Hosting the Stranger

Volume 4 ~ 2011

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Is there a Sixth Sense in the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries?

Anne Davenport

To Marvi

What did our medieval forebears (those strangers for whom we feel a mixture of hostility and regret) have to say about hosting the stranger? In medieval tapestries, the most visible stranger, often a mythical animal, may serve as a playful lure designed to initiate the viewer into the far greater strangeness of his own soul. Unicorn-like, human freedom cannot be circumscribed. It comes from a mythical elsewhere and behaves mythically, as a causa sui. It inhabits time without belonging to it. It dwells wherever a stranger is hosted, but suffers no gravitational pull, forever replenished. Mythical to itself, strange, incomprehensible, the human soul must, above all, renounce its own founding myths in order to welcome itself as what is impossible to itself. Is this the task of a sixth sense? 1I thank Tom Epstein and Kascha Semonovitch for their careful review and helpful comments.

To welcome history is to expose ourselves to selves that are stranger than fiction. Woven of silk and wool, combining warmth and luster, the six Unicorn tapestries that were transferred to the Paris Cluny Museum from the moldy château de Boussac in the late XIXth century fascinate us by their beauty but also their mystery. Who designed them? Where were they executed? For what purpose? With what intention? We sense that they communicate an urgent but lost meaning, perhaps even a paradox related to desire. Why, for example, if the tapestries depict the five senses, does the protagonist in the tapestry depicting Taste taste nothing?

Scholars believe that the tapestries were commissioned in the late XVth century by a member of the Le Viste family, most likely by the successful magistrate Jean IV Le Viste, perhaps to mark his advent as head of the family in 1484 or perhaps to celebrate his appointment as President of the Court of Aids in 14892See Alain Erlande-Brandebourg (Conservateur au Musée de Cluny) La Dame à la Licorne (Paris: Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1978).. With regard to their content, a variety of hypotheses has been put forth. The standard view is that the tapestries depict the five senses, to which is added a sixth sense, possibly moral judgment, liberum arbitrium3See A. F. Kendrick, "Quelques remarques sur les tapisseries de la Dame à la Licorne du Musée de Cluny," Actes du Congrès d'Histoire de l'Art, III, Paris, 1924, p. 662.. Elaborating on this interpretation, Michel Serres has argued that the sixth sense is the “internal sense" that marks the beginning of personal identity and language.4See Michel Serres, Les Cinq Sens (Paris: Grasset, 1985), pp. 52--60. Anna Nilsén, in turn, has argued that the theme of the five senses is combined with “the eternal human struggle between moral ideals (the unicorn) and bodily inclinations (the lion)." Nilsén thus denies that any sixth sense is depicted, interpreting the panel with the inscribed pavillion to introduce the theme of moral combat, not to close the cycle.5See Anna Nilsén, "The Lady with the Unicorn. On Earthly Desire and Spiritual Purity" in Studies in Art History 16, eds. Marja Terttu Knapas and Asa Ringbom (Gummerus Kirjapaino Jyvaskyla, Finland, 1995) pp. 213--235. The far-fetched interpretation that the tapestries depict the Virgin Mary likewise does away with the idea of a sixth sense,6See Phyllis Ackerman, ``The Lady and the Unicorn," The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 66, No. 382 (Jan., 1935), pp. 35--36. as does Kristina Gourlay's interpretation that the tapestries depict a courtly romance and were commissioned as a wedding present.7See Kristina E. Gourlay, ``La Dame À La Licorne: A Reinterpretation," Gazette des Beaux--Arts, 139 (1997), pp. 47--72. The most severe blow against the idea of a sixth sense, however, came with Marie-Elizabeth Bruel's compelling evidence that the tapestries represent, not the five senses plus a sixth sense, but six courtly virtues drawn from the XIIIth century allegorical poem on the Art of Love, the Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris.8See Marie--Elisabeth Bruel, ``Les tapisseries de La Dame à la Licorne, une représentation des vertus allégoriques du Roman de la Rose," Gazette des Beaux--Arts, Décembre 2000, pp. 215--232. Started by Guillaume de Lorris circa 1230, the poem was continued in a more naturalistic vein by Jean de Meun around 1275. On the difference between the two authors, see Denis de Rougemont, L' Amour et l'occident (Paris: Plon, 1972) p. 192. Is the hypothesis of a sixth sense thus finally put to rest? A problem with Bruel's otherwise solid argument is that she dismisses the sumptuous night-blue pavillion inscribed with A Mon Seul Désir as a background element without special iconographic importance. Since the tapestries, she argues, were used not only to furnish a room of the Le Viste residence but also to adorn outside walls during special public festivities, the night-blue pavillion merely publicizes the high status of le Viste family.9M.--E. Bruel, Les Tapisseries de La Dame à la Licorne," p. 217: ``Le pavillon et ses tenants n'ont donc rien à voir avec la scène plaquée devant." Bruel explains away the inscription on the pavillion as the beginning of a family motto that wraps around the tent, sufficiently well-known to XVth century viewers to be recognized.10Ibid.

Is there really no spiritual dimension to the tapestries? Are the six scenes wholly as profane as Bruel insists? I want to suggest that the tapestries start with six courtly virtues from the Roman de la Rose, but then deliberately connect these virtues one by one to the five senses in order to transform the profane ethos of courtly love promoted by Guillaume de Lorris into a higher spiritual ethos closely inspired by the teaching of Jean Gerson. Indeed Gerson himself, in a vernacular treatise on the contemplative life, argues that courtly love is an image of spiritual perfection. On this new hypothesis, the idea of a sixth sense is restored, connected to the motto A Mon Seul Désir and identified with the highest level of Gerson's mystical theology.

