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.