Thursday, November 20, 2008


My husband likes to collect unicorn images and I get to the point of being curious on what is really the significance of a Unicorn. I really adore each details of this thing and it create a panoramic view wherever it may be. Here are some facts about the unicorn.

THE unicorn is one of the most beautiful of the "shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses", but he did not attain his beauty all at once. As soon as we begin to inquire how he looked to the imagination of the Ages of Faith we are reminded that his ancestry is mixed, that he descends from the horse and the ass on the side of the Greeks and from the goat on that of Physiologus. The results of this miscegenation were a series of hybrid variations as perplexing as those governed by the Mendelian law. Aristotle had said that the unicorn's hoof is solid, on the excellent ground that animals with divided hoofs have two horns when they have any horns at all; but on the other hand, Physiologus declared that the unicorn resembles a little goat, and the goat has a divided hoof. The faithful did not know what to think, and in default of a Thomas Aquinas to resolve the apparent discrepancies between Aristotle and Physiologus they tried to believe in a unicorn somewhat like a goat and somewhat like a horse at the same time. Early representations of the animal show cloven hoofs on the fore feet and solid hoofs behind, or vice versa; they show a goat's beard on a horse's head or even the body of a goat with the head of a horse. A more perfect example of the divided allegiance of the Renaissance could hardly be imagined; yet, in spite of these difficulties, the artists of the time made the unicorn at least as credible as the animals they had before their eyes, and usually far more graceful.

From the thirteenth century to the sixteenth, representation of the unicorn in ecclesiastic decoration was continuous and widespread. Formerly he had been depicted chiefly in manuscripts and it is clear that his increased popularity was due in some degree to the rapid intensification of Mariolatry. Although the animal's figure was not so much used in England as in Europe, I have seen him represented on misericords in Lincoln Cathedral, in St. George's of Windsor, in the chapel of Durham Castle, in St. Botolph's of Boston, and in at least half a dozen parish churches. Mrs. Jameson describes an elaborate representation of the Holy Hunt which stands over the altar in Breslau Cathedral, and the same subject is treated in stained glass at Bourges, Erfurt, Caen, Lyons, and many other places. Representations of the unicorn on old altarcloths, corbels, and capitals are almost numberless.

A subject so popular as this was certain to be adopted by secular art, as the Physiologus story was used by Richard de Fournival and others in erotic poetry, for it was only necessary to lay a slightly additional emphasis upon the theme of the hunt and to subordinate the holy symbolism in order to make the transition from sacred to profane. Perhaps the most sumptuous representations of the unicorn ever made are those in the "Millefleur tapestries" produced about the year 1480 for François de la Rochefoucauld. Here we are shown a pure white animal, vaguely equine but smaller than a horse, with goat's beard and cloven hoofs and the spiralled horn. Although the monogram "A.M."--Ave Maria--appears in each scene, the atmosphere of the whole series is not devotional but that of an elaborate hunt in the French manner. The death of the unicorn is shown, but we do not find the Virgin in her conventional position, and there are other indications that the theme is tending toward a purely secular treatment. The same tendency is observable in the superb Flemish tapestry, based probably upon an Italian cartoon and now in the Academy of Fine Arts at Florence, which shows the naming of the animals by Adam--most of the beasts trooping by in pairs, but the unicorn, significantly leading the procession, without a mate. The unicorn is singled out for such special honour in many other representation, as, for example, in the large picture by Tintoretto in the Church of San Rocco at Venice, which shows the Saint healing animals in the desert. Here the unicorn stands at the forefront of the group, very shaggy about the head but horse-like and with a striated horn. A purely secular treatment is seen in the familiar and beautiful d'Aubusson tapestries known as La Dame a la Licorne, probably intended to illustrate the metrical romance of that title, which is now in the Musée de Cluny, for in these the animal is scarcely more than ornamental.

No comments: