Detail from The Unicorn at Bay (The Unicorn Defends Itself), 1495–1505
Wool warp, wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; Overall: 145 x 158 in. (368.3 x 401.3 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.4)
The red-fruited tree behind the head of the hunter with the plumed hat was accepted as Arbutus unedo in the botanical key to the flora of the tapestries produced by E. J. Alexander and Carol H. Woodward in 1941. (This identification had been suggested by Eleanor Marquand in “Plant Symbolism in The Unicorn Tapestries,” published in Parnassus magazine in 1938.)
Woodward and Alexander noted that the tree is not common to the woodlands of northern Europe, but concluded that it had long been cultivated and would have been sufficiently familiar for inclusion in the landscape of the tapestries, which do depict other species grown in the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, such as oranges and pomegranates. I would feel more confidence in the identification if the tree were represented with both flowers and fruit, as is characteristic of Arbutus unedo.
Woodward and Alexander’s study, originally published in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden (May–June) 1941, still stands as the most complete and authoritative study of the flora of the Unicorn Tapestries. It includes a checklist that is numerically keyed to drawings of all seven tapestries, indicating the position of one hundred and one plants. Eighty-four of these are botanically identified; seventeen remain uncertain.
The Flora of The Unicorn Tapestries was reprinted as a pamphlet seven times between 1947 and 1974. It has been included in its entirety as an appendix in The Unicorn Tapestries by Adolfo Cavallo (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998). Woodward and Alexander note that the tree is not common to the woodlands of northern Europe. I would feel more confidence in the identification if the tree were represented with both flowers and fruit, as is characteristic of unedo.