Unicorns are real
It’s 1483. A group of pilgrims are on their way to the Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai when they spot a unicorn. One of the travellers, a Dutch artist called Erhard Reuwich, made sketches of this encounter, which where printed later in a book about the pilgrimage. Although written accounts described the far distance between the pilgrims and the unicorn, Reuwich drew the unicorn in high detail. How could he have seen these details, such as the spiralling pattern on the horn? Had he seen unicorns before? Or did he draw from his imagination? You will probably think the latter, but in the fifteenth century, there was nobody who doubted the existence of the unicorn.
In the middle ages, unicorns were real. Important biologists had described them and they were mentioned quite a few times in the Bible, so nobody had doubts about it. The unicorn was a symbol of Christ, a symbol of beauty and purity and was connected to courts and heraldry. The unicorn was believed to have special powers: its horn could heal illnesses, and the animal was so quick and strong, that only a Virgin could catch it.
Unicorns in Art
The unicorn and its magic symbolism was – and still is – an inspiration for artists.
A famous theme was ‘the hunt of the Unicorn’, central in a series of tapestries made between 1495 and 1505. The tapestries show the hunt, capture, and eventual death of the unicorn—who is, as the myth goes, caught by a virgin. The rich design of many flowers and figures is called the ‘millefleurs style’, or ‘the style of a thousand flowers’.
One of the highlights of medieval art is another series of tapestries called The Lady and The Unicorn. It is believed that the tapestries represent the five senses, but the sixth’s remains a mystery, partly because of the variant symbolism of the unicorn.
The Narwhal and the decline of the belief
The belief in the unicorn declined with the discovery of the narwhal. When explorers started sailing the Northern oceans for the first time, they discovered the narhwal whale, with its long pointy horn. A few rare horns of the narwhal were already present in Europe, where they had probably washed ashore, but they were always believed to be of the unicorn. It is likely that Reuwich had seen these ‘unicorn’ horns with their spiralling pattern and imagined them with the animal he saw during his trip in Sinai.
The more the explorers sailed, the more narwhal horns appeared in Europe. After a while, people had to accept the fact that the magical horns were, in fact, coming from the narwhal, and the reputation of the unicorn decreased. Luckily, in art and literature, the magic of the unicorn persists.
Willem Gerritse, Het Spoor van de Eenhoorn, in Het Reizende Detail, Mariëtte Haveman en Annemiek Overbeek, 2016.
Robin Cembalest, Chasing Unicorns in Art Across the Ages, ArtNews.com, May 23, 2013.