Sketchbook Page 26 (revisited): U is for Unicorn

May 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Monocerus

Monoceros (burial)

Bones from a Bestiary part 21: U is for Unicorn

This is the twenty-first in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

The unicorn is a legendary animal that has been described since antiquity as a beast with a large, pointed, spiralling horn projecting from its forehead. The unicorn was depicted in ancient seals of the Indus Valley Civilization and was mentioned by the ancient Greeks in accounts of natural history by various writers, including Ctesias, Strabo, Pliny the Younger, and Aelian. The Bible also describes an animal, the re’em, which some translations have rendered with the word unicorn.

In European folklore, the unicorn is often depicted as a white horselike or goatlike animal with a long horn and cloven hooves (sometimes with a goat’s beard). In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could only be captured by a virgin. In the encyclopedias its horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness. In medieval and Renaissance times, the horn of the narwhal was sometimes sold as unicorn horn.

Unicorns are not found in Greek mythology, but rather in accounts of natural history, for Greek writers of natural history were convinced of the reality of the unicorn, which they located in India, a distant and fabulous realm for them. The earliest description is from Ctesias who, in his book Indika (“On India”), described them as wild asses, fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half (27 inches) in length, and colored white, red and black. Aristotle must be following Ctesias when he mentions two one-horned animals, the oryx (a kind of antelope) and the so-called “Indian ass”. Strabo says that in the Caucasus there were one-horned horses with stag-like heads. Pliny the Elder mentions the oryx and an Indian ox (perhaps a rhinoceros) as one-horned beasts, as well as:

“a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length.”

In On the Nature of Animals (Περὶ Ζῴων ἸδιότητοςDe natura animalium), Aelian, quoting Ctesias, adds that India produces also a one-horned horse (iii. 41; iv. 52), and says (xvi. 20) that the monoceros (Greek:μονόκερως) was sometimes called cartazonos (Greek: καρτάζωνος), which may be a form of the Arabic karkadann, meaning “rhinoceros”.

Cosmas Indicopleustes, a merchant of Alexandria who lived in the 6th century, made a voyage to India and subsequently wrote works on cosmography. He gives a description of a unicorn based on four brass figures in the palace of the King of Ethiopia. He states, from report, that:

“it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.”

A one-horned animal (which may be just a bull in profile) is found on some seals from the Indus Valley Civilization. Seals with such a design are thought to be a mark of high social rank.

Medieval knowledge of the fabulous beast stemmed from biblical and ancient sources, and the creature was variously represented as a kind of wild ass, goat, or horse.

The predecessor of the medieval bestiary, compiled in Late Antiquity and known as Physiologus (Φυσιολόγος), popularised an elaborate allegory in which a unicorn, trapped by a maiden (representing the Virgin Mary), stood for the Incarnation. As soon as the unicorn sees her, it lays its head on her lap and falls asleep. This became a basic emblematic tag that underlies medieval notions of the unicorn, justifying its appearance in every form of religious art. Interpretations of the unicorn myth focus on the medieval lore of beguiled lovers, whereas some religious writers interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. The myths refer to a beast with one horn that can only be tamed by a virgin; subsequently, some writers translated this into an allegory for Christ’s relationship with the Virgin Mary.

The unicorn also figured in courtly terms: for some 13th century French authors such as Thibaut of Champagne and Richard de Fournival, the lover is attracted to his lady as the unicorn is to the virgin. With the rise of humanism, the unicorn also acquired more orthodox secular meanings, emblematic of chaste love and faithful marriage. It plays this role in Petrarch’s Triumph of Chastity, and on the reverse of Piero della Francesca’s portrait of Battista Strozzi, paired with that of her husband Federico da Montefeltro (painted c 1472-74), Bianca’s triumphal car is drawn by a pair of unicorns.

The Throne Chair of Denmark is made of “unicorn horns” – almost certainly narwhal tusks. The same material was used for ceremonial cups because the unicorn’s horn continued to be believed to neutralize poison, following classical authors.

The unicorn, tamable only by a virgin woman, was well established in medieval lore by the time Marco Polo described them as:

scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead… They have a head like a wild boar’s… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.

It is clear that Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros. In German, since the 16th century, Einhorn (“one-horn”) has become a descriptor of the various species of rhinoceros.

One traditional method of hunting unicorns involved entrapment by a virgin.

In one of his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.

The famous late Gothic series of seven tapestry hangings The Hunt of the Unicorn are a high point in European tapestry manufacture, combining both secular and religious themes. The tapestries now hang in the Cloisters division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In the series, richly dressed noblemen, accompanied by huntsmen and hounds, pursue a unicorn against mille-fleur backgrounds or settings of buildings and gardens. They bring the animal to bay with the help of a maiden who traps it with her charms, appear to kill it, and bring it back to a castle; in the last and most famous panel, “The Unicorn in Captivity,” the unicorn is shown alive again and happy, chained to a pomegranate tree surrounded by a fence, in a field of flowers. Scholars conjecture that the red stains on its flanks are not blood but rather the juice from pomegranates, which were a symbol of fertility. However, the true meaning of the mysterious resurrected Unicorn in the last panel is unclear. The series was woven about 1500 in the Low Countries, probably Brussels or Liège, for an unknown patron. A set of six engravings on the same theme, treated rather differently, were engraved by the French artist Jean Duvet in the 1540s.

The Unicorn Is Penned,Unicorn Tapestries, c. 1495–1505 (The Cloisters,Metropolitan Museum of Art,New York City)

The Unicorn Is Penned, Unicorn Tapestries, c. 1495–1505 (The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)

Another famous set of six tapestries of Dame à la licorne (“Lady with the unicorn”) in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, were also woven in the Southern Netherlands before 1500, and show the five senses (the gateways to temptation) and finally Love (“A mon seul desir” the legend reads), with unicorns featured in each piece. Facsimiles of these unicorn tapestries are currently being woven for permanent display in Stirling Castle, Scotland, to take the place of a set recorded in the castle in a 16th century inventory.

A rather rare, late 15th century, variant depiction of the hortus conclusus in religious art combined the Annunciation to Mary with the themes of the Hunt of the Unicorn and Virgin and Unicorn, so popular in secular art. The unicorn already functioned as a symbol of the Incarnation and whether this meaning is intended in many prima facie secular depictions can be a difficult matter of scholarly interpretation. There is no such ambiguity in the scenes where the archangel Gabriel is shown blowing a horn, as hounds chase the unicorn into the Virgin’s arms, and a little Christ Child descends on rays of light from God the Father. The Council of Trent finally banned this somewhat over-elaborated, if charming, depiction, partly on the grounds of realism, as no one now believed the unicorn to be a real animal.

Shakespeare scholars describe unicorns being captured by a hunter standing in front of a tree, the unicorn goaded into charging; the hunter would step aside the last moment and the unicorn would embed its horn deeply into the tree: as per this line from Timon of Athens, Act 4, scene 3, c. line 341:

“wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury”

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