“The Unicorn in Captivity” from the Unicorn Tapestries (1495–1505), wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts (Public domain, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Magical, enigmatic, and otherworldly are some the words most commonly used when describing the Unicorn Tapestries, which have remained a source of never-ending fascination since they were crafted in the late Middle Ages. The Gothic tapestries, which are believed to have been made in Paris around 1618, portray noblemen, hunters, and their hounds hunting and killing the magical creature against a pastoral setting.

12 feet tall and up to 14 feet wide, the tapestries were woven from threads of dyed wool and silk.  Some of them are gilded or coated in silver. Seven of the tapestries are on permanent display the Met Cloisters in New York.

Sunil Abraham, a quantitative researcher from Brooklyn, has found a way to contemporize the medieval tapestries and introduce them into the digital realm by turning them into iMessage stickers. The Unicorn Stickers, available for free download on the Apple App Store, feature humorous cutouts from the tapestries including a “Smirking Lord,” a “Snarling Hound,” and the famous “Unicorn in Captivity,” in which the bleeding creature is seen chained to a tree and entrapped inside a fenced ring.

The Unicorn Stickers

The 87 Unicorn Stickers feature a multitude of hunters, peasants, fair ladies, dogs, flowers, and pointing hands, transformed into expressive stickers. “Each has its own inner life, detailed and expressive in its own way (yes, even the flowers!),” Abraham told Hyperallergic over email. “I wanted to capture a fair representation of that — the gestures, grins, grimaces, snarls, weapons, plumes, locked eyes, shoulder touches, and the stunning clothes and accessories.”

Abraham said the idea came to his mind two summers ago when he found the tapestries online and became fixated on them. “I’m usually unmoved by still visual art, but the longer you stare at the tapestries, the more beautiful and grotesque you realize they are, and I wanted to send these beautiful and grotesque images to my friends,” he said.

Abraham: “I wanted to send these beautiful and grotesque images to my friends.”

The hangings were first recorded in 1680 at the Paris home of the de la Rochefoucauld family. They were later looted during the French Revolution, but were returned virtually undamaged to the family in 1880. In 1922, the Rockefeller family purchased six of the tapestries and hung them at their property until they donated them the Cloisters in 1938.

Interpretations of the tale depicted in “The Hunt of the Unicorn” vary. The persecuted unicorn came to represent both good and evil, depending on the source, but one detail of the story is in consensus: the feral creature could only be tamed by a virgin woman. Christians took that to symbolize Christ, as the unicorn is seen tortured, slain, and risen. The virgin in the story is his mother Mary.

But this religious symbolism was of less concern to Abraham. He did not, for instance, transform the twelve apostles in “The Unicorn Is Found” tapestry into stickers. “The sticker choices were driven by visual sumptuousness and what worked on the iPhone medium rather than by the tapestries’ symbolism,” he said. “I’m sympathetic to Virginia Woolf’s point that a word is not just a word, but a memory, and I suppose the same is true of images and the symbols they represent, so if upon receiving an indignant panther sticker, you remember a gentle and resplendent Christ, go figure.”

Abraham instead chose a more playful approach to adapt the tapestries to the medium. “The tapestries are very serious stuff, whereas the stickers are a little flippant, and I like that. I’m attracted to mischief,” he said. “There was the additional consideration that a sticker would be cut out of context in time and space, so, a gilt lion-head fountain spout in the tapestries is now a lion vomiting in the app, and onlookers in a castle are now lovers out-of-sight.”

A launch party is planned for the Unicorn Stickers on Saturday, May 25, at 8pm at Honey’s in Bushwick. Abraham promises music, talk radio, and physical stickers for sale.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...