Saturday, August 10, 2013

Searching for Unicorns on My Birthday

From Lorenzo de Medici to Emily Harris (the little girl who passed through Turkish customs using her unicorn passport recently) everyone seems to be fascinated with unicorns. Although these days, it seems to be more little girls than virtual princes who still continue to cherish them... which is why when I decided to release my inner child on my birthday, I decided to go searching for unicorns in a medieval castle...the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park.  Ok, so I may have been forty years removed from seven and the Cloisters may have been a building built in the 1930's to resemble medieval European abbeys and not a real castle, but it was the ideal backdrop to my storybook kind of plan.

As soon as I walked through the heavy wooden door of the abbeylike structure, my heels echoing in the dark corridor, I could almost imagine myself in a highwaisted gown, my huge sleeves dragging on the stone floors, supporting a conical hennin with a veil on my head. I was ready to be mesmerized and the Cloisters did not dissappoint...

Unicorn in Captivity, South Netherlandish, 1495-1505
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Searching for the Unicorn:  An Exhibition in Honor of the Cloisters' 75th Anniversary was a visually pleasing as well as intellectually thought provoking display that both delighted and surprised me. I went in search of the kinds of objects to capture a young girl's imagination and left contemplating how the ideas expressed could even be used to describe the events of our contemporary society.

The first object I encountered upon entering the main hall was the beautiful tapestry, Unicorn in Captivity taking its deservedly pride of place in the middle of the Romanesque Hall where it was surrounded by a rich assortment of objects, from scholarly texts which include unicorn images "drawn from life" to textiles which utilize the image of the unicorn as decoration and even a Narwhal Tusk which was believed to be the horn of a unicorn.

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Being a legendary creature with magical powers, the unicorn captured the imagination of people since the middle ages. According to Barbara Drake Boehm, the curator of the exhibit, in her very interesting lecture in the video above, the most appealing aspects of the unicorn were its medicinal properties and its habitat which was always portrayed "slightly beyond one's own experience."  Unicorn horns were considered to be one of the most prized possessions of the most powerful men and institutions of the day including Lorenzo de Medici, whose unicorn horn was valued at 6000 florins at the time of his death in 1492.

Birth Tray (Desco da Parto) with the Triumph of Chastity, (recto)
Workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso, Florence, ca. 1450-60
(North Carolina Museum of Art)
According to the Gallery Label this birth tray was inspired by Petrarch's elaborate allegory in which the voyage of life is described as a series of "Triumphs," in which case this tray would be "pure poetic fantasy" but it also mentions these types of processions sometimes did take place in European cities.

Naked Boys with Poppy Pods, (verso)

Parade Saddle, German or Tyrolean, ca. 1450
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In the Portrait of a Woman, which is actually one of a pair of a husband and wife, the unicorn can be seen next to a young maiden with downcast eyes, which is supposed to represent "the lover being drawn to his chaste bride." The other symbols of love and fertility, fruit in the lady's hand and the rabbits on the right are also present complementing the celebration of betrothal or marriage.

Portrait of a Woman, possibly Ginevra d'Antonio Lupari  Gozzadini,
Atrributed to the Maestro delle Storie del Pane, 1494?
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Metropolitan Museum of Art has included the objects from the exhibit on their website so I want to share the one's that appealed to (the little girl in) me the most. One of the most fascinating details I discovered in this exhibit was how the inclusion of the Unicorn in both Western as well as Eastern sources was only as a creature to be witnessed in faraway lands, Holy Lands or Mecca for Westerners and Habeshistan (modern day Ethopia) for Easterners.  As can be seen in the Persian manuscript illumination from the Book of Kings (Shahnama) below, Alexander the Great (Iskender) is fighting a unicorn in Habesh (Euthiopia.)

"Iskender Kills the Monster of Habash" From the Book of Kings (Shahnama), Abul Quasim Firdausi,ca. 1300-30, Northwestern Iran or Baghdad
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

There were several engravings that incorporated the unicorn into their narrative but my favorite had to be the 16th century Netherlandish depiction of the Four Continents for what they revealed about the preconceived notions of Europeans in regards to other parts of the world.   
Asia from the Four ContinentsJulius Goltzius,
After Maerten de Vos, Netherlandish,16th c.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Europa from the Four Continents, Julius Goltzius,
After Maerten de Vos, Netherlandish,16th c.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Africa from the Four Continents
Julius Goltzius,
After Maerten de Vos, Netherlandish,16th c.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
America from the Four Continents
Julius Goltzius,
After Maerten de Vos, Netherlandish,16th c.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

 If you look closely you can see that the allegory of Europe is riding in a carriage drawn by horses wearing the clothing and carrying the regalia of a Western monarch holding a scepter and an orb, in a countryside with rolling hills littered with cows and pigs; there is even a man in the background chasing after the pigs. The allegory of Asia, dressed in Oriental attire, rides in a carriage drawn by camels, waving a censor in her hand. The hillside is rocky with monastery type buildings built on mountain tops and there are elephants and giraffes in the background. The shepherd tending to the sheep wears a Turkish type turban. The allegory for Africa sits in all her naked glory, atop a carriage adorned with alligators and drawn by lions carrying an exotic umbrella in one hand and a tambourine in the other. Elephants, ostriches and iguanas stroll a lush landscape with palm trees. And finally, a half naked America is seen on a carriage drawn by unicorns. She wears a tribal headgear with feathers and carries an ax, bow and arrows. There are naked natives in the background shooting arrows each other while, in the foreground there is a slaughter going on.

