Admiring Unicorn Tapestries

This week at knitting group I related a story (or, really, a pair of stories) that I read in the New Yorker some time ago. In summary, the story is this:

Ukrainian brothers who are mathematicians living in New York build a super-computer from mail-order parts. It isn’t the fastest super-computer in the world, but they are the exclusive users of it, so they can do some pretty impressive things with it.

Meanwhile, at The Cloisters, they take down and clean a series of tapestries called “The Hunt of the Unicorn“. The backing was removed from the tapestries, and the backs proved to be a mirror image of the front, with much, much richer colors – the back has never been exposed to light, and the colors have not faded. The conservators at the museum document this with a series of digital photographs.

However, when it comes time to “stitch” the photographs together it becomes apparent that the individual photographs are rotated very slightly with respect to each other. The photos are huge, and the processing required to rotate them into their correct orientations is beyond the capabilities of the computers available to the museum conservators. So they contact the Ukrainian mathematicians, who loan them their super-computer, perform vector field analysis on the photos, and stitch them together!

The Unicorn in Captivity: The last and most famous panel in “The Hunt of the Unicorn”

When I related this story, Ben and Caroline both told me they knew of the tapestries that I was talking about, but insisted that they were on display in Paris at Musée de Cluny. After a little internet research, I now know that there are two famous series of unicorn tapestries: “The Hunt of the Unicorn”, which I knew about, and which is housed in New York, and “The Unicorn and the Lady”, which Ben and Caroline knew about, and which is housed in Paris. They’re both incredibly beautiful. Next time I find myself in Paris or New York (and there had better be a “next time”), I’ll make a point of trying to find some time to see the tapestries.

The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir

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