Almost a festival of Prosper Mérimée: at the Opera House we have performances of Carmen which is based on his popular novella of that name, while at the Art Gallery of NSW (until 24 June) we have the exhibition of The Lady and the Unicorn, a wondrous collection of medieval tapestries which he effectively rediscovered and saved. Merimée (1803-70) was not only a successful novelist, he was a noted archaeologist and historian holding the position of Inspector-General of Historic Monuments of France. Since 1814 there had been talk of interesting old tapestries in the Château de Boussac, a small castle in central France. In his official capacity, Mérimée inspected them, accompanied by George Sand, recognising them to be of exceptional quality and originality; concerned by their condition, he began the process of acquiring them for the state. The acquisition was not completed until 1882 when they were placed in their present home, the Musée de Cluny in Paris which Mérimée had established as a museum of the middle ages.
There are six tapestries in all, believed to have been created around 1500 but by whom and for whom, is unknown. Their meaning is enigmatic and although widely interpreted as an allegory of the senses, the most mysterious being the central panel (above) with the inscription ‘My sole desire’. The modern viewer should not worry too much about meanings but simply marvel at the extraordinary ancient craftsmanship and glory in their peerless beauty.
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