The unicorn has been part of western folklore since the 5th century BCE when the Greek writer Ctesias of Cnidus returned from the Persian royal courts with tales of a wild ass of India. Popular enough to be mentioned by Aristotle and Julius Caesar, the unicorn’s speed and healing properties became well known among the literate.
The unicorn’s next progression, however, was accidental. When the translators of the Septuagint encountered the ox-like beast re’em, they were unfamiliar with the Hebrew term. Seemly as a best guess, the word was instead translated into Greek as monoker–a unicorn. Used nine times in the text, the mythical unicorn was suddenly injected into the Judeo-Christian tradition in a way that would last over two millennium.
“God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.” Numbers 24:8 (KJV)
As the Christian church formed in the 1st and 2nd century, the unicorn’s Greco-Roman popularity paired with “biblical” significance made it an early choice for the Christian artist’s appropriation of cultural symbols. An extremely influential catalog of animals and their Christian symbolism, Physiologus, asserted new information about the beast. It claimed that unicorns cannot be caught except with the help of a virgin, who can lure them in to rest their horn upon their lap. While only one of many allegorical associations with the unicorn, the natural connection of Virgin Mary proved to be a defining addendum to the unicorn’s lore.
Skipping forward to 1563, the Catholic Council of Trent condemned any allegorical portrayal of Christ as a unicorn (and the Protestants had condemned it long before). Despite this, the creature was incredibly prolific in artwork and royal crests across Europe. This exhibition will explore the shifting artistic usage of the unicorn in the gap between early Christendom and its adoption as a secular symbol.
Unknown,A Maiden Taming a Unicorn, from the Workshop Bestiary, 1185
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, The Pierpont Morgan Library
In this piece from an illuminated British bestiary, the virginal narrative supplied by Physiologus is modeled precisely. The virgin embraces the unicorn stretched across her lap, but the virgin looks in acknowledgement to hunters that spear the unicorn from behind. The text below it reads, “As soon as the unicorn sees her, it leaps into her lap and embraces her, and goes to sleep there; then the hunters capture it and display it in the king’s palace.” This piece is exemplary of the consistency of the unicorn’s associations from the 2nd to 12th century, despite the narrative traveling from Alexandria to as far as Britain.
Unknown, The Annunciation of the Unicorn, 1480
Painted and gilded wood, The National Museum in Warsaw
This Polish altarpiece is a typical display of the unicorn’s specific association with the Virgin Mary. In the register second from the left, the angel Gabriel takes his position as a hunter who heralds the coming of Christ to Mary. To the right, Mary is shown resting the unicorn upon her lap. This pose is common for Mary in medieval artwork, although is often Christ in human form who is draped across her lap after his death. In unicorn form, however, that position normally associated death is one of life and incarnation.
Unknown, The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle, 1495–1505
Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts, 37.80.5
One in a series of seven depicting the hunt and retrieval of a unicorn, this particular tapestry shows a unicorn being killed and presented to a royal couple in front of their castle. The unicorn is shown near very detailed holly and hawthorn, plants often symbolic of the Crown of Thorns. The series of tapestries was created for the marriage of the work’s royal couple, which adds new significance. In light of a marriage, the presence of the unicorn is not just serving as a pious allegory–it carries a symbolic claim of the bride’s virginity. The artist adopts this symbol of purity from Physiologus, but rejects the need for the unicorn to rest in a lap akin to Mary.
Raphael, Portrait of Young Woman with Unicorn, 1506
Oil on canvas applied to wood, Galleria Borghese
Heavily influenced by the Mona Lisa (painted between 1503 and 1506), this Renaissance portrait was a gift from Raphael to a couple upon their marriage. In it, the unicorn is shown as a wildly different creature than in previous pieces in this exhibition. This is a fairly simple portrait is devoid of any kind of action, with the unicorn tucked placidly in the woman’s arms. It no longer acts as the vivacious parallel of Christ incarnate or crucified, but rather sits as a passive symbol of virginity. Raphael shows no concern for the unicorn as an exotic creature or religious allegory, but just as a tool for visual communication.
Pierre Reymond, Casket with mythological scenes and animals, Mid-16th Century
Tortoiseshell, copper, painted in grisaille on enamel, Turin City Museum of Ancient Art
This casket displays a host of mythological scenes including some of Hercules, although many are unidentified by art historians so far. Upon the lid, though, are a unicorn and chimera placed in a landscape. This association of the unicorn with mythology shows a divergence from the previous Christians associations it held. This parallels the withdrawal of religious significance of the unicorn in marriage portraits, indicating an overall shift away from the use of the unicorn as a type for Christ. This indication is bolstered by the contemporary ruling of the Council of Trent by the Catholic Church that the allegory of the unicorn as Christ was licentious and therefore to be condemned.
Unknown, Unicorn of James IV of Scotland, 1488–1513
Gold coin, 2002.399.1
This coin is an early example of the adoption of the unicorn into the heraldic artwork of Scotland. This adoption was born of Celtic tradition that emphasized the purity and boldness of the unicorn, making it an ideal animal to represent royalty. This usage would continue past the religious condemnation of the unicorn, as its claim to power was through the mythological reputation of healing and speed that stretches back to Ctesias’ first writing on the unicorn. As a symbol of royal power, the unicorn has remained in use to this day in Scotland, England, and even Canada.