Unicorns, those mythical creatures that capture the imagination of every child, are celebrated each year on April 9. In spite of their imaginary existence, this horse-like creature with the single large spiral horn, has been found throughout history. They appear in early Mesopotamian artwork and are described in myths and stories from ancient China, India, and Greece. The Celts, Romans, and Persians also wrote of a white magical horse with a single horn. As early as the 12th century, unicorns were seen on Scottish coats of arms; in fact, the unicorn remains the national animal of Scotland to this day. It is known that in the Middle Ages, the tusks of narwhal whales were often fraudulently sold as unicorn horns. They were valued for their magical powers to cleanse poisoned water and to heal the sick, especially their tears and blood. At the height of popularity, they were sold for ten times their weight in gold. Unicorn powder was sold in London pharmacies as an antidote for poison as late as the 18th century. Whatever its origin, the unicorn remains popular today, especially with children, adorning backpacks and folders, clothes and birthday cakes.
Perhaps the most famous of all unicorns is featured in “The Unicorn Tapestries.” These are on display in their very own room in The Cloisters, which is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but located miles away in a park-like setting. I saw them myself, along with a narwhal tusk, on our last trip to New York. They are spectacular in size and detail, but I didn’t know anything about the history. Since then, I have learned that the seven tapestries, known as The Hunt of the Unicorn, date from around 1495-1505 and are each 12 feet tall and up to 14 feet wide. They tell the story of a unicorn hunt led by exquisitely dressed noblemen accompanied by huntsmen and hounds, as they pursue a unicorn through a flowering forest. Along the way, the unicorn is tamed by a virgin who leads it to rose garden, where it is sacrificially slain then carried back to the castle. The final, most famous panel, The Unicorn in Captivity, depicts it resurrected and resting gracefully within a low circular fence in a lush garden.
These tapestries are considered to be among the greatest artworks in existence, but they are shrouded in mystery, without even the basic facts known with certainty. The dates are surmised by the clothes worn by the noblemen and huntsmen and the composition of the tapestries. Other clues as to their origin are found in the poses, facial expressions, and hair, which are typical of Parisian paintings from the time. So, it is conjectured that they were designed by a French artist who then had them woven in Brussels, a major tapestry weaving center at the time. These tapestries are made from wool and silk thread, some of it wrapped in silver or gold, giving them a luminous vibrant quality. Chemical analysis of the dye shows three plants were used to produce the thread colors: madden for the red, woad for the blue, and weld for the yellow. The first record of them was nearly two centuries later in a 1680 inventory of the de La Rochefoucauld family castle in Paris. They were moved around for a time, eventually arriving in New York where they were purchased in 1922 by John D. Rockefeller, who after a few years, donated them to The Cloisters. Those are the facts as known or presumed, but questions of their meaning remain unanswered.
Though they have been analyzed and interpreted for centuries, it is not known who the artist or his patrons were. Especially puzzling is the recurring monogram made from the letters “A” and “E” that are joined together with a knotted cord. It is often found near the center of the tapestry or in its four corners, or even hidden on dog collars and in other subtle places, but is prevalent in all of the tapestries. There are several theories but no consensus. Is it the initials of the artist or patron, or maybe it refers to Adam and Eve? Other mysteries concern the symbolism found in the 101 species of plants woven into the background, many of which are associated with marriage and fertility. Some symbolism, such as the wreath of oak, hawthorn, and holly around the neck of the slain unicorn and the wound in its left side, suggests a religious meaning, perhaps a reference to Christ. This seems to be affirmed in the final tapestry, where the unicorn is resurrected. Whatever the story behind the tapestries, it has tantalized scholars for centuries.
If you would like to know more about National Unicorn Day, the history of unicorns, fun facts about unicorns, or more about The Unicorn Tapestries, visit the links below.