Guards were forbidden to talk to visitors about the artwork, but Howie found it irresistible. When he overheard two women giggling in front of the Unicorn Tapestries, he walked up behind them and said, “Please don’t ridicule the art,” with an exaggerated British accent.
The women spun around, relieved to see the bearded security guard grinning. They fell into a discussion about the tapestries.
His boss fielded complaints from the staff and told Howie his job was to protect the art, not to explain it. A rumor spread that the lecturers had been forbidden to talk to him.
In the break room, he’d pepper other guards with his ideas while they stared into the vending machine, trying to decide how long the chicken salad sandwich had been sitting in there. Servers from the diner on Dyckman Street asked for Howie in the main hall. He had told them all about the tapestries over breakfast and invited them to come up to the museum so he could show them.
Only one lecturer willingly listened to Howie’s ideas. Martha Easton recalled that at times he seemed obsessed and also frustrated when he couldn’t find all the symbols in a system he wanted to prove was in the tapestries. On his breaks, he’d stop by her little office near the library vaults. She once she suggested a book he should read about Georges de Tour. She thought many of Howie’s ideas were as legitimate as the formal scholarship, but understood why scholars felt proprietary about their credentials. Howie was an amateur, a disparaging word in academia, though it derives from the Latin root amare, to love.
On the first day of summer in 1997, Howie transferred to the evening shift. By twilight, the Unicorn Tapestries gallery was completely dark. Whenever he had a new idea about the tapestries, he stole an extra two minutes while passing through on his inspection tours to look closer. Five-hundred-year-old gold threads, too tarnished to be seen during the day, sparkled under Howie’s flashlight.
Between 2001 and 2014, the West Dean Tapestry Studio in England was contracted by Historic Scotland to weave a replica of the Unicorn Tapestries for Stirling Castle. The project was inspired by an old inventory of the castle of a hundred tapestries that belonged to James V, including a set described as “unicorn tapestries.” The weavers made periodic visits the Cloisters to study the originals.
On a Monday when the museum was closed to visitors, I wandered up to the Unicorn Tapestries gallery and saw that folding tables had been set up across the oak floors, and on top were maps of the tapestries. Every plant, flower, and figure was drawn in black pen, delineating all their shapes. I leaned over and looked at one leaf among thousands, divided into segments, marked with numbers to indicate the different shades of green wool required to weave it. It was like staring at the motherboard of a computer.
I watched as one of the weavers stood only a few inches from the scene of the unicorn in front of the fountain, staring at just one small section on the far right side. She stood there for over ten minutes. I couldn’t resist asking her what she was doing.
“Counting knots,” she replied, smiling and opening her eyes wide. She understood an entirely different language of the tapestries, one spoken only by a small group of artists.
It inspired me to stop looking at the tapestries through the lens of what I had read about them.
I first met Howie late one afternoon, when I was still working at the admissions desk. The gift shop manager shut off the stereo, and the “11,000 Virgins” halted. I was waiting for the last visitor in the galleries to return the audio guide they had rented. Head in hands, I rested my elbows on the desk.
“I found you in your past life.”
I looked up to see a security guard with a smile and a shaggy beard that seemed at odds with his uniform.
He slid a postcard across the time-softened wood of the desk, landing it just beneath my gaze. I recognized the postcard image as a painting of Jusepe de Ribera’s The Holy Family, with a Virgin Mary who has pale skin and dark hair tied back, a lot like mine. His eyes flickered with anticipation, but he snatched the postcard away before I reacted. He winked, then danced off into the galleries.
The shift supervisor looked up from a leather-bound logbook, as medieval-looking as the manuscripts on display, and told me I had just met the infamous Howie. Be warned, he said, Howie has lots of theories about the Unicorn Tapestries that he’s always going on about.
Five years later, I decided I was long overdue to have a chat with Howie.
“You know I have a mark on my head,” he said when I asked to hear his theories, tapping his mop of straight hair, then pointing upstairs to the tower. “It will be career suicide for you if your bosses know that you’re talking to me”
Because my little office was in the basement, next to the public bathrooms, where only the cleaning staff treads, no one ever knew.
When I opened my office door, I didn’t recognize Howie for a moment. Instead of his guard uniform, he wore jeans and a white button-down shirt, and had a black three-ring binder tucked under his arm. Now that he was in his own clothes, the beard made him look like a groovy college professor.
“The Unicorn Tapestries are a repository of symbols made for the education of the young members of the French royal court,” he declared after settling himself into a chair I had pulled up next to my desk. He smiled and held his palms apart as though he was welcoming me into his church for the first time. “Oh, I’ve got so much to tell you!”
