What is the Unicorn?
Over time the mythology of the animal developed a life of its own, and the unicorn emerged as a mythical creature with distinctive traits different from any living or extinct creature. Collected below are just some of the many guises and versions of the unicorn throughout history.
Within the western tradition the unicorn starts as a relatively small animal with a short tail, cloven hooves and highly variable characteristics sometime including whiskers and a lion's mane. But modern representations almost always show the unicorn as a full-sized white horse with a long spiral horn.
Unicorns in the Bible
There are nine mentions of the unicorn in the King James Bible. For example: "God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn." (Numbers 23:22)
In most of these cases the word 'unicorn' is being given as a translation for Reem. Equally strong cases can be made that the animal referred to was the wild ox, or even the rhinoceros. Indeed, most other English translations of the Bible translate Reem as "wild ox".
1463: Chastity with the Unicorn
This painting by Francesco Di Giorgio Martini depicted a female representing chastity and a unicorn.
This picture is very heavily reproduced probably because it is simply very decorative and has strong colors suitable for use in interior design.
However having a large reproduction of this picture in oils on your wall is rather missing the point. the original is an illuminated manuscript.
Around this time it was not uncommon to pair the unicorn with a female serving as an allegory for qualities such as chastity or innocence.
The unicorn seems to have a dual role of echoing the theme of purity, but also being a powerful pseudo-masculine force that can be controlled or tamed only by a good and pure woman.
Not the unicorns small size, cloven hooves an lion-like mane.
Da Vinci's Unicorn (~1480)
Maiden with a Unicorn by Leonardo Da Vinci shows a placid, small but horse-shaped unicorn leashed and under the control of a maiden. Da Vinci wrote: "For the love it bears to fair maidens [the unicorn] forgets its ferocity and wildness and laying aside all fear it will go to a seated damsel and sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it."
This ink drawing is probably from early in Da Vinci's career. In this picture the unicorn is thought to represent chastity. The unicorn was a popular allegory for female chastity in this period and a similar depiction was painted by Giorgione. Although the Da Vinci sketch seems to be a study for a painting, no painting was apparently produced.
1489 The Mystic Hunt
The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn Representing Annunciation by Martin Schongauer shows the unicorn as small and brown rather than the usual white. Several artists use the hunt of the unicorn to symbolically represent Christ coming into the world by way of a virgin.
1500 The Hunt of the Unicorn
The unicorn appears in a number of prominent tapestries. Perhaps the most famous is a series of tapestries on display at :The Cloisters" in New York which houses some of the great medieval works in the possession of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you are in New York this is a lovely small museum to visit with a wonderful collection that is not overwhelming to visit like some of the larger museums, It is housed by a 1930s recreation of a medieval building.
The seven tapestries in the series depict the hunt capture and both the death and the captivity of the unicorn. The are deliberate symbolic parallels in the tapestries between the treatment of the unicorn and the torments and crucifiction of Christ.
I would highly recommend visiting the Cloisters, and the Hunt of the Unicorn is the Jewel in the collection housed there.
Remixes: Coral Silverman.
1505 Portrait of a Young Woman With Unicorn
This charming oil painting by Raphael Sanzio shows a rather diminutive unicorn in the care of a blonde lady.
This painting is currently held in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. The intended meaning of the painting is not clear but it has been suggested that the unicorn my represent Christ or purity.
The woman depicted may be Saint Catherine of Alexandria or Giulia Farnese.
At some point in its history the unicorn was painted over, but it was rediscovered and restored in 1936.
1624: the Unicorn Constellation
Despite Jacob Bartsch's best efforts, it never really caught on with the general public due to not being visible to the naked eye. Discovered in 1612, it is however still recognized under this name today.
1642: The Camphurch
The Camphurch (a.k.a. "Unicorn of Aldrovandus") is a form of unicorn. The example shown here is by Ulisse Aldrovandi in the Monstrorum Historia (1642). The campchurch has two webbed bird feet in its hind legs.
Most modern commentators also agree that a campchurch is a unicorn that is aquatic and/or part fish (see also Sarah Harmon) although recent version often have different physical characteristics from the historical accounts.
1961 Herbessence Advertisement
It might seem odd to put a piece of relatively modern advertising on this list. But this picture from a perfume advertisement shows Helena Rubinstein with a unicorn is a pretty clear homage to the 'Hunt of the Unicorn' tapestries.
I think it is well composed and just a little (well, perhaps more tan a little) suggestive. It goes to show a piece of commercial art can fit into an artistic tradition.
Salvador Dali painted "The Happy Unicorn" in 1977. It is a surreal depiction that is actually painted on copper.
