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Famous Paintings of Unicorns
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
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
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.