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Fantastic Bestiaries: Unicorns at The Met Cloisters and Beyond

We’re celebrating National Unicorn Day, April 9, with a brief look at representations of the unicorn in art

What is it about the unicorn that captures our imaginations? Described as a cross between a horse and a goat, the fabled beast has intrigued artists and writers for more than two millennia.

unicorn aquamanile

Aquamanile in the Form of a Unicorn. German. Made in Nuremberg, Germany. Copper alloy, 15 1/2 × 11 1/2 × 4 7/16 in., 6.8 lb., ca. 1425–50. Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964 (64.101.1493)

 

The unicorn’s roots can be traced back to the ancient world and to such important figures as Ctesias, Aristotle, and Pliny, who mention a one-horned beast in their writings. Similarly, the re’em, a single-horned creature, appears in Hebrew scripture and symbolizes piety and strength in Jewish artistic culture.

Christian authors such as Basil of Caesarea, Timothy of Gaza, and Isidore of Seville also discuss the unicorn in their works, with the creature eventually becoming a symbol of Christ. In the Physiologus, a didactic Christian text written in Greek and translated into Latin in the fifth century, the unicorn is described as having the beard and cloven hooves of a goat. The book also explains that a unicorn can only be tamed by a virgin.

Bowl with the Virgin and the Unicorn

Bowl with the Virgin and the Unicorn and Arms of Matthias Corvinus and Beatrice of Aragon. Italian. Maiolica, 4 × 18 7/8 in., probably ca. 1486–88. Fletcher Fund, 1946 (46.85.30)

 

The Physiologus greatly influenced the development of medieval bestiaries, illustrated compendia describing both real and imaginary beasts. An image from the Worksop Bestiary, ca. 1185, depicts a maiden cradling a unicorn as two hunters plunge their weapons into its back. The accompanying text 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.” 

A Maiden Taming a Unicorn, from the Worksop Bestiary. British. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment; 8 1/2 × 6 1/8 in.; ca. 1185. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

 

The theme of the unicorn hunt occurs throughout medieval and Renaissance art, notably as the subject of the famed Unicorn Tapestries (South Netherlandish, 1495–1505). Housed at The Met Cloisters, the seven beautifully woven hangings present a series of vignettes depicting the hunt. One of the hangings, The Unicorn in Captivity, may have been created as a stand-alone piece, with unicorn here suggesting tamed love.

The Unicorn in Captivity (from the Unicorn Tapestries). South Netherlandish. Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts; 144 7/8 x 99 in.; 1495–1505. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.6)

By the time the Unicorn Tapestries were woven, unicorns appeared with some frequency on coats of arms, like this one here. Unicorn Doorway. French. Volcanic stone, 126 x 65 in., early 16th century. The Cloisters Collection, 1948 (48.28)

Representations of the unicorn do not end with the Renaissance period. In fact, the unicorn has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, appearing everywhere from children’s television programs to stage shows to museum exhibitions. Today the unicorn has come to mean many different things to many different people, yet its status as a rare and elusive creature endures.

Playing dress-up with our Sparkly Unicorn Tutu and Headband Set

 

Unicorn Items from The Met Store

Our unicorn-themed selection includes the Unicorn Squeeze Popper, the Sparkly Unicorn Tutu and Headband Set, the Fairytale Unicorn Teething Toy, the Unicorn Sequined Patch, and much more.

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