Jean Gerson, who was made chancellor of the University of Paris in 1395, was not only the most prominent theologian in Paris in the first quarter of the 15th century, but was politically active in court circles where members of the Le Viste family occupied important positions. Like the Le Viste family, moreover, Gerson had close ties to the city of Lyons, where he died in 1429, venerated locally as a saint. His younger brother, abbot of the Celestine monastery of Lyons where Gerson died, tirelessly promoted Gerson's teaching. By the end of the XVth century, Gerson's Complete Works had undergone no fewer than five editions.11See Jean--Luc Solère, ``Jean Gerson," Dictionnaire du Moyen Âge, eds. Claude Gauvard, Alain de Libera et Michel Zink (Paris: PUF, 2002), pp. 762--764. Solère describes Gerson as ``one of the most famous theologians and preachers of the end of the Middle Ages."

Gerson's chief project, closely tied to his Conciliarism and to the new spirit of humanism pioneered by Petrarch, was to make mystical theology accessible to laymen and laywomen, precisely in the hope of counteracting the profane influence of courtly authors12See Christine de Pisan, Jean Gerson, Jean de Montreuil, Gontier et Pierre Col, Le Débat sur le Roman de la Rose, éd. E. Hickes (Paris: Champion, 1977). . Both in his French vernacular writings such as La Montagne de contemplation and La Mendicité spirituelle and in his Latin treatises such as De mystica theologia, Gerson sought to popularize mystical theology without debasing it – to simplify its schematic structure without diminishing its power or the effort required to practice it. Gerson everywhere insists that mystical theology is not reserved for the clergy (“Clergie n'est mie du tout neccessaire (sic) a genz contemplatifs") but he also warns that worldly pleasure and courtly love must first be renounced13See Marie--Josephe Pinet, La Montagne de Contemplation, La Mendicité Spirituelle de Jehan Gerson (Lyon: Bosc, 1927), titles of Chapters II and X, pp. 17--18. . In one of his last works, written in the vernacular from the Celestine monastery of Lyons, Gerson describes the various “mutations" ( diverses mutacions) that transform a worldly heart (Cuer Mondain) into a spiritual heart.14See Canticordum commentaire par Isabelle Fabre (Genève, CH.: Droz, 2005), p. 480.

Why might a prosperous magistrate like Jean (IV) Le Viste, standard-bearer of a rapidly emerging bourgeois family active in both Lyons and Paris, have commissioned a cycle of tapestries aimed at depicting the mutation of profane virtues from the Roman de la Rose into the spiritual virtues of Gerson's Theologia mistica? In 1428, when Gerson was still living and diffusing his teachings from the Celestine monastery of Lyons, Jean (IV) Le Viste's grandfather and namesake, Jean (II) Le Viste, one of the richest men of Lyons and a lawyer who acted as a close adviser to both the Duke of Bourbon and Charles VI, willed a weaving adorned with the Le Viste coat of arms to the Celestine monastery, to be used for the high altar, and stipulated that the Le Viste family mansion should go to the Celestines in the absence of Le Viste heirs15See Geneviève Souchal, "`Messeigneurs Les Vistes' et `la Dame à la Licorne'", Bibliothèque de l'École des chartes, 1983, Vol. 141, no. 2, p. 218. . The family, in short, had a long-standing and very personal connection to the monastery from which Gerson's fame radiated. It seems reasonable to suggest that, by associating himself and the Le Viste family with Gerson's project of reforming Christian mores, Jean (IV) Le Viste may have wished to anchor his own worldly success in spiritual practices, forestalling criticism and envy, but also promoting a new religious humanism to replace the increasingly obsolete, archaic values of the old feudal nobility.16 Symbolically, the Hundred Years War played an important role in revealing the shortcomings of the static, magico-superstitious mindset of the feudal nobility as the English longbow incapacitated armored knights on the battlefield. See, e.g., Joel Meyniel, Archers et arbaletriers de la Guerre de cent ans (1337--1453) (Saint Egrève: Editions Emotion primitive, 2006). On Gerson's project of cultivating lay piety, in turn, see Dorothy Catherine Brown, Pastor and Laity in the Theology of Jean Gerson (Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge U. Press, 1987).

Taste

In the tapestry depicting Taste, the Lady reaches out to a chalice-like dish presented to her by her maidservant. Is she about to pick a sweet and taste it? A bird, perched on her left hand, clutches a piece of the white candy to its breast, no doubt a gift from the Lady. In the foreground, a monkey lifts a red berry to its mouth. Sitting on the folds of the Lady's dress, a lapdog wearing a jewelled collar looks up at her eagerly, hoping to receive a treat. So far, so courtly: the lap dog is a gift from the suitor to his Lady, symbol of fidelity, and the elegant parrot is a symbol of the suitor himself. The verdure, in turn, with its mille fleurs and exotic fauna, represents the pleasure garden where the courtly virtues are found.17See Le Roman de la Rose par Guillaume de Lorris et Jean de Meung, ed. Ernest Langlois (Paris, 1920), II, p. 31, line 590, to p. 38, line 726. See also The Romance of the Rose, trans. Frances Horgan (Oxford and New York: Oxford U. Press, 1994), pp. 11--12: ``I truly believed myself to be in the earthly paradise, for the place was so beautiful that it seemed quite ethereal." The lion, however, watches the Lady greedily, its jaws open, its tongue voracious. The courtly pleasure garden (Deduit's orchard) is subtly disrupted by the hint of a wilder, less innocent Nature. Animal creation is depicted as vibrant with appetite, either prone to gratify itself impulsively (the monkey) or to seek gratification from an external source, more or less ruthlessly.

