Raphael, "Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn" (1505–06), oil on canvas transferred from panel (courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome)

Raphael, “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn” (1505–06), oil on canvas transferred from panel (courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome, all images via D Giles Limited)

The 16th-century “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn” by Raphael was altered twice: first by the artist, who replaced a lap dog with a tiny unicorn; then in the 17th century, when the sitter’s bare shoulders were covered and the broken martyrdom wheel of St. Catherine of Alexandria was painted over the mythical creature. Through these later changes, the painting was transformed from an oil portrait into a religious icon. Only in the 20th century — with extensive X-ray examination — were these forgotten layers revealed, although the subject with her stoic blue eyes remains a mystery.

Sublime Beauty

X-ray of “Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn” revealing the dog under the unicorn (click to enlarge)

For the first time, the painting is on tour in the United States from its home at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. It’s currently on view in San Francisco at the Legion of Honor after a run at the Cincinnati Art Museum. In conjunction with the exhibition, a catalogue, Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn out this winter from D Giles Limited, explores the curious history of the portrait, and considers the identity of its enigmatic figure.

In the exhibition and the book, the painting’s relationship to another inscrutable portrait — Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa — is explored. Raphael and Da Vinci both spent time in Florence, and the younger Raphael painted “Lady with a Unicorn” in 1505–06, just after the famed Mona Lisa. There’s an inspiration evident in his work, with the half-portrait size, folded hands, angled pose, and detailed background.

Like the Mona Lisa, there’s also been much speculation about the blonde-haired “Lady with a Unicorn.” In Sublime Beauty, Linda Wolk-Simon, director and chief curator at Fairfield University Museums, argues she could be Laura Orsini, a believed relation of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia who was known for her blonde tresses (a lock of it which is preserved in a reliquary at Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana). In another essay, Renaissance scholar Mary Shay-Millea presents her case for it being Maddalena Strozzi due to a convincing resemblance in a contemporary portrait. In both cases, it’s likely the painting was commissioned on the occasion of a marriage, and the unicorn a symbol of the bride’s chastity.

Sublime Beauty

Lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair, casket on a malachite stand (courtesy Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan)

“The inclusion of the unicorn in Raphael’s ‘Lady’ both advertises the sitter’s purity and warns her future husband of her powers of seduction,” Shay-Millea writes. She adds that the “creation of such portraits was common among aristocratic couples; the intention was to advertise the young marriageable woman’s best feminine features: her idealized good looks, her virtuous nature, and her virginity. Through Raphael’s ‘Lady’ is the picture of Petrarchan feminine perfection, her fingers intimately wrap around the unicorn’s front legs, suggesting that she has trapped the mysterious beast.”

A long-standing myth is that unicorns can only be trapped by a virginal maiden (as depicted in the unicorn tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters), thus the animal was a symbol of purity. Anna Coliva, director of the Galleria Borghese, writes:

Dogs, symbols of fidelity, were a more typical bridal attribute, and Raphael had in fact originally painted a dog, over which was only later superimposed the extremely animate figure of the unicorn, as radiography has disclosed. No reason for this modification to the painting has ever been determined.

Like the skulls recently revealed beneath a 19th-century painting of John Dee by Henry Gillard Glindoni, the substitution of the unicorn changed the meaning of the piece, and we can only speculate why it was altered. The unicorn was revealed in the 1930s through X-rays, which showed the bride beneath the saint, with the restoration of her original identity also reconnecting Raphael’s name to the previously unattributed painting, which remains an ambiguous representation of Renaissance beauty.

"Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn" before restoration, as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1900) (courtesy Alinari Archives, Florence)

“Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn” before restoration, as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1900) (courtesy Alinari Archives, Florence)

"Bestiaire d’Amour: Tiger and Virgin with Unicorn" (detail), Richard, de Fournival, 'Bestiaire d'amour' (1290, Northern Italy) (courtesy the Pierpont Morgan Library)

“Bestiaire d’Amour: Tiger and Virgin with Unicorn” (detail), Richard, de Fournival, ‘Bestiaire d’amour’ (1290, Northern Italy) (courtesy the Pierpont Morgan Library)

Sublime Beauty

Detail of “Women with Unicorns” mural, Studiolo of Giulia Farnese, Castello (Rocca) Farnese, Carbognano (Viterbo), Italy

Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn is out this spring from D Giles Limited. The Sublime Beauty exhibition continues at the Legion of Honor (Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco) through April 10. 

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...