Pilgrimage to the Unicorn Tapestries

unicorn healing water
Excerpt from “Unicorn Healing the Waters” photo taken at the Cloisters, June 2018

I recently took my daughter on trip to the City (I grew up in New Jersey, 40 miles west of New York City, so to me New York will always be what I mean when I say “The City”). While there, we took a little trip to the Cloisters, which are part of the Met (that is, the Metropolitan Museum of Art). It’s only a mere hour-and-a-half bus or subway ride from the Met proper to the Cloisters on the north end of the island. But it was worth the trip to what I consider a pilgrimage to see (again) the unicorn tapestries. These have fascinated me since my youth and it was strangely refreshing to return to that place – especially in light of all the current talk of unicorns in my immediate life.

If you’ve read my blog before, you may have come across some entries in which I talked about following the unicorn which lead me to Cape Cod and then to Washington DC.  This proverbial unicorn is now taking me to study art in Italy for a month this summer (yay!). Sometimes I feel like I’m living a version of National Treasure. My unicorn chasing has coincided with a surge of unicorn interest in the pop culture, so they are popping up everywhere. This is both amusing and frustrating, as it certainly helps in my hunting but also lands me in a pool of the trendy, of which I am never a fan if I can help it. Although I will say, back in the 80s I was teased for wearing men’s vests and neckties…and then a few years later (I was done with it by then) it became all the rage. Whatever.

The point is that somehow over time, my concept of chasing a unicorn (I imagine some in my circle of religious friends would use the language “following God”) got to where people called me myself a unicorn – and in light of Mia Micheal’s awesome book on this topic: “How to Be a Unicorn in a World full of Donkeys” I am open to the interpretation and I came to see the value in this twist of the idea. After all, I believe God/the transcendent/the Energy of the Universe is in me, so why not be the unicorn as well as follow it? Not a big paradigm shift. I can live with that theology.

Then I went on pilgrimage to the unicorn tapestries.

A word about pilgrimage: Pilgrimage is divided into three basic stages: preparation, journey, and return. Something significantly different occurs in the heart of the pilgrim at each of these stages (and in the sub-stages along the way). Preparation includes the elements of choosing to leave behind the comfortable and go to a place that has been the site of a spiritual something – a saint’s work location, revelation from above, etc. Along the journey, friends and mentors come alongside and obstacles rear their heads, but the pilgrim continues on. Often the destination is a powerful experience of location and connection to one’s spiritual roots. Afterward, the pilgrim, who has been changed by the series of experiences leading up to this point, returns in some manner to the life that had been left behind and he or she has to figure out: what do I do with what happened? Can I go back to what/who I was? Am I called to go back and be an agent for change in the place from which I came, or am I called to move on from it and build a new life? It helps to have a mentor or guide in this discernment process – not to be told what to do, but to be asked good questions which require reflection on everything that has happened. Preparation, journey and return.

I confess I didn’t do much by way of preparation for this one. I don’t think I realized I was on a pilgrimage until I was standing in the room and the thought hit me: I just reached the destination of a journey. This is it. All that buying of tickets and walking and timetables to arrive there and get back in time for other events, and changing subway trains like five times and three colors we still had to figure out where the place actually was in the midst of a rather large, hilly park. When we arrived to exchange our Met sticker tickets for Cloisters stickers, the desk clerk was wearing a unicorn pin. Fitting. I forgot to ask for a map. My daughter, sweetheart that she is, kept pushing me to keep my promise to go back for a map (no more of this “just one more room….let’s see what’s here….maybe this leads to it….” through the labyrinth of rooms at the Cloisters). We were just about to turn back for a map when I saw it. The picture above: the unicorn healing the waters. And in we went, map rendered unnecessary.

The unicorn tapestry room is small but full (the tapestries are enormous and totally cover the entirety of wall space – it’s like surround theater; the viewer is enveloped in these scenes). The images woven into the fabric are intricate and old. After all I have learned about unicorns as a Christ symbol (I think there’s a blog post about that in here somewhere), seeing these enormous depictions of unicorn hunting, dogs eating the unicorn flesh, drops of blood pouring out, unicorn in captivity (which is probably the most famous of all the unicorn tapestries; it’s in all the art history books – see it below), I began to see the other symbols: the alpha and omega, the lilies. I never noticed those as a kid. My daughter and I counted and looked for patterns: this one has five of them, this one only four. Is it a series? (Like I said earlier, it was like living National Treasure, at least in our imaginations).

unicorn in captivity
“Unicorn in Captivity” photo taken at the Cloisters June 2018

The tapestries are arranged on the walls as a story: beginning with an unsuccessful hunt, through several successful ones (including dead unicorn draped over the back of a horse), captivity and finally – the last one!! – unicorn healing the waters. Surrounded by this story on all sides, I could feel my heart break for this mythical beast, and all that it represented for me: Christ, sure, but also myself, the Christ in me.

I have a rabbi friend who once told me: “When the Messiah Light in me sees the Messiah Light in you, then we are one. You Christians would call that the Christ Light, but the concept is the same.” And I have to ask: when will we as humans stop our mistreatment of the Light in others and in ourselves and instead honor that Light and find joy together in the Healing? May it begin with me.

 

 

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