Tapestry

1. The Lady and the Unicorn, Taste

In sharp contrast to the lion, the unicorn addresses the viewer directly with its gaze, as though welcoming an outside witness. A witness to what? The Lady is frozen in a suspended gesture. The choice to taste or not to taste, to give or not to give, is hers. The Spirit blows elegantly in her veil, marking her iconographically as an allegory of the virtue of Franchise, which is to say “nobility of character." Franchise is the distinctive hallmark of free persons, as opposed to vilenie, baseness, which is associated with serfs (vilains).18M.--E. Bruel identified Franchise based on two chief elements, namely the Lady's dress ("souquenille") and floating veil. See "Les Tapisseries de La Dame à La Licorne," pp. 219--221. See also The Romance of the Rose, p. 19: "Generosity of Spirit was nicely dressed, for no dress suits a maiden so well as a sorquenie; a woman looks daintier and more elegant in a sorquenie than in a tunic."

What possible connection is there between Franchise and the sensory faculty of Taste? By preparing herself to taste, or not, Franchise discovers that nobility of character stems precisely from the power to abstain – the power to interrupt the whole spontaneity of material appetite through the exercise of free agency. The maidservant inflects her knee in recognition of the soul's spiritual dignity. Roses bloom on the trellis behind Franchise, marking the place where she stands as a place franche, a place of rational autonomy within the cosmic island – an “enclosed garden" where the soul (“my sister, my spouse") bursts upon the unfathomable idea of its freedom. Taste, which requires a deliberate gesture to insert a foreign substance into the mouth, initiates the soul into its power of free volition – the power to regulate desire, to abstain from devouring, and thus the capacity to act nobly, freely, compassionately, rather than basely and under compulsion. The courtly virtue of Franchise thus implies the higher and more fundamental spiritual virtue of Liberum Arbitrium, personified by Jean Gerson as La Franche Volonté.19See Louis Mourin, Jean Gerson, prédicateur français (Bruge: De Tempel, 1952), p. 442. In our tapestry, Franche Volonté stands her ground mid-way between two opposing forces: natural appetite, symbolized by the lion's predatory teeth, tongue, and tempestuous mantle, and pure reason, symbolized by the unicorn's ivory body and billowing mantle, ready to take flight. Franchise, transformed by self-awareness (cogitatio) into moral freedom, will have to learn to discern what to welcome, what to reject, what to give, what to withold. How?

Hearing

The tapestry depicting the courtly virtue of Liesse (Joy) associates Joy with Hearing. Why is Liesse immobilized, attentive to her musical instrument, rather than dancing the carole, as she does in the Roman de la Rose?20See The Romance of the Rose, p. 13: ``A lady was singing to them, whose name was Joy. .. Singing suited her wonderfully, for her voice was clear and pure, and she... knew well how to move her body when dancing. It was her habit always and everywhere to be the first to sing, for singing was her favorite occupation." The tapestry implies that the soul must rise above what is given passively to natural sense. The soul must enlist its faculty of hearing to train itself to grasp “in a more abstract manner the rules of arts and sciences" – or so at least Gerson argued to an emerging class of skilled burghers, convinced that the art of music, above all other arts, promotes sublimation.21See Joyce L. Irwin, "The Mystical Music of Jean Gerson," Early Music History, Vol. 1 (1981), pp. 187--201; and Jean Gerson, Sur la Théology mystique, ed. Marc Vial (Paris: Vrin, 2008) p. 140: "intelligentes abstractius regulas artium et scientiarum." Liesse must focus her attention on both producing and hearing the music of the spheres – the divine logos that pervades creation but remains inaudible until human artistry labors to intervene as mediator.

Tapestry

2. The Lady and the Unicorn, Hearing

In discussing contemplative theology, Gerson explains that Meditatio and music are analogous. Both meditation and music strive to “regulate and calm bestial appetites" by developing a science of limits, which brings raw impulses, sounds, colors and gestures under the rule of rational composition.22 See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 122. According to Gerson, Orpheus represents the power of Meditation. Orpheus charms brute instincts with his lyre and strives, by means of music, to rescue the intellect (Eurydice) from the captivating underworld of profane sensualism.23Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 122. Eurydice, in turn, is “the faculty of intellect that is given to human beings for the purpose of contemplating higher things."24Ibid: "Accomodatius Euridicem accipiamus vim intellectualem datam homini ad considerationem supernorum." Without Orpheus's lyre calling it to rational joy, the intellect would wander forever among profane pleasures.

The focus of the tapestry depicting Hearing is Liesse's marvelous concentration, which spreads out to the garden and its inhabitants. Fox and hound refrain from tormenting a nearby rabbit. The lion is appeased, its jaws closed, its eyes bewildered by an unfamiliar experience. The unicorn is bathed in music as though in baptismal waves. The Lady's finely-crafted harmonium, significantly, serves now as a means to connect, even to reconcile, our two warring opposites, lion and unicorn, telluric energy and abstractive purity, appetite and reason, matter and spirit. Liesse, transformed into Gersonian Meditatio, uplifts all of creation. The maidservant assists Meditatio by taking charge of the mechanical aspects of the instrument – perhaps alluding to philosophy's role as helpmate to theology. By extension, Liesse, profane Joy, assists Meditatio by imbuing rational effort with a solemn but deeply rewarding vitality.

Sight

Tapestry

3. The Lady and the Unicorn, Sight

The mind is now sufficiently pure to see. Speculative theology, Gerson explains, ascends through three consecutive steps. It starts with rational self-discovery (cogitatio), develops through the effort of focused meditation (meditatio) and culminates in contemplation (contemplatio).25See Jean Gerson, Sur la théology mystique, p. 128. Symbolically, the Lady is seated, hosting the unicorn on her lap and holding a mirror up to it. At a first level, she represents Oiseuse, Idleness, who invites the poet into the Pleasure Garden and holds a mirror in her hand.26See The Romance of the Rose, pp. 10--11. But our Lady is Oiseuse of a more spiritual sort than the courtly figure of the Roman de la Rose and will usher the soul into a higher garden. Contemplation, Gerson explains, is a “high mountain" where the intellect, soaring above the earthly senses, sees all things in true perspective.27Jean Gerson, Sur la théology mystique, p. 128; "Pro cuius manuductione palpabili ymaginemur, conformiter ad divinum Augustinum in suo De Trinitate, quod sit aliquis supra montem excelsum valde ad cuius cacumen neque venti neque nubes attingant, sicut de Olympo narrat Aristotiles." ( "Let us imagine, in order to guide ourselves palpably, someone situated in a very high mountain, where neither winds nor clouds reach, as in the case of Olympus according to Aristotle.") No longer in need of discursive reason (the maidservant), the contemplative soul intuits rational principles and enjoys perfect sight. A paradox emerges, nicely captured by the tapestry’s ambiguity. The unicorn, as though tamed, contentedly rests its front legs on the Lady's lap and smiles at its own reflection in the Lady's mirror, symbol of the intellect's purity but also of its problematic reflexivity.28For the mirror as a symbol of contemplation, see Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 108. The soul grasps its pure intelligence indirectly, as what eludes it, as what remains radically strange, impersonal, impartial.

Contemplation thus coincides with a first type of hospitality that both lifts itself to purity and defeats itself. The intellect is host: Truth is the guest, candid and trusting, begging to enter. By means of pure intelligence, the intellect immediately intuits first axioms and thus the seeds of science. Why, then, is Contemplatio, forlorn? Truth sees itself reflected in her mirror, but she herself cannot see it, as though robbed of her own insight, mured in her own finitude. What is lured “optically" into the intellect's hospitality is only an intentional object, the idea of God, the image of Truth, not the living God whom the soul seeks. Contemplatio thus recognizes the ultimate vanity of her speculative effort, the futility of a purely intellectual cognition. Her achievement is real – she sees not with the fleshly eye but with the mind's impartial eye – but her grasp of first truths leaves her sterile, separate, alone with simulacra. According to Gerson, the chief benefit of contemplative theology is to disclose that the mind's “capture" of pure Truth leaves the soul infinitely distant from God. The sterility of science reveals God's absence. Voluptas, happiness, is not accessible to Contemplatio's science. Contemplating Truth in the mirror of pure intelligence leaves the soul disconsolate. What will draw the soul from its finitude? From now on, the soul must set its own effort aside and turn to the “irrational wisdom and folly" of the heart.29See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 148: ``Theologia mistica est irrationalis et amens, et slutla sapientia."

The spirit of flowers

Just as the first tapestries, Taste, Hearing and Sight, outlined the three main steps of speculative theology, the three remaining tapestries outline the three chief steps of mystical theology. Mystical theology starts with amorous desire, develops through mortification and culminates in ecstatic love.30See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, pp. 140--3. Once again, we will see that three courtly virtues are transformed into three spiritual virtues. According to Gerson, while speculative theology depends on the intellect and seeks Truth, mystical theology depends on the affect and seeks to know God experientially. Mystical theology, Gerson says, is as superior to speculative theology as the will is superior to the intellect and as Charity is superior to Faith.31See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 144: ``perfectior quam theologia symbolica, sicut dilectio perfectior est cognitione, et voluntas intellectu, et caritas fide." And although mystical theology is higher than speculative theology and provides the supreme and most perfect knowledge of God, mystical theology is not the exclusive prerogative of monks and doctores but is accessible to all equally, calling laymen and women to perfection.32 See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 157: ``Quoniam theologia mistica, licet sit suprema atque perfectissima notita, ipsa tamen potest haberi a quolibet fideli, etiam si sit muliericula vel ydiota."

The tapestry that depicts the courtly virtue of Biauté associates Beauty, not with flowers as in the Roman de la Rose, but with the perfume of flowers which is to say their invisible essence, and with the sense of Smell.33See The Romance of the Rose, p. 16: "Her flesh was dewy soft and she was as simple as a bride, lily-white, with a smooth, delicate face." To the XVth century viewer, perfume symbolized what is made volatile and more intense by heat, radiating outward as a spiritualized substance. As Gerson explains, as long as the soul remains contained in itself, confined by the intellect to its cognitions, the soul remains cold, isolated, sterile. But when celestial rays act on it, love is kindled, and the soul starts to jubilate and exult.34See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 152: "Sic mens nondum amore calescens intra seipsam se continet, sed spiritu fervoris amore concepto, supergreditur quodammodo smetipsam, quasi extra se saltitans atque volitans." ("Thus when the soul is not yet heated by love, it remains contained in itself; but when the spirit of fervor is born from love, the soul exceeds itself, as it were, as though dancing and fluttering outside of itself.") Alchemically speaking, love “volatilizes" the soul. Through the impulse of love, the soul leaves itself and expands outward, “as though dancing and fluttering."35See Ibid: "saltitans atque volens." To explain the effects of amorous desire, Gerson appeals to the physiological effects of sensory delight: the sensorial faculty “abandons itself to a pleasant sensation and strives to find the desired object in order to melt into it, transport itself to it, unite with it, penetrate inside it."36Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 150: "Hoc modo sensualitas aliquando se quasi capiens et se deserens, tota nititur in rem desideratam se effundere, se transferre, se unire, ymmo illam penitus quasi introrsus penetrare." In the special case of perfume, there is no material object to terminate sensorial desire, since perfume exists precisely as emanation. Perfume thus symbolizes amorous desire that cannot quench itself by its own effort but must receive fulfilment as a free gift. Perfume kindles a spiritual desire for alterity that gives itself as alterity.

In the Roman de la Rose, Beauty weaves garments of flowers for her special friend, Love. By associating Biauté with the perfume that emanates from flowers, the tapestry implies that the soul's new capacity to delight in the invisible radiance of God's handiwork makes it, in turn, delightful to God. As Gerson puts it, “mystical theology is the soul's expansion towards God through amorous desire."37Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 146; "Theologia mistica est extensio animi in Deum, per amoris desiderium." Just as perfume is a flower's quintessence, a flower’s “form stripped of its matter,” so the soul's amorous desire is metaphorically the soul's perfume, expanding upward to God like incense. While a monkey sitting on a bare wood bench vainly sniffs a stolen flower, Biauté no longer desires courtly love but Love Eternal, symbolized by the flowery crown she composes – a discrete hommage to the weavers of mille fleurs, anonymous lovers of paradise.