Torah Crown, 1778, Polish
(Private Collection, New York)

This Torah crown was probably the most unique object I encountered in the exhibit. The gallery label states:
The animal called the re'em in Hebrew scripture was widely depicted as a unicorn in works of art created for Jewish communities of Europe. A lion and a unicorn sometimes appear together in medieval Hebrew manuscripts and, later on Torah shields. Here, they form one of several pairs of animals decorating a crown to be placed atop a rolled Torah scroll. They surely represent power, as articulated in Psalm 22. The strenght of the unicorn is twice compared to God's own power in the biblical Book of Numbers.

Medal of Cornelio Musso, mid-16th c.
North Italian
Reverse of Cornelio Musso Medal

A very thought provoking piece on how the symbol of the unicorn could be utilized to suit one's purpose:
Cornelio Musso of Piacenza, the Franciscan bishop of Bitonto from 1544 to 1547, chose the image of a unicorn purifying a stream for the reverse of his portrait medal. Exceptionally, the animals gathered in the background seem to comprise juvenille unicorns, tended by classical figures. The incomplete Latin inscription reads, "Thus is poison from the holy." Did the learned priest, who had served as Inquisitor at the Council of Trent, see himself as one who purged the Church of poison, as the unicorn had done to contaminated water?
Reverse of Cecilia Gonzaga Medal, 1447
Medal of Cecilia Gonzaga
Pisanello (Antonio Pisano), 1447
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Pisanello's poetic Cecilia Gonzaga medal with its reference to the maiden who had captured the attention of the unicorn was the perfect  object to observe before proceeding to the gallery with the Unicorn Tapestries. The iconographic details are as follows:
In the dreamlike nocturnal scene on the medal's reverse, an outsize unicorn lies gently at the feet of a half-clad maiden. Thus Pisanello, one of the great artists of the Renaissance, embraces the medieval legend of the taming of the unicorn to create a poetic metaphor for the life of Cecilia Gonzaga, seen on the observe. This beautiful princess of Mantua refused to marry, choosing instead to remain a maiden and serve as a nun of the Order of Saint Clare. The traditional theological association of the unicorn with Christ, therefore, has particular resonance here. The crescent moon is apparently a reference to the classical virgin goddess Diana.

The Cloisters is a truly remarkable place which can transport a visitor from present day New York to another century, a whole different state of mind. One runs into a lot of people just sitting on the benches surrounding the Cuxa Cloister in quiet contemplation. What was truly extraordinary about this place was how it affected the crowds of people inhabiting it, no loud voices,no children running around, not even crying babies. With these thoughts I made my way to the room where the rest of the Unicorn Tapestries hung...

I had previously visited the Cloisters, specifically to see the Unicorn tapestries and had been properly awed by them. They are truly magnificent. One can spend hours standing before them and get completely lost in a mystical world but this time was different,very, very different. I realized that where before I had come to admire them as precious works of art, this time I felt a need to understand them and think about them at length. The Smarthistory video above discusses the symbolism and details of the Unicorn tapestries. Unfortunately, they admit that there is not much information about them except for the traditional legends and iconography utilized in medieval mythology. The unicorn could purify water, it had magical properties and theological associations with Christ, it was also drawn to maidens which would be the cause of its fatal downfall.
The Unicorn Purifies Water, 1495-1505, South Netherlandish
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Hunters Enter the Woods
The Unicorn is Attacked
The Unicorn is Attacked detail
The Unicorn Defends Itself
Unicorn Defends Itself detail
Unicorn Defends Itself detail
The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn
The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle

Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle detail
There was a solemn mood in this room as opposed to the former gallery. Everything was not all magic and pure beauty.Here, we witnessed the grim side of the legend of the unicorn. The tapestries were breathtaking to be sure but in here, the unicorn was lured by a maiden, captured and killed by hunters. The question that was at the top of my head but I was afraid to utter in case I sounded cynical was voiced by, Morgan, a seven year old girl I met out in the Bonnefont Cloister garden. She very seriously asked "Why did they kill it? Once it's dead didn't it loose its power?" What could I say to this? The feminist in me was screaming out that it had always been as such with men, they wanted to capture the maiden, take her purity and her life under their control, by force if necessary. It wasn't the unicorn that had been captured but the maiden. But of course this is assigning modernist constructs to an ancient story and I had ventured on this expedition looking for magic.  No matter what their intended message, the Unicorn tapestries were extraordinarily beautiful, and captivating. Thanks to the Searching for the Unicorn exhibit which is closing this weekend, I got a chance to explore the unique details of many works in a new light. It was basically a fantasy that had brought me here today but it was the art that kept me spellbound for hours instigating fresh ideas, new inspiration. If only it wasn't for the evil looking maiden in The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn everything would have been just perfect but we can't have a fairy tale without the evil characters now could we?


  1. What a great post - thank you for all of the images and details! I've always wondered the same thing - why do we humans feel the need to kill and possess? Why not enjoy the unicorn, in this case, in the wild? Why would anyone want to kill such a gentle, magical creature? I realize the unicorn is mythical, but it seems to stand in for so many other things that we feel the need to possess, when maybe they'd be better left alone. Thought provoking as well as beautiful images and description of your visit - nice post!

  2. Karen - The aggression must be a part of our nature but what I love about art is how even such an ugly reality can be expressed so beautifully.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts -


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