Unicorns in Medieval & Renaissance Art – On Show at New York

Detail: Garden, The Met Cloisters, New York
Detail: Garden, The Met Cloisters, New York

cloistersThe Cloisters Museum and Gardens is a separate branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is entirely dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe and located in Fort Tryon Park.

Although produced in the age of modernity and sited in northern Manhattan, the buildings have become an important aspect of the built environment, as has the outstanding collection of some two thousand works of art they contain.

They are described as an ensemble of historical architectural precedents, which includes both sacred and secular spaces.

cloisters-new-yorkThe Cloisters gardens are also considered a masterpiece of medieval horticultural art. Their design was inspired by stained-glass windows, column capitals and from information gleaned from medieval treatises, poetry, actual garden documents, medieval herbals and great works of art, especially tapestries.

In 2013 an exhibition Search for the Unicorn: was held in honour of The Cloisters’ 75th Anniversary.

The show focused on the theme of the ‘Unicorn’, a mythological beast with the body of a horse, the head of a goat and a horn protruding from his forehead.

Aquamanile in the Form of a Unicorn, ca. 1425–50 German (Nuremberg) Copper alloy Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964 (64.101.1493) courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

Aquamanile in the Form of a Unicorn, ca. 1425–50 German (Nuremberg) Copper alloy Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964 (64.101.1493) courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

It included some 40 works drawn from The Met’s own collections, other public institutions and private collections, including a rare ‘aquamanile’ in the form of a unicorn.

This was a vessel used for pouring water for washing the hands in a ritual that took place either before the mass in church, or in a private household before a meal.

The Unicorn in Captivity, ca. 1495–1505 South Netherlandish Wool warp, wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts – Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.6) courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Saint Jerome during the late fourth century after the Christ event transcribed an ancient document using the word “Unicorn”. Although in Hebrew it was only found out much later to have meant “wild ox”.

Due to this error in translation, the Unicorn became an important part of the Christian story and as such identified with Christ for a thousand years.

The fierce and powerful Unicorn was unable to be captured and it was believed that only a virgin could tame him. To achieve that end hunters were encouraged to take young maidens into the forest, where a Unicorn was known to frequent, so that they would be successful in capturing one.

The animal reputedly would be attracted by her scent and her purity and he would, when he found her, kneel and place his forelegs and head in her lap resting there peacefully. In this way the Lady and the Unicorn together became a powerful symbol in art for centuries.

The Unicorn also appeared in a book called Physiologus. It was written by an unknown author and published probably during the late 4th century. It vividly described real and imaginary animals, birds, reptiles and fish and sometimes stones and plants that all have a moral content, one that could teach Christian’s powerful lessons in life.

It highlighted the moral and symbolic qualities of each animal featured, while providing illustrations that were sometimes very lavish. Poetry and literature of the time abounded with similar references, such as a Phoenix rising from the ashes and a Pelican feeding her young with her own blood.

Importantly, this landmark publication was translated into Latin about 700 AD, as well as many European and Middle Eastern languages. With a copy in many monastery libraries across Europe for centuries it inspired the art of illuminated manuscripts, images that were later transmitted over into tapestry weaving. It also helped to ensure that the Unicorn became a central focus of both medieval and Renaissance art.

Detail – The Unicorn is Attacked Tapestry, ca. 1495–1505 South Netherlandish Wool warp, wool, silk, silver, gilt wefts Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr. 1937 (37.80.3) courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

A tapestry dating from 1495-1505 woven in the Southern Netherlands features the legendary Unicorn chained to a pomegranate tree, its fruit the symbol of fertility. Made of wool, warp, silk, silver and gilt weft threads. It will be a highlight of the exhibition.

This splendid work of art is one of seven individual hangings collectively known as the Unicorn Tapestries, which are among the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s most treasured objects. These most beautiful and complex works of textile art have magically survived from the late Middle Ages.

Given by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in time for the opening of The Cloisters Museum in 1938, the Unicorn Tapestries are its best-known masterpieces; yet, 75 years later, their history and meaning remain as elusive as the mythical beast itself.

They had a background known as mille fleurs or thousands of flowers set in a mead (archaic meaning meadow), which served as a reminder during long northern winters about the pleasures of a summer garden.

Their imagery depicts vividly a hunt for the magical Unicorn and the flowery mead became one of the essential components in all our perceptions of a medieval garden.

A large number of plants that appear are recognizable species, many of which are cultivated in the gardens at The Cloisters. They were a specialty of weaving workshops in Flanders, likely to have been made in Bruges or Brussels. Natural dyes were used and many tapestries still in existence from this period show very accurate portrayals of trees and flowers.

In the flower-studded grass of the flowery mead surrounding the Unicorn the flowers identified include Campion, bistort, lords and ladies (Arum maculatum) violas, sweet rocket, carnations, white lilies, holy thistle (Silybum marianum) leopard’s bane (Doronicum pardalianches) stock and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris).

All of these plants at the time could be found wild in the French countryside for artists to copy.

During the opening weeks of the Exhibition, a special May-blooming millefleurs planting and a potted display of plants depicted in the tapestries was featured in the Bonnefont Garden at The Cloisters.

In medieval art everything stood for something else in an elaborate symbolic code familiar to all onlookers; animals and plants contained distinctive moral messages for humans. As we would expect the Lion was King of beasts; strong, courageous and faithful, while that unique creature known as the Unicorn had a single phallic like horn.

He was savage, loyal and emblematic of Jesus Christ, pure and invincible. Being white he was also a symbol of worldly enticement, exciting hope or desire, meant to lure, attract and tempt. The unicorn is a symbol of the incarnate Redeemer who raised a “horn of salvation” (Psalm 17:3) for the sins of man. The virgin who ensnares him is Mary, his mother, whose virtue he could not resist. The depiction of this allegory, regarded as licentious, was forbidden by the Council of Trent in 1563.