Touch

Tapestry

4. The Lady and the Unicorn, Touch

If perfume symbolizes the soul's amorous desire and outward expansion towards God, spiritual Touch is the mystical sense par excellence, mystical because reciprocal, reached only after a long journey of spiritual purification and penance. The Lady, crowned with a royal diadem and dressed in a dark robe, represents Wealth, Patrimony, Richesse. As Bruel remarks, Richesse is recognizable by the fact that she wears a large escarboucle, which shines in the night, and her dress is adorned with precious stones reputed to have healing properties, known as épreuves, meaning “trials."38See M.-E. Bruel, "Les tapisseries de la Dame à la Licorne", pp. 221--222. see The Romance of the Rose, pp. 17--18. In courtly terms, Richesse signifies that courtly love is the heart's cure and the heart's royal treasure, compared to which everything else is dross. Analogously, but at a higher level, spiritual Richesse signifies that love of God is the heart's royal patrimony, compared to which everything else is bereft of value.39See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 210: "Quietatur anima in Deo atque stabilitur, possidens in eo omnia ceteraque contempens atque parvipendens." Spiritual Richesse thus coincides with the healing power of contrition and is none other than perfect Mortification. Mortification not only crowns but annoints the soul, abolishing the distance between earth and heaven. Through mortification of the senses, Gerson argues, the supernatural love that unites the soul with God becomes accessible to all, to laymen and to the least among the faithful.40Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 158: Simplices, qui quidem fidem habent, possunt ex ea consurgere ad unitivum amorem cum Deo. Quomodo sic? Nempe per fortem contritionem mortificativam sensualitatis."

Spiritual Richesse stands very straight, very vigilant, fixed and transfixed, ordered vertically, “hierarchical."41Citing a key spiritual idea of Saint Bonaventure's Itinerarium mentis in Deum, Chapter IV, 4: "efficitur spiritus noster hierarchicus ad conscendendum sursum secundum conformitatem as illam Ierusalem supernam" ("Our spirit, inasmuch as it is in conformity with the heavenly Jerusalem, is made hierarchic in order to mount further.") The soul, reformed my grace, is ordered to reflect the angelic hierarchy. See Saint Bonaventure, The Mind's Journey to God, trans. Philotheus Boehner, online edition, http://web.sbu.edu/theology/apczynski/courses/CLAR101/Intellectual journey/Itinerarium In the background, brute creation is bridled, chained and shackled. A triple axis mundi now connects time and eternity, finitude and God, bridging worlds. The lion's energetic courage has been fully appropriated by the soul, along with the unicorn’s purity. The soul is permanently resolved, healed, victorious over earthly temptation. Spiritual Richesse thus firmly grasps the Le Viste standard that grows out of the island like a tree and with the other hand delicately makes contact with the Unicorn's horn – symbolic of the teasure that now protects the soul against the poison of profane wealth. The magic amulet of the horn mysteriously touches the back of the Lady's hand, communicating its power but also signifying that the Le Viste family prospers only through God's grace, “which touches the soul."42Cf. Jean-Louis Chrétien's discussion of Thomas Aquinas on God's touch, in The Call and the Response (New York: Fordham U. Press, 2004), p. 129. The unicorn (reason, pure intellect) looks up admiringly at Lady Wealth/Mortification, who gazes beyond the confines of space, to a point at infinity. Mystical theology, Gerson explains, is “an upward motion, an uplifting that guides the soul to God through a fervent and pure love."43Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 146; "Theologia mistica est motio anagogica, hoc est sursum ductiva in Deum, per amorem fervidum et purum." Mystical theology “guides us beyond the troubled sea of sensory desires and sets us on the firm shore of eternity, where we are stabilized forever in God."44Jean Gerson, Théologie mystique, p. 168; ``Per theologiam misticam sumus in Deo, hoc est in eo stabilimur et a mari turbido sensualium desideriorum ad litus solidum eternitatis adducitur." Is an alchemical metaphor intended? In XVth century alchemy, the long-awaited moment of “fixation," when spirit and matter are permanently united, precedes and heralds the final metamorphosis, the point of no return and the imminent realization of the philosopher's stone.

The soul's sixth sense

The sixth panel, denominated by the inscription A Mon Seul Désir, depicts, as Bruel argues, the courtly virtue of Largesse (Liberality), who is “never happier than when she can say `Take this.'"45 See The Romance of the Rose, p. 18. Unlike the other courtly virtues attending Deduit (Pleasure), Largesse (Liberality) is from the start mysteriously connected to God, since “God causes her wealth to multiply, so that however much she gives away, she always has more."46Ibid. See also p. 19: "Her collar was unfastened, for a short time ago she had, there and then, given the clasp to a lady. But it rather suited her for the neck to be open and her throat disclosed, so that the soft whiteness of her skin showed through her chemise." Largesse is also connected to the Arthurian Legend and thus not only to chivalry but also to the chivalrous quest for the ever-replenished Holy Grail.47Ibid. Thus even within the courtly setting of the Roman de la Rose, Liberality is imbued with a distinctive spiritual aura. Most remarkably, as we just saw, Liberality herself receives gifts inexhaustibly from God. Largesse gives precisely what God gives her to give and thus does unto others as she is done unto by God. Since the five previous courtly virtues have each been explicitly coupled with a sense faculty in order to be spiritualized, might Largesse not in turn lead us to a Sixth Sense?

