Art

Say Yes to Unicorns

"Unicorn and Ram," from the "Meshal ha-Kadmoni (Fable of the Ancients)," written by Isaac ben Solomon abi Sahula; printed by Gershom ben  Moses Soncino; anonymous woodcuts (1491), woodcut in printed book  8 1/2 x 12 3/4 in. (© Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary)
“Unicorn and Ram,” from the “Meshal ha-Kadmoni (Fable of the Ancients),” written by Isaac ben Solomon abi Sahula; printed by Gershom ben Moses Soncino; anonymous woodcuts (1491), woodcut in printed book, 8 1/2 x 12 3/4 in. (© Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary)

What a wondrous and rare creature is the unicorn — and of course sadly nonexistent. But that hasn’t stopped the single-horned equine of myth to prance its way into centuries of art, acting as graceful spirit strutting through the forest or a captured creature representing everything from the entrapment of alluring women to the crucifixion of Christ. And it’s also been the central beast at the Metropolitan Museum’s medieval branch, the Cloisters, which is this year celebrating its 75th anniversary.

"The Unicorn in Captivity" (1495–1505), wool, silk, and silver and gilded-silver wrapped thread, 12 ft. 1 in. x 99 in. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
“The Unicorn in Captivity” (1495–1505), wool, silk, and silver and gilded-silver wrapped thread, 12 ft. 1 in. x 99 in. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art) (click here for full resolution)

Search for the Unicorn, An Exhibition in Honor of The Cloisters’ 75th Anniversary is a full-on unicorn celebration inspired by the 15th century “The Unicorn Tapestries” that have been with the medieval art museum from the beginning, part of the donation of much of the museum’s content by John D. Rockefeller in 1938. The most iconic, with the unicorn resting among a towering sprawl of flowers with a collar around its neck attached to a pomegranate tree, the juice of consumed fruit dribbled on its white fur, is the central work in the one-room exhibition. However, the 40 objects and art on display span several centuries and come from around the world, from a Persian manuscript from the 14th century, to a Polish Torah Crown from the 18th century, to a German parade sattle from the 15th century carved from bone.

"Unicorn Aquamanile" from Germany (1425–50), copper alloy, 15 1/2 x 11 1/2 x 4 7/16 in. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
“Unicorn Aquamanile” from Germany (1425–50), copper alloy, 15 1/2 x 11 1/2 x 4 7/16 in. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I visited the Cloisters on a recent boiling summer day to try to escape the heat in its stone abbey architecture, as it’s something of a rare breed of the middle ages in this city, as unexpected, perhaps, as a unicorn. Okay, that would probably be going too far, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art branch is a step into another time and place with its perch at the top of Manhattan among the foliage of Fort Tryon Park overlooking the Hudson River, and after spending some time with the unicorn art I did get something of the enduring fascination with the cryptozoological animal.

No other animal looks quite as stately with that towering horn, even the poor narwhal from which many of those horns were sliced and kept in wunderkammers and even churches as relics of the divine. Part of the religious reason is that the unicorn seems to get trapped and killed as much as it gets to flit through the forests, sometimes as a stand in for a martyred Christ. That central unicorn tapestry in the exhibition can be seen devolving into an escape and a brutal hunt, where a maiden lures the unicorn to her while its juice stains have been replaced by blood (there’s something about maidens that unicorns just can’t seem to resist), and is stabbed to death by hunters.

"America," from "The Four Continents" by Julius Goltzius, after Maerten de Vos (Dutch, 16th century), engraving,  8 5/8 x 11 1/16 in. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
“America,” from “The Four Continents” by Julius Goltzius, after Maerten de Vos (Dutch, 16th century), engraving,, 8 5/8 x 11 1/16 in. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

One downside of the exhibition is that it really lacks a central narrative. Aside from being the same creature, why does this animal that never existed show up in both Jewish and Christian literature and art from the far reaches of the West and East? How did the idea that it can do such wonders as purify water or cure diseases with its horn come about? The exhibition is really just a skimming of the surface of unicorn lore, but it’s an interesting look at just how long we’ve been enamored with this fanciful animal, even if it just too often comes to an imagined imprisonment and death at our hands.

Here are some more images from Search for the Unicorn:

"The Unicorn at the Stream," from the "Unicorn Series" by Jean Duvet (1555), engraving, 8 7/8 x 15 9/16 in. (© The New York Public Library, Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
“The Unicorn at the Stream,” from the “Unicorn Series” by Jean Duvet (1555), engraving, 8 7/8 x 15 9/16 in. (© The New York Public Library, Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
"Animals of the Holy Land," from "Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (Pilgrimage to the  Holy Land)," written by Bernhard von Breydenbach; woodcuts by Erhard  Reuwich;  Printed in Mainz (1486) (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
“Animals of the Holy Land,” from “Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (Pilgrimage to the Holy Land),” written by Bernhard von Breydenbach; woodcuts by Erhard Reuwich; printed in Mainz (1486) (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
"The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence," written by Zakaria bin Muhammad bin Mahmud Abu Yahya Qazwini in Persia (1203–1283), copied in Mughal India (1701), tempera, gold, and ink on paper, 8 3/4 x 11 7/8 (courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, History of Medicine Division)
“The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence,” written by Zakaria bin Muhammad bin Mahmud Abu Yahya Qazwini in Persia (1203–1283), copied in Mughal India (1701), tempera, gold, and ink on paper, 8 3/4 x 11 7/8 (courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, History of Medicine Division)
"Birth Tray with the Triumph of Chastity," Workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso in Italy, (1450–60),  tempera and gold leaf on panel, 23 x 23 1/4 in. (© North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh)
“Birth Tray with the Triumph of Chastity,” Workshop of Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso in Italy, (1450–60), tempera and gold leaf on panel, 23 x 23 1/4 in. (© North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh)
"Medal of Cecilia Gonzaga Pisanello" from Italy (1447), copper alloy, 3 5/16 in. diam. (Dr. Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher Collection)
“Medal of Cecilia Gonzaga Pisanello” from Italy (1447), copper alloy, 3 5/16 in. diam. (Dr. Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher Collection)
"A Maiden Taming a Unicorn," from the" Worksop Bestiary English" (1185), tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, 8 1/2 x 6 1/8 in. (© The Pierpont Morgan Library)
“A Maiden Taming a Unicorn,” from the” Worksop Bestiary English” (1185), tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, 8 1/2 x 6 1/8 in. (© The Pierpont Morgan Library)

 

Search for the Unicorn, An Exhibition in Honor of The Cloisters’ 75th Anniversary is at the Cloisters (99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, Washington Heights) through August 18.

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