See also by this artist:
- Unicorn (1972)
2008: Dan Lacey Obama-corns
A recent series of paintings of a nude Obama and unicorns has caused quite a stir on the internet. Dan Lacey (a.k.a. Painter of Pancakes) has an online gallery devoted to this subject and prints for sale. Shown right: excerpt from Unicorn New Year.
Unicorn Art Memes
The internet now circulates a lot of art and cartoon memes, including some with unicorns such as:
- Radiant Farms Unicorn Meat (a real fake product)
- Robocop on a Unicorn
- Unicorns miss the Ark (by Aarbee, Jeff Larson)
In most species the horn develops as a small bud on the skin. This bud can, accidentally or deliberately, be transplanted to other locations to produce a "real" unicorn. It may then grow and attach to the skull in this new position. Thus the 'unicorn' pattern of a single central horn on the forehead has occurred or been deliberately produced in many species including deer and goats.
Lauren Skeens on April 24, 2016:
wow those are awesome pictures and paintings :)
Marian Cates from Columbia River Gorge, WA on August 31, 2015:
I've never been a unicorn-follower but lots of people keep collections of unicorn sculptures. A friend of mine did a tiny glass unicorn. I'd never run across the Obama-Unicorn paintings -- bizarre. I've seen unicorn tapestries but I'm not sure where, maybe at the Met. I recently saw a news article about a woman who had a horn growing out of her head (I think it was a woman, but it could have been a man). An entertaining and well-written article. But then all of your articles are well written.
Jacky LORETTE on March 19, 2014:
Mr. Jacky LORETTE
The Lady and the Unicorn relocated.
The following web address no longer exists.
My researches on various works of art including the tapestry
The Lady and the Unicorn are now exposed to a new site :
Please,I ask you to register this new address in your website.
kerlund74 from Sweden on February 17, 2014:
Interesting hub. I enjoyed the paintings, my favorites are Da Vinci's, because of the simplicity, but I even like the beautiful sadness in the "The Hunt of the Unicorn". And I just love Dali's unicorn.
LastRoseofSummer2 from Arizona on June 26, 2013:
I don't ordinarily like Dali, but his picture of the unicorn is really quite lovely.
Chen on December 26, 2012:
Oh wow, I never heard of those Obama-corn paintings! Oh my! This is a very interesting hub, if any fantasy creature could be real I wish it were a unicorn. Beautiful hub.
LetitiaFT from Paris via California on February 08, 2012:
You might also get a kick out of French artist Nicolas Buffe's new twist on the unicorn tapestry with a project he was commissioned to do by Aubusson (the famous tapestry maker).
Jacky LORETTE on November 28, 2011:
I have a web site about The Hunt of the Unicorn (The Cloisters in New York) and The Lady with the Unicorn (museum of Cluny in Paris).
There are many, many mysterious things in these tapestries. You’ll see…
And please, write to my friend, Howard Comeau. Thank you.
Sincerely yours. JL.
kerlynb from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^ on October 31, 2011:
Wow, I never knew that even Da Vinci had a sketch of a unicorn! It's so beautiful. Wonder why he never went on to paint this study. It's also fascinating to me how people from Da Vinci's time associated unicorns with submissiveness or even virginity. Interesting.
melodyandes on August 30, 2011:
Great information. I love reading mythology of animals and unicorns really got my attention.Thanks.
Jakob Dailes from Panama City Beach, FL on July 01, 2011:
Anyone ever seen that animated movie "Noah's Ark". Y'kno, where the Unicorn, the Dragon , and Bigfoot think Noah's Ark is a hoax meant to trick the animals into being eaten. So they don't board the Ark. ha. Unicorns r some of my favorite myth creatures.
Talha Rehman from Lucknow India on June 27, 2011:
Nice hub...mythological characters continue to fascinate us. The photos are wonderful!
zach on December 10, 2010:
wow that is very beautiful
Elayne from Rocky Mountains on June 02, 2010:
I have always been enchanted by unicorns. Good hub. Keep on writing.
Robert E Smith from Rochester, New York on May 25, 2010:
One may want to include the Biblical accounts of unicorns in Job and other places. It was a beast that no one could tame or ride. It was powerful in some way and very fleet of foot. No description of how they looked but unicorn does mean one horn. Newer translations have it being a wild ox but that does not jibe with the discription in Job. I believe it was a literal animal in olden times.
Penny Skinner (author) on May 24, 2010:
Thanks for visiting, this is only the start--I have a lot to add.
thevoice from carthage ill on May 24, 2010:
great terrific hub work thanks