To start, the Lady of our last tapestry is not arbitrarily “plastered" in front of the magnificent night-blue pavillion, as Bruel suggests, but poised to enter it, as the motion of her right shoulder suggests. Lion and unicorn now cooperate to hold the folds of the pavillion open. The pavillion streams with mysterious gold symbols, which have been variously interpreted: Are they gold tears (alluding to the Virgin)? Or tongues of fire (referring to language)? Are they meant to evoke Danae's gold rain (alluding to marriage)? Do they suggest synderesis, the scintilla of divine love that shines in the darkness of matter? Or do they symbolize the alchemist's potable gold, itself symbolic of the Holy Grail and of its Biblical prefiguration, heavenly manna?

The pavillion carves out an inner space within the island, inspiring Michel Serres to interpret it as suggesting a sixth “internal" sense. The Lady, however, hardly appears to be plunged in regret, as Serres's interpretation holds (since she is parting with the jewelled realm of sensorialism.) Moreover, if Serres is right to claim that she regrets giving away her jewels, how is she a figure of Largesse? In the courtly ethos of the Roman de la Rose, Liberality, as we saw, delights in saying “take this!” and is the opposite of clinging to possessions, the opposite of avarice. Liberality is the distinctive hallmark of courtly love since, as the French adage says, Qui aime ne compte pas. Courtly lovers give one another “everything," they “exchange hearts." Courtly Largesse thus mysteriously hints at a more absolute and final Largesse, involving the gift of self.48Cf Jean Gerson, La Montagne Spirituelle, Chapter XVIII: "En quoy gist la perfecccion de vie contemplative par semblance d'amour mondaine." ("In which lies the perfection of contemplative life, similar to worldly love."

Tapestry

5. The Lady and the unicorn A mon seul desir

Our Lady does not seem to be giving her necklace away so much as discarding it. Her gesture of self-divestiture transforms courtly Liberality into the mystical virtue of Pur Amour -- pure love that seeks no reward. Gerson explains that, unlike contemplative theology, which leaves the soul unfulfilled, mystical theology “ravishes and satisfies." Mystical theology is “an experiential knowledge of God through the embrace of unitive love."49See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 146. Pure love, he explains further, “suffices to itself and seeks nothing except to love": nec aliud preter amare querit.50Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 180. As a figure of Pur Amour on the threshold of ecstasy, our Lady represents a paradox: her sole desire is to transcend desire that is hers and thus marks her off as separate from God. How can she will not to will? Thus she symbolically gives away her necklace, which is hers only because it is hers to give, symbolic of the self-directed volition that has become as superfluous and burdensome to her as earlier her intellect. Both the Lady and her maidservant are now dressed in red, the color of perfect Charity. Pur Amour seeks nothing for itself and receives everything, including its very self.51Once again, the Bonaventurian source of Gerson's teaching is palpable. See Itinerarium mentis in deum, Chapter VII, 4; "No one knows except him who receives it, no one receives it except him who desires it."

In order to help us picture the ecstatic union that brings mystical theology to its culmination, Gerson, like earlier teachers, evokes alchemy. Just as fire separates what is spiritual from gross matter, God's “vivifying" love preserves whatever in us is spiritual and divine, leaving foreign substances and impediments behind.52Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, pp. 202--205. The soul, “thus assimilated to God and qualitatively transformed by love, in turn transforms the body and gives it its own spiritual properties." Thus the body's own properties are abandoned or made inoperative.53 Jean Gerson, Sur la théology mystique, p. 204. Emphasis added. Made weightless by love and selfless by grace, the soul begins to recover its ethereal body and spiritual senses.

What, then, is the Sixth sense? Is it synderesis, which, in Augustine's words, cited by Gerson, is the soul's weight, pondus meum amor meus?54See Marc Vial, "Théologie mystique et suyndérèse chez Jean Gerson," in Vers la Contemplation, ed. Christian Trottman (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2007). In numerous passages, Gerson identifies the soul's amorous desire, contrition and then unitive love with the soul's highest sense, synderesis.55See Marc Vial, "Théologie mystique et syndérèse chez Jean Gerson," in Christian Trottmann ed., Vers la Contemplation (Paris: Champion, 2007) pp. 215--232, especially pp. 217--225. But if synderesis is the soul's inclination to seek God and thus the soul's sense of its own exile, synderesis must in some sense vanish, or be transformed, when the ecstatic soul finds its rest in God's embrace. When the soul is purified, illuminated and tested, Gerson explains, “nothing prevents it from being transported by love to the One who is wholly desirable and lovable”: totaliter desiderabilem et totum amabilem. When the soul is conjoined and united with God, Gerson pursues, “it embraces its supreme Good, its center, its destination and perfection. What else could it possibly need? What else could it desire?"56See Jean Gerson, Theology mystique, 206: quid ergo aliud ipsa requireret, aut ad quid aliud ulterius inhiaret?

Lady Largesse stands poised to enter into a “luminous darkness," which already frames her face like a halo. Her gaze is focussed nowhere in this world. Stripped of her own self-will, her throat bare, Pur Amour has no resources left of her own and now depends wholly on God's hospitality. According to Gerson, ecstatic love is perfect prayer, which raises the soul “beyond desire" (supra desiderium).57Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 212. Perfect prayer “finds all that it seeks." When perfect prayer “knocks at the door, the door opens." Perfect prayer cannot be selfish since self-volition is discarded and tirelessly comes to the aid of selves in need, “feeding not just one or two individuals but the whole mystical body with a maternal benevolence." And like a beggar who is always supremely welcome, perfect prayer is never refused but obtains spiritual consolations inexhaustibly for all of creation.58Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 219. The sixth sense is thus the sense that emerges beyond synderesis, in the radical selflessness of ecstatic prayer, namely the sense that, which is to say the immediate experience that, for God, “all things are possible."59Thus Jean Gerson, in his last writings, sought to supersede synderesis with the idea that ecstatic love involves the whole essence of the soul, lifted by grace. See Marc Vial, ``Thèologie mystique et Syndérèse chez Jean Geerson," pp. 229-232.

Back in the garden, the lapdog stares grimly at the viewer, perched on a silk cushion that hides a plain wood bench. Its jewelled collar is gone. Michel Serres is right to say that Regret is not absent from the scene, but it is the lapdog's regret that haunts the pleasure garden, not that of Pur Amour, who has discarded all possibility of regret along with self-volition. What have you done, the lapdog asks reproachfully, with courtly love? Amidst the mille fleurs, the birds of paradise, the trees, the rich brocades, the fire of the lion, the radiance of the unicorn, the lapdog is now a figure of the soul's exile, stuck with its body, its hope of reward, its inadequate fidelity and its five narrow senses. Profane virtues flatter us, but they pass through us, like a dream, leaving no trace – until the soul is moved from inside/elsewhere to become a stranger in order to discover “the country that will be shown to it."60Citing God's call to Abraham, father of contemplatives, Genesis 12:1. Where (our weavers know) the soul will be a beggar, a guest – receiving everything. To Jean IV Le Viste and to the Master of the Cluny cycle, I myself am the unwanted stranger, the lapdog of illusions, whom God has little reason to love or welcome.


Footnotes.

  1. I thank Tom Epstein and Kascha Semonovitch for their careful review and helpful comments.
  2. See Alain Erlande-Brandebourg (Conservateur au Musée de Cluny) La Dame à la Licorne (Paris: Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1978).
  3. See A. F. Kendrick, "Quelques remarques sur les tapisseries de la Dame à la Licorne du Musée de Cluny," Actes du Congrès d'Histoire de l'Art, III, Paris, 1924, p. 662.
  4. See Michel Serres, Les Cinq Sens (Paris: Grasset, 1985), pp. 52--60.
  5. See Anna Nilsén, "The Lady with the Unicorn. On Earthly Desire and Spiritual Purity" in Studies in Art History 16, eds. Marja Terttu Knapas and Asa Ringbom (Gummerus Kirjapaino Jyvaskyla, Finland, 1995) pp. 213--235.
  6. See Phyllis Ackerman, ``The Lady and the Unicorn," The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 66, No. 382 (Jan., 1935), pp. 35--36.
  7. See Kristina E. Gourlay, ``La Dame À La Licorne: A Reinterpretation," Gazette des Beaux--Arts, 139 (1997), pp. 47--72.
  8. See Marie--Elisabeth Bruel, ``Les tapisseries de La Dame à la Licorne, une représentation des vertus allégoriques du Roman de la Rose," Gazette des Beaux--Arts, Décembre 2000, pp. 215--232. Started by Guillaume de Lorris circa 1230, the poem was continued in a more naturalistic vein by Jean de Meun around 1275. On the difference between the two authors, see Denis de Rougemont, L' Amour et l'occident (Paris: Plon, 1972) p. 192.
  9. M.--E. Bruel, Les Tapisseries de La Dame à la Licorne," p. 217: ``Le pavillon et ses tenants n'ont donc rien à voir avec la scène plaquée devant."
  10. Ibid.
  11. See Jean--Luc Solère, ``Jean Gerson," Dictionnaire du Moyen Âge, eds. Claude Gauvard, Alain de Libera et [WHAT TEXT GOES HERE]
  12. See Christine de Pisan, Jean Gerson, Jean de Montreuil, Gontier et Pierre Col, Le Débat sur le Roman de la Rose, éd. E. Hickes (Paris: Champion, 1977).
  13. See Marie--Josephe Pinet, La Montagne de Contemplation, La Mendicité Spirituelle de Jehan Gerson (Lyon: Bosc, 1927), titles of Chapters II and X, pp. 17--18.
  14. See Canticordum commentaire par Isabelle Fabre (Genève, CH.: Droz, 2005), p. 480.
  15. See Geneviève Souchal, "`Messeigneurs Les Vistes' et `la Dame à la Licorne'", Bibliothèque de l'École des chartes, 1983, Vol. 141, no. 2, p. 218.
  16. Symbolically, the Hundred Years War played an important role in revealing the shortcomings of the static, magico-superstitious mindset of the feudal nobility as the English longbow incapacitated armored knights on the battlefield. See, e.g., Joel Meyniel, Archers et arbaletriers de la Guerre de cent ans (1337--1453) (Saint Egrève: Editions Emotion primitive, 2006). On Gerson's project of cultivating lay piety, in turn, see Dorothy Catherine Brown, Pastor and Laity in the Theology of Jean Gerson (Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge U. Press, 1987).
  17. See Le Roman de la Rose par Guillaume de Lorris et Jean de Meung, ed. Ernest Langlois (Paris, 1920), II, p. 31, line 590, to p. 38, line 726. See also The Romance of the Rose, trans. Frances Horgan (Oxford and New York: Oxford U. Press, 1994), pp. 11--12: ``I truly believed myself to be in the earthly paradise, for the place was so beautiful that it seemed quite ethereal."
  18. M.--E. Bruel identified Franchise based on two chief elements, namely the Lady's dress ("souquenille") and floating veil. See "Les Tapisseries de La Dame à La Licorne," pp. 219--221. See also The Romance of the Rose, p. 19: "Generosity of Spirit was nicely dressed, for no dress suits a maiden so well as a sorquenie; a woman looks daintier and more elegant in a sorquenie than in a tunic."
  19. See Louis Mourin, Jean Gerson, prédicateur français (Bruge: De Tempel, 1952), p. 442.
  20. See The Romance of the Rose, p. 13: ``A lady was singing to them, whose name was Joy. .. Singing suited her wonderfully, for her voice was clear and pure, and she... knew well how to move her body when dancing. It was her habit always and everywhere to be the first to sing, for singing was her favorite occupation."
  21. See Joyce L. Irwin, "The Mystical Music of Jean Gerson," Early Music History, Vol. 1 (1981), pp. 187--201; and Jean Gerson, Sur la théology mystique, ed. Marc Vial (Paris: Vrin, 2008) p. 140: "intelligentes abstractius regulas artium et scientiarum."
  22. See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 122.
  23. Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 122.
  24. Ibid: "Accomodatius Euridicem accipiamus vim intellectualem datam homini ad considerationem supernorum."
  25. See Jean Gerson, Sur la théology mystique, p. 128.
