Art History’s 8 Greatest Unicorns, from the Met Tapestries to Damien Hirst’s Taxidermy
Unicorns had a moment in the 1980s and early ’90s, and once again they’re making something of a comeback, appearing on everything from Starbucks Frappuccinos to makeup products, and even toast. Theories link the trend to its aptness for social media, as well as to our current political climate, with unicorns providing a good dose of levity and fantasy in what are, for many, troubling times.
But the history of the unicorn began well before Lisa Frank school supplies, My Little Pony toys, or Harry Potter. The unicorn is predominantly a Western phenomenon, though it finds an Asian counterpart in the kirin, a similar creature (but one that often has two horns). Around 398 B.C., the Greek physician Ctesias described an animal whose single horn possessed curative powers, and nearly 500 years later, Pliny the Elder wrote of a hybrid creature that thwarted all attempts to capture it. (These accounts were thought by some later scholars to have been based on European encounters with the Indian rhinoceros.)
Later, in the Middle Ages, the unicorn was known in European folklore as a diminutive yet ferocious attacker that was also a symbol of virginity and a stand-in for Jesus Christ, one that could only be tamed by a female virgin.
While the existence of unicorns was discredited by the end of the 16th century, the creature had already secured a cultural stronghold in artistic depictions that continues through today. The following eight works of art, from medieval tapestries to contemporary sculpture, lay claim to some of the most memorable depictions of unicorns in art history.
Famed German artist Martin Schongauer’s 1489 oil piece belongs to a lineage of Annunciation paintings, in which the angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary and reveals that she is carrying the child of God. In a twist on the genre, Schongauer inserted the then-popular imagery of a unicorn hunt into the Christian scene, depicting Gabriel as the hunter, accompanied by hounds that stand for the Christian virtues of justice, truth, mercy, and peace.
In Schongauer’s sumptuous work, the unicorn perches, docile, on Mary’s bent knee as she caresses its neck, invoking the belief that the fierce animal could only be subdued by a virgin, whom the hunters customarily used as bait. Schongauer’s coupling of these two genres also works to strengthen the unicorn’s longstanding allegorical association with Christ. This symbolism was established as early as the 2nd century A.D. through medieval bestiaries like the Physiologus, which paired descriptions of animals with biblical quotations and morally instructive fables.
Unknown Artist, The Unicorn Tapestries, 1495–1505
Arguably the prized jewel of the the Met Cloisters (the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval arm in upper Manhattan), the seven “Unicorn Tapestries” (1495–1505) are commandingly beautiful, with richly dyed wool and glistening silver- and gold-wrapped silk threading. They are also large, claiming an entire room to themselves. More tantalizing still is the fact that many details about their creation remain a mystery. (The enigmatic “AE” monogram that appears on each tapestry may be the key to their provenance.)
The compositions display an unfolding narrative in which a group of noblemen, hunters, and dogs pursues, captures (with the help of a virgin), and kills a unicorn in the woods. The scenes may have been intended to serve as an allegory for the crucifixion narrative, but it’s also possible that they refer to a marriage. The final scene, The Unicorn in Captivity, hints toward the latter, as the unicorn is miraculously unscathed, peacefully enclosed by a fence and tied by a gold chain to a pomegranate tree—suggesting the trappings of matrimony. (Some scholars believe that this tapestry was created as a stand-alone work, however.)
Whatever their origins, the tapestries represent a stunning example of the millefleurs (“a thousand flowers”) design that flourished in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Another brilliant example of this design is The Lady and the Unicorn (c. 1500), a set of six tapestries that were designed in France and executed in Flanders. Often compared to Musée de Cluny since the 1880s, but they are currently making a rare cameo at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia through June 24th of this year.
With the sitter’s ambiguous expression and familiar poise, it’s clear why some art historians believe this portrait by Italian Renaissance master Raphael was inspired by the Mona Lisa. As with Leonardo’s subject, the identity of Raphael’s captivating blonde, blue-eyed Lady is uncertain, but the painting was most likely commissioned for a wedding; in the late 1950s, X-rays revealed that a lap dog had originally been painted where the unicorn now sits. While the lap dog was a symbol of fidelity commonly associated with marriage, the unicorn represented virginity or chastity. Scholars disagree on whether Raphael’s substitution indicates that the betrothal fell apart or simply announces the young woman’s purity. The unicorn may also point to the woman’s powers of beguilement, as only a virgin could entrap the animal. Just as the sitter holds the legs of the unicorn, so too has she successfully ensnared her mate.
Known primarily for his woodcuts and engravings, Albrecht Dürer also created six etchings, experimenting with iron plates instead of traditional copper ones. As one of those half dozen pieces, Abduction on a Unicorn (1516) illustrates Dürer’s mastery of his medium. The male and female figures, he with his impressively detailed musculature and she the voluptuous counterpart, are splayed dramatically at the foreground, while the background displays Dürer’s controlled use of linear perspective. The scene is likely a reference to the Greek myth in which Pluto, god of the underworld, abducts the goddess Proserpine to make her his bride, and several institutions decisively refer to the work as Abduction of Proserpine or Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn. While the myth traditionally includes a horse-drawn chariot, Dürer envisioned a unicorn as Pluto’s steed. Here, rather than representing a stand-in for female purity, the unicorn is depicted as a crazed beast, much like Pluto himself. In this incarnation, the unicorn recalls early descriptions like that of Pliny the Elder, who wrote of a powerful animal that combined the physical traits of a horse, an elephant, and a wild boar.
Depicting biblical and mythological subjects in opulent settings, Gustave Moreau created rich works that exemplify
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Inspired by Franz Kafka’s strange literary scenarios and the