The unicorn hunt tapestries represent a “legend of the capture of virgins”
When the layoff bell rings at our neighborhood elementary school, unicorns are everywhere. They prance on my daughter’s matching backpack and lunchbox, dangling, glittery, on key chains. They are on dresses, shirts, shirts and book covers for new readers. Unicorn horns, often in the center of rainbow synthetic manes, protrude from sneakers, woolen hats, headbands and bicycle helmets. Some unicorns have wings. They are all cheerful and bright, giving off a combination of fancy, harmlessness and purity.
While unicorns seem to be experiencing a resurgence among all four to eight year olds, they are certainly not new. And, while the earliest unicorn stories include an alchemical power to purify water and bestow eternal youth, the extent of unicorn mythology is more complicated than the range of children’s products on display in the grounds of Game.
In ancient China, the unicorn (called the qilin) would appear at the birth of a sage. In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Ctesias described the tricolor pattern of the mystical creature and its unique horn. The scholar Francesca Tagliatesta points out which Ctesias almost certainly borrowed from Persian stories dating from the 9th to 8th centuries BCE.
Representations of a creature resembling a rhino or a horse, a goat or even a one-horned wolf appear on statues, pottery, mosaics and tapestries from India to Africa to Europe. These creatures have in turn – and somewhat paradoxically – been associated with purity, fertility, seduction, healing, sacrifice, immortality, divinity and, during the Renaissance era in Europe, they were considered a metaphor of Christ himself.
Among the most iconic representations of unicorns are the tapestries on display in the cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The seven panels of The unicorn hunt tell the story of a royal hunt and the capture of a white unicorn. The exact date of the creation of the tapestries is unknown. Writing about the museum’s acquisition of the pieces, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kathrin Colburn, estimates their origin in the south of the Netherlands between 1495 and 1500, possibly a celebration of the marriage of Anne of Brittany and of Louis XII. By the end of the 15th century, details like the type of flowers in the background, the symbols on the dresses and shields, and the choreography of the hunting party would have conveyed symbolic meanings both Christian and secular.
When these tapestries were commissioned, secular and religious accounts of unicorns were just beginning to come together. Write for Mythology On the story of the unicorn’s connection to romance, sexuality, and marriage, romance writer Teresa Noelle Roberts also suggests that the tapestries were commissioned in honor of the marriage between Anne of Brittany and Louis XII. Tracing the story of the unicorn’s iconographic connection to what she calls the “legend of the Capture Virgin,” Roberts credits the poet and classic Robert Graves with the first articulation of the unicorn’s connection to virginal purity:
The unicorn represented the moon in its fight against its enemy, the lion-sun … [which Graves] dates back to the legends of the ancient Great Goddess who was both the goddess of the moon and the goddess of wisdom. In this context, the virgin who captures the unicorn represents the Great Goddess “capturing” the seeker of truth.
During the tapestry era, this legend of Virgin-Capture was usually included in a story in the tradition of true royal deer hunts. In the unicorn version, however, hunters wishing to capture a unicorn had to lure it into the forest with a naked virgin tied to a tree. Here, either because of his excitement by the maiden, or because of his purity matching his own, the unicorn could be overpowered and then captured. In some myths, the unicorn sucks the virgin’s breasts and falls asleep with what Roberts euphemistically calls “her horn in a very symbolic position”. In other versions of this legend, the unicorn’s attraction to virgins is explained in terms of opposition moods: The “obscene” unicorn is drawn to the virgin’s purity (rather than her sexuality), and the elusive creature is ultimately captured because of the virgin’s “aura of chastity”.
When the tapestries were commissioned, Christians had adapted the mythical animal to the stories about Christ. The King James Bible translates the Hebrew word re’em, often understood by contemporary Bible scholars to refer to the two-horned oryx, as a unicorn. Saint Basil asserted that “the indomitable nature of God is compared to that of a unicorn”, and Saint Ambrose asked “who is the unicorn but the only begotten son of God? Roberts explains that common thought postulates that “God was born on earth in the person of Jesus Christ by the Virgin Mary. Indeed, He, like the unicorn, was captured by a young girl.
Surprisingly enough, however, as the iconography of the unicorn increasingly aligned with Christian theology (the horn was compared to the cross, the sacrifice of the unicorn compared to the death of Christ, the power of the unicorn to be purified to Christ as redeemer), the romantic and sexual elements of the unicorn stories have remained and often coexisted with religious allegory in a single story or work of art.
In “Plant symbolism in unicorn tapestries, emphasizes art historian Eleanor Marquand, like unicorn mythology more generally, the rich botanical symbols of the Cloister tapestries draw on both religious and secular traditions. It emphasizes the Christian significance of plants like holly and hawthorn, associated with Jesus’ crown of thorns and rowan trees (often planted in church yards). At the same time, many plants in the tapestries, apple trees, oaks, hazelnuts and pomegranates, convey a secular rather than a religious or explicitly Christian significance.
Several of the seven tapestries feature a tree as a focal point, and Marquand considers this arrangement to be particularly representative of how secular and spiritual symbolism come together in the series, reading the trees as evoking both the Tree of Knowledge of Good and evil (in the Garden of Eden) and the more universal tree of life seen in mythology and folklore across a variety of cultures.
Write for the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Curator Emeritus of the Margaret B. Freeman Cloisters offers equally detailed, though sometimes divergent, theories for many of the more than 100 plants depicted in the tapestries. The Bulletin also provides specific analysis of the humans and animals involved in the narrative which both deepen and complicate the use of secular and religious tradition tapestries. Freeman analyzes details such as the roles of the people chasing the unicorn, the Latin inscription on a sword, and even the changing facial expressions of the hunters, the unicorn, and the maiden as the hunt goes on, to exhibit parallel allegorical meanings.
On the one hand, the tapestries can be read as an allegory of Christ, first pursued, then killed, then reborn. At the same time, the tapestries function as a wedding story. “Here,” writes Freeman of the last panel, “the unicorn can be interpreted as the risen Christ in the middle of a garden of paradise. However, since he is a necklace and chained to a tree, it is also an image of the lover-husband, finally secured by his adored lady, his fiancée … [in] the finale of the allegorical love hunt described by medieval poets and writers.
In the penultimate tapestry, before the unicorn is resurrected like Christ or in chains, a trope where marriage is seen as a man’s trap by the wiles of a young girl, the creature is pierced by a spear and blood runs down his white forehead as snarling hunters watch. When my daughter, then in kindergarten, saw this panel in the Cloister, she observed it regularly, but that night when I made a fleeting comparison between the unicorn on the tapestries and the plush on her bed, she told me. looked, horrified. Don’t say that, she said. This the unicorn, she told me, was injured.
So many of the stories we tell children are much more frightening and violent, or at least more complicated, than we realize. Fairy tales, like so many stories in scripture, involve orphaned children, neglect, violence, abuse, death, forced marriage, and rape, and so it shouldn’t be surprising to see a creature whose mythology is inseparable from the stories of lust and pervasive power and violence over products marketed to children. What is perhaps stranger than the popularity of unicorns with young children is our collective, yet unspoken, societal agreement to sanitize the symbols and archetypes we show children. We strip them of the very conflict that makes them collectively fascinating.
You won’t find this rare creature there, but there are hundreds of gorgeous unicorn images on JSTOR.