  26. See The Romance of the Rose, pp. 10--11.
  27. Jean Gerson, Sur la théology mystique, p. 128; "Pro cuius manuductione palpabili ymaginemur, conformiter ad divinum Augustinum in suo De Trinitate, quod sit aliquis supra montem excelsum valde ad cuius cacumen neque venti neque nubes attingant, sicut de Olympo narrat Aristotiles." ( "Let us imagine, in order to guide ourselves palpably, someone situated in a very high mountain, where neither winds nor clouds reach, as in the case of Olympus according to Aristotle.")
  28. For the mirror as a symbol of contemplation, see Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 108.
  29. See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 148: ``Theologia mistica est irrationalis et amens, et slutla sapientia."
  30. See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, pp. 140--3.
  31. See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 144: ``perfectior quam theologia symbolica, sicut dilectio perfectior est cognitione, et voluntas intellectu, et caritas fide."
  32. See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 157: ``Quoniam theologia mistica, licet sit suprema atque perfectissima notita, ipsa tamen potest haberi a quolibet fideli, etiam si sit muliericula vel ydiota."
  33. See The Romance of the Rose, p. 16: "Her flesh was dewy soft and she was as simple as a bride, lily-white, with a smooth, delicate face."
  34. See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 152: "Sic mens nondum amore calescens intra seipsam se continet, sed spiritu fervoris amore concepto, supergreditur quodammodo smetipsam, quasi extra se saltitans atque volitans." ("Thus when the soul is not yet heated by love, it remains contained in itself; but when the spirit of fervor is born from love, the soul exceeds itself, as it were, as though dancing and fluttering outside of itself.")
  35. See Ibid: "saltitans atque volens."
  36. Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 150: "Hoc modo sensualitas aliquando se quasi capiens et se deserens, tota nititur in rem desideratam se effundere, se transferre, se unire, ymmo illam penitus quasi introrsus penetrare."
  37. Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 146; "Theologia mistica est extensio animi in Deum, per amoris desiderium."
  38. See M.-E. Bruel, "Les tapisseries de la Dame à la Licorne", pp. 221--222. see The Romance of the Rose, pp. 17--18.
  39. See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 210: "Quietatur anima in Deo atque stabilitur, possidens in eo omnia ceteraque contempens atque parvipendens."
  40. Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 158: "Simplices, qui quidem fidem habent, possunt ex ea consurgere ad unitivum amorem cum Deo. Quomodo sic? Nempe per fortem contritionem mortificativam sensualitatis."
  41. Citing a key spiritual idea of Saint Bonaventure's Itinerarium mentis in Deum, Chapter IV, 4: "efficitur spiritus noster hierarchicus ad conscendendum sursum secundum conformitatem as illam Ierusalem supernam" ("Our spirit, inasmuch as it is in conformity with the heavenly Jerusalem, is made hierarchic in order to mount further.") The soul, reformed my grace, is ordered to reflect the angelic hierarchy. See Saint Bonaventure, The Mind's Journey to God, trans. Philotheus Boehner, online edition, http://web.sbu.edu/theology/apczynski/courses/CLAR101/Intellectual journey/Itinerarium
  42. Cf. Jean-Louis Chrétien's discussion of Thomas Aquinas on God's touch, in The Call and the Response (New York: Fordham U. Press, 2004), p. 129.
  43. Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 146; "Theologia mistica est motio anagogica, hoc est sursum ductiva in Deum, per amorem fervidum et purum."
  44. Jean Gerson, Théologie mystique, p. 168; ``Per theologiam misticam sumus in Deo, hoc est in eo stabilimur et a mari turbido sensualium desideriorum ad litus solidum eternitatis adducitur."
  45. See The Romance of the Rose, p. 18.
  46. Ibid. See also p. 19: "Her collar was unfastened, for a short time ago she had, there and then, given the clasp to a lady. But it rather suited her for the neck to be open and her throat disclosed, so that the soft whiteness of her skin showed through her chemise."
  47. Ibid
  48. Cf Jean Gerson, La Montagne Spirituelle, Chapter XVIII: "En quoy gist la perfecccion de vie contemplative par semblance d'amour mondaine." ("In which lies the perfection of contemplative life, similar to worldly love."
  49. See Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 146.
  50. Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 180.
  51. Once again, the Bonaventurian source of Gerson's teaching is palpable. See Itinerarium mentis in deum, Chapter VII, 4; "No one knows except him who receives it, no one receives it except him who desires it."
  52. Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, pp. 202--205.
  53. Jean Gerson, Sur la théology mystique, p. 204. Emphasis added.
  54. See Marc Vial, "Théologie mystique et suyndérèse chez Jean Gerson," in Vers la Contemplation, ed. Christian Trottman (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2007).
  55. See Marc Vial, "Théologie mystique et syndérèse chez Jean Gerson," in Christian Trottmann ed., Vers la Contemplation (Paris: Champion, 2007) pp. 215--232, especially pp. 217--225.
  56. See Jean Gerson, Theology mystique, 206: quid ergo aliud ipsa requireret, aut ad quid aliud ulterius inhiaret?
  57. Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 212.
  58. Jean Gerson, Sur la théologie mystique, p. 219.
  59. Thus Jean Gerson, in his last writings, sought to supersede synderesis with the idea that ecstatic love involves the whole essence of the soul, lifted by grace. See Marc Vial, ``Thèologie mystique et Syndérèse chez Jean Geerson," pp. 229-232.
  60. Citing God's call to Abraham, father of contemplatives, Genesis 12:1.