Hunt of the Unicorn Annunciation Book of Hours, use of the Augustinian Canons of the Windesheim Chapter (Hours of the Virgin), and Utrecht (Office of the Dead), in Latin and Dutch. Netherlands, Utrecht, ca. 1500. MS G.5, fols. 18v–19. William S. Glazier Collection, given 1984 courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum

For the exhibition The Morgan Library and Museum lent its celebrated English Bestiary, a 12th-century manuscript that depicts the Unicorn with its head in the lap of a maiden.

During the Middle Ages, people believed in unicorns and so pervasive was the influence of the medieval hunt it invaded Annunciation iconography.

In our image Gabriel, given the attributes of a hunter, sounds the trumpet, and with the help of two dogs (symbolizing Mercy and Peace) drives the unicorn into the lap of the Virgin Mary.

She was a very powerful figure in medieval art because she was also able to resist the weaknesses of the flesh.

She also set a great example for ‘chaste’ high-born women, who were locked up in chastity belts during the Middle Ages while their men were either away on Crusade, at war, or going about their monarch’s business.

In its strictest sense tapestry should be described as a hand-woven material with a ribbed surface created as the design is woven.

The combinations of threads form a picture and in a lot of cases some of the best work achieved usually represented the patience and dedication of a devout worker passionate about this creative way of producing images.

Wealthy European merchants were thriving on what was not only a lucrative trade but also an important aspect of many economies.

The Unicorn is Attacked Tapestry, ca. 1495–1505 South Netherlandish Wool warp, wool, silk, silver, gilt wefts Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr. 1937 (37.80.3) courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Tapestry’s popularity spread and production increased dramatically from 1200 – 1500, when the nobility was moving about the countryside from castle to castle or knights went on crusade with their retinue of servants, which often included tapestry weavers.

The advantage of creating woollen hangings was that they were both warm and portable.

For many centuries in Europe and England tapestry became considered as the highest of all art forms. It has often been called the ‘mirror of civilization’ because so many of those made for hundreds of years represented the scenes taken from everyday life.

Whether it was about workers in a field, soldiers on a battlefield, lovers or ladies in a garden, or of fields of flowers, weaving was one of the most effective forms of creative expression.

By the fourteenth century tapestry was an expensive luxury item refined and sophisticated, displaying for all to see the wealth and power of its owner.

During the Middle Ages in Europe the chief requirement to produce tapestry was wool, which was easily available in every rural district as well as easily obtainable in large towns like Paris.

Pictorial work included heraldic works and the symbolism attached to the imagery in any tapestry produced was vast indeed, with both fact and fantasy interwoven.

They were often woven in sets and used to enrich church interiors, edifying worshippers by telling biblical stories, dramatizing the lives of saints and martyrs or illustrating the tenets of Christian belief as laid down in the Catechism.

This supported other story telling art forms, such as stained glass windows and marble statues.

The tapestries on display in this show are both complicated metaphors for Christ and a celebration of matrimony. They are also emblematic of medieval notions of the magic inherent in the natural world, an idea that endured throughout the Renaissance.

Layer upon layer of meaning was built up using symbolism to illustrate the writings of medieval Christian mystics and others. Secular themes included ancient tales of Greek and Roman mythology, aspects of love, as well as contemporary conflicts and revelry.

The symbolism attached to numbers and animals was also of major significance assisting in conveying a message, moral or otherwise, about the glory and welcome abundance of creation.

During the Renaissance many writers were inspired by descriptions of beasts mentioned in Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament. This happened as more and more ancient texts were found, having been kept in monastery libraries throughout the Middle Ages. They believed, at least in the first instance, that the existence of such texts was proof of the existence of such a creature as the Unicorn.

However as the spread of the ideas surrounding humanism grew and ancient texts were held up to greater scrutiny in terms of their accuracy, ideas and interpretations changed.

Portrait of a Woman possibly Ginevra d’Antonio Lupari Gozzadini, ca. 1485–90 Attributed to the Maestro delle Storie del Pane Tempera on panel in Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.95, 96) courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

In the Meshal ha-Kadmoni (Fable of the Ancients), Unicorns and other animals appear in the first printed and illustrated edition of this 13th-century Hebrew text, which was published in Brescia, Italy in 1491. It was on loan from The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

A page from a 14th-century copy of the Shahnama, a 10th-century text recounting the legendary deeds of the Persian kings, featured Iskandar, more commonly known as Alexander the Great. A mighty warrior depicted killing the monster of Habash (Ethiopia), an elegant one-horned beast, quite like a unicorn.

The text of the nearly contemporary Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, an illustrated travel diary to the Holy Land printed in Germany in 1486 claims that its woodcut of a unicorn that was drawn from life

A Portrait of a Woman, possibly Ginevra d’Antonio Lupari Gozzadini, ca. 1485–90 although attributed to the Maestro delle Storie del Pane. She has a male counterpiece; the landscape of her image is filled with details evoking marital virtues, fecundity, and prosperity: the woman and the unicorn are detailed to her right and allude to the legend that only a virgin could capture the mythical beast.

Rumours still abounded during the 16th-century in Europe, when an engraving by Julius Goltzius after the style of artist Maerten de Vos suggested that the unicorn’s natural habitat was the American continent!

Where the creature resided might have been debated, but Unicorns were still being included and depicted in many early encyclopedias of animals in the 16th century, such as Konrad Gesner’s treatise, published in four volumes between 1551–58. In the great scheme of things its not really that long ago!

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013


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