All About Unicorns

Unicorns in the Middle Ages

Mideval knowledge of the unicorn stemmed from biblical and ancient sources. The creature was variously represented as a kind of wild ass, goat, or horse. By 200 A.D., Tertullian had called the unicorn a small fierce kidlike animal, a symbol of Christ. Ambrose, Jerome, and Basil agreed.

Physiologus, a predecessor to the medieval bestiary, popularized an elaborate allegory in which a unicorn, trapped by a maiden representing the Virgin Mary, stood for the Incarnation. As soon as the unicorn saw her, it lay its head on her lap and fell asleep. This became a basic emblematic tag that underlies medieval notions of the unicorn, justifying its appearance in every form of religious art.

With the rise of humanism, the unicorn also acquired positive secular meanings, including chaste love and faithful marriage.

Marco Polo described the unicorn as tamable only by maidens:

"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 Polo was describing a rhinoceros.

The famous late Gothic series of seven tapestry hangings, The Hunt of the Unicorn, combined both secular and religious themes. In the series, richly dressed noblemen, accompanied by huntsmen and hounds, pursue a unicorn against millefleurs backgrounds or buildings and guardens. 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 bloody but now alive and happy, chained to a tree surrounded by a fence, in a field of flowers. Scholars continue to hunt the meaning of the resurrected Unicorn.

A set of six called the Dame a la licorne (The Lady of the Unicorn) at the Musee de Cluny, Paris, woven in the Southern Netherlands about the same time as The Unicorn in Captivity, pictures the five senses, the gateways to temptation, and finally Love, with unicorns in each hanging.