Over the next several months, we discussed all of his ideas about the tapestries. In addition to all the reading we had both done, Howie had regularly traveled to France for more research. He pulled index cards from his pockets, prompts for the ideas he kept stored in his mind, but encouraged me to write it all down.
“Each flower, gesture, or accessory was like a prop from a play, all meaningless unless you know what these people were thinking and reading, and I do.” Howie leaned forward in his seat. “Think of the tapestries as a stage that has been pushed flat against the wall, like bleachers in a gymnasium.”
“You read the article by James Rorimer that proclaimed he had solved the mystery of the tapestries, right?” he asked me. “Remember that squirrel he said was a symbol related to Anne of Brittany?” Howie’s eyes flickered. “The squirrel is a hidden portrait of Jean Fouquet, one of the artists.”
I frowned and swiveled toward my computer to look up Jean Fouquet while Howie explained that fouquet meant “squirrel” in the language once spoken around Tours.
“Fouquet died in 1480, way too early to have worked on the tapestries,” I barked at Howie. I feared he was using the tapestries like a giant Rorschach test, seeing symbols in ways that could never be proved or disproved, and I tried to swat away the ideas I thought strayed too far.
Howie smiled and opened his binder. He leafed through the laminated pages, then turned the binder around. “How do you explain that?”
I looked at a color photocopy of a manuscript illumination by Fouquet of a castle encircled by swans, a castle very similar to the one behind the group of royals in the tapestries. Guardsmen peeked out from the crenellations, and there was a lady locked in the tower.
“Several artists worked on the tapestries, and they borrowed designs done for other works and recycled them.”
Howie squinted his eyes to see the time in the corner of my computer screen, then stood up to leave and go change into his uniform.
“God bless you,” he always said as he gently closed my office door.
Before he was the Met’s director, Thomas Campbell was known among his colleagues as Tapestry Tom.
Campbell’s 2002 entry in the Tapestries and the Renaissance catalogue summarized the scholarship concerning the one unicorn as an allegory for Christ’s Passion. I asked Campbell, who is now director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, for his take on Howie’s proposal that the Unicorn Tapestries were a repository of symbols used to teach young members of the royal court. He hesitated, then said no—not because it would be outside the realm of possibility, but because the Unicorn Tapestries are among the finest sets of tapestries of their time.
“It is among the greatest visual poems that I know. It is alluring and elusive like the unicorn itself,” said Campbell. “I have no doubt that people will be spinning stories and interpretation for generations to come.”
However, Scott Miller, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Met, said yes. Court artists in fifteenth-century France were multimedia artists. Mystery plays and court spectacles were part of the common visual culture and “developed mutually informing visual tropes.” A court painter would work on everything—panel paintings, sculpture, interior decorations, pennants for processions, theater sets, tableaux vivants and tapestry designs.
Miller described how the owners of the extremely expensive Unicorn Tapestries would have seen them infrequently. They would have been kept wrapped in canvas and stored in padlocked boxes where the silk, gold, and silver threads couldn’t be reached by greedy fingers. There are records of shipments of tapestries from stockpiles kept at major castles that track with the locations of the dukes and barons who owned them. Tapestries would be on display during grand events and public spectacles, mixed and matched to communicate whatever propaganda needed to be told.
The Unicorn Tapestries would have appealed to the tastes of the late-medieval ruling class in France, who loves the marvelous and the strange. The story of a mysterious creature from a faraway land could also “privilege playfulness and ambiguity in the visual arts, aspects that flatter the wits of viewers by presenting visual puzzles that are difficult to unravel,” Miller said.
If the tapestries were displayed at a betrothal ceremony, they would be read far differently than if they were shown on Easter. Court poets would have understood the literary references, pious nuns would have adored the Passion, and ordinary citizens in the cheap seats might have reveled in a violent unicorn hunt.
Miller believes that to better understand the tapestries, we must stop looking only at the weavings and look at the environment in which they existed, from the locked boxes where they spent most of their time to the political and social spectacles where they would have been used strategically.
Hank Martinez shared the night shift with Howie for fifteen years.
“We were like monks—unmarried men, going around in circles in the dark,” said Hank, dissolving into laughter. “ The only thing is there was no silence vow. We talked a lot and listened to music.”
Before supervisors watched everyone’s activity on cameras, night guards carried small radios or reading lamps. Howie had a boom box that he stored in his overflowing locker.
One evening, Hank told me, Howie waited until seven, when everyone in the tower was surely gone, then carried the boom box upstairs into the gallery, where a twelfth-century Romanesque apse from Spain had been transplanted to the Cloisters. He had already placed a CD inside, Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
Hank was at his assigned post in the main hall when he heard music coming from the gallery.
He sighed, tucked a piece of paper into his book, and walked halfway from the oak desk to where he could see Howie dancing in the bit of light that stretched toward the apse from the adjacent gallery.
Howie raised his arms straight out from the sides.
Hank lifted his flashlight to the crucifix hanging overhead, a spotlight on Christ’s face suspended in darkness.
Howie dropped to his knees, like a priest bowing down before the Holy Sacrament. He sat down on his heels then rolled gently to the ground and lay flat on his back.
“Come on, Hank!” he called out from the floor.
Hank carefully lowered himself to the ground, flopped over, and gave in to the mystical experience that Howie had engineered. A private concert for two, lying on their backs, as a soprano’s voice soared through a twelfth-century apse.
Every night, Howie inspected the director’s office at the top of the tower. He would always call Hank at his post, urging him to come upstairs to see a beautiful sunset or a blood moon. On 9/11, he told Hank he saw Mars in the sky—of course, the god of war. Howie was always looking for connections.
Over fifteen years, Hank heard all of Howie’s ideas about the tapestries. They discussed it over dinner in the break room, looking at the pictures in the book sold in the gift shop. Whenever Howie found something new, he’d use his flashlight to illuminate that corner of the unicorn’s forest for Hank before they returned to their assigned posts.
Hank and Howie walked home together at the end of their shifts. The stairs down to Dyckman Street were the quickest route, but they chose the much longer horseshoe path because it gave them more time to talk. Yellow light burned inside the lamps that lined the park paths, making it feel like they were walking through the foliage of the tapestries.
On their walks home, they discussed the religion and philosophy, but their favorite topic was the first century in Alexandria. They imagined how thrilling it would be time-travel there and see the intermingling of religious beliefs and ideas, the beginning and end of things from which so much of our heritage comes, in ways that we can no longer understand.
“We have a canonical version of how these things went,” Hank said, “but we can’t really ever know.”
Once, when they left the museum at the beginning of a snowstorm, Hank left the first tracks, all very close together as he tried not to slip and fall. Howie, more than twenty years his senior, ran straight out, yelling wahooo, then turned to his side and surfed down the powder paths.
One evening, Howie called the shift supervisor to let him know he would submit his retirement papers. The other guards didn’t even have the chance to throw him a customary goodbye party, with bottles of soda, cupcakes, and a tray of macaroni and cheese. A rumor spread that he had cancer.
Hank doesn’t look at the Unicorn Tapestries anymore. He had had no great interest in them before meeting Howie, and without his friend to light them up, the tapestries became opaque.
“I forgot what you look like,” Howie said to me on the phone. “So I put ‘Jusepe de Ribera’ into Google and there you were!”
Hank told me that Howie had moved to the Midwest to live with family. I imagined his eyes twinkling above his shaggy beard and, though he explained that a minor stroke had aged him, his baritone voice was still round with joy. He tried to push away the rest of questions about his health and location and began swimming in the perfect picture of the tapestries he held in his mind.
“Let’s pick up where we left off,” he suggested.
Howie shared a greater intimacy with the Unicorn Tapestries than perhaps anyone in their history. Over twenty-four years, he reveled in the mysteries that are an inextricable piece of their history. In them, he found allegories and metaphors for his own life.
“Can you take one more story?” Howie asked.
He told me about a trip to Paris twenty years ago, and a visit to the Louvre. It was near the end of the day and he needed to use the bathroom, but decided to have one last look at the late medieval galleries. He discovered the self-portrait of Jean Fouquet that he had seen in many books but hadn’t realized was kept at the Louvre. He looked directly into his eyes.
“It blew my mind,” Howie explained. “I said to him, Jean, nobody knows what you gave the human race, but I know, I’m on the trail, and I’m gonna finish your job. I walked away and I started to cry.”
Howie remembered he had a flask of cognac with him. He walked back to the portrait, then looked right and left to make sure no security guards were watching him.
“Here’s to us, Jean,” he said just before he took a swig. And he swore that he would never rest until Jean’s name got out there.
Danielle Oteri is the founder of Arthur Avenue Food Tours and Feast on History Food & Wine School. Her work has appeared on BBC Travel, NPR, Conde Nast Traveler, Gothamist, Grove Dictionary of Art, Roads & Kingdoms